Recently, I compared a query letter to a job interview. However, that is only partially correct. If a query letter is you, showing up a little early, dressed in a clean, pressed suit, then your synopsis is what you choose to talk about during the actual interview.
Once you’re past the first impressions (and we’ll assume you wrote a killer query letter), your synopsis is the final chance to hook your agent, get her excited about your project, and make her remember your name above the hundreds of other writers vying for her attention.
What makes a synopsis so daunting? When a writer has the stamina to finish a full-length novel, why does she struggle at synopsis-writing time?
To answer those questions, we need to look at the purpose of a synopsis. A synopsis is not a story. In fact, it’s the opposite of a story.
A novel, like a magic trick, is about suspense, creating mystery, and performing a powerful illusion using suggestion or distraction. A synopsis, however, is akin to watching a magician work his magic from his side of the table, where you can see all the trap doors and mirrors. It’s disillusioning, to say the least.
A synopsis is all “tell” with no emotional build-up. It’s the big reveal of the whole plot and mystery, without any of the bang-for-your-buck that authors strive to achieve. And let’s not forget that it’s written in present tense. So yeah, it hurts to write a synopsis… if you do it wrong.
How to write a synopsis with as little pain as possible? Here are my tips:
1. Make the first sentence count:
Write one long sentence describing your novel. Perhaps take something from your query letter that you loved, and ramp it up a bit. Here’s mine:
From a life of comfort, on the arm of one of Brazelton’s most powerful men, Raven is cast into a world of shape-shifters and dragons, when an unexpected letter changes her life forever.
I chose to write about the first plot twist, and set the tone for the rest of the journey.
2. The tone of the synopsis should convey the tone of the book:
The last thing you want is a synopsis that reads like, “This happened, then these people went here, and then this happened…” You need to let the agent know what she’ll be reading, and the best way to do that is to demonstrate your tone. Here’s an example from mine:
The elegant beauty finds herself locked in a dungeon and tortured for answers to a century-old puzzle, by a madman named Dimata. Desperate to escape, she must rely on the one man who made her life miserable. Martin, a pompous, though roguishly handsome bard, reveals during their flight from captivity, that he is in fact a Sayan werewolf, named Logan.
With a band of bloodthirsty mercenaries searching for her, Raven becomes the reluctant charge of Logan and his rigid grandfather, Jarren, as they do their best to help her, while closely guarding their own secrets. With the question raised as to whether Raven could be the missing heiress of a long-dead wizard, and the rightful owner of a sought-after treasure, the trio head for Mist, a small town in the path of an army of invaders from the north. Death only a step behind, Raven must rely on her companions more than she wants to, and makes frightening discoveries about herself, only raising more questions about who she really is.
In as few words as possible, I tried to convey how my characters end up together, the developing conflicts between characters, and what their main opposition is. I even reveal one of my big secrets, then allude to the next set of reveals.
3. Major plot points:
You should hit on all of the major plot lines in your story, and convey the underlying struggles/conflicts. I try to keep it simple, rather than going for the whole enchilada, but this is one place where you might want to expand on some details. While one agent will appreciate your ability to summarize in two pages, another may prefer that you use four pages and offer more details. It never hurts to write different versions and send the most appropriate to a particular agent, taking her tastes into consideration. Here’s mine:
Driven to find answers and loyal to her comrades, Raven joins their quest to save three dragons from a conqueror bent on using them as weapons.
When the quest leads them to the home of the elf, Leomere, the details of Raven’s past are revealed. These revelations threaten to tear down what little of herself she has left, leaving her alone in a frightening new world, and questioning whether she can trust anyone.
Mending her broken heart in the arms of her former nemesis, and putting the fate of dragon-kind ahead of her own, Raven leads the Sayan into the occupied town, though it might cost them their lives. She learns to fight, trust, love and forgive; all things she avoided.
4. The Ending:
When concluding the synopsis, you need to reveal the ending (and other secrets along the way). I know it hurts, but hang in there, you’re almost done! Here’s my ending:
When she comes face to face with her traitorous father, Raven must find a way to save him from himself, by embracing her Sayan soul and the responsibilities it implies.
Your synopsis will vary depending on your story and the agent you are sending it to, but my theory is that a no-nonsense approach is best. If your story is funny, let the agent know that. If it’s an epic quest, a romance, or a good vs. evil battle, tell her. You don’t want to hold back in your synopsis, but you don’t want to bore with extraneous details either. Let the main plot lines speak for themselves, and read your agent’s website to tailor the synopsis to her specifications.
Have you ever tried to write a synopsis? If so, what about the process did you find challenging or rewarding?
Also, what do you think is the hardest type of plot to convey in a synopsis?