The long and the short of building a synopsis

Writing a synopsis is hard work. Just about every writer out there who has written one agrees with that point. The dreaded synopsis is both a necessary evil, and much more importantly, a terrific tool for refining the story.

I look at a synopsis as a road map through the plot. A well written synopsis can show me places where the main plot leaps over logic-canyons, where the strengths and weaknesses are, and where the themes I’ve carefully interwoven through the story come into play.

As interconnected as my plots are, busting out a 2 page synopsis can seem overwhelming; every character is needed, every moment is important, and every plot point counts toward reaching that final goal. How to separate out what needs to be in the synopsis from what doesn’t took me a while to figure out, but I think I got it. The request for a full on Hunters was based on a 2-page synopsis and 3 chapter sample, so it must have done the job.

What I did:

  • Limited characters mentioned by name in the synopsis to the ones who needed multiple mentions. The protag’s aunt might be pivotal in that one scene, or even several, but if “his aunt” works, why bog down the synopsis with unfamiliar names?
  • Gave each named character a very brief description focused on who they are in relation to the story. The primary protagonist got a whole sentence. Everybody else got a few words.
  • Limited myself to one sentence of backstory, included in the primary protagonist’s description. The synopsis is about the story, not what led up to the story.
  • Condensed plot-important action down to as few words as possible. A battle is just that. Sure, it’s more exciting with all the blood flying and people dying, but the synopsis is a sketch, not a painting.
  • Used one word where four or five would do. Flee rather than run away from. Kills rather than puts an end to. But keep in mind that voice matters. If 3 words fit my voice better and I can cut two somewhere else, I go for it.
  • Kept it in present tense. This can be really hard if the story is written in past tense, but it helped me differentiate the style. I wasn’t telling a story anymore, just giving a briefing of the story. I found it made cutting much easier in the end.
  • Kept in the motivation. The difference between a story and a random list of events is what motivates the action to move forward, the cause and effect. Of course there’s no room to explain in detail what motivates your characters to do what they do, but you can hint at it.
  • Took it all the way to the end. A synopsis includes the ending and denouement. This allows the agent/editor to see that I know how to be a closer, to wrap up the story in a satisfying way. This portion of the synopsis actually showed me that my “final” draft wasn’t so final. I added another short scene that really helped cap the story off in a more satisfying fashion.
  • Stuck to what happened that moved the story forward, not the details on how it happened.
  • Followed the guidelines! If the agent asked for 2 pages, they got 2 pages in standard synopsis format (single-spaced with 1″ margins around in a 12pt font) unless otherwise specified.

What I didn’t do:

  • Describe physical appearances, settings, or sensory details.
  • Mention every obstacle in my protagonists’ path.
  • Focus on subplots.
  • Stick in more of the world-building than absolutely necessary.
  • Stick obsessively to the scene order. Sometimes what works for scene order in the book doesn’t work as well in the synopsis. I rearranged a couple of things by a sentence or two, particularly when my two main protags were off doing their own things.

I gave myself a lot of space to work with, putting everything in and then taking things back out a few words at a time. I also saved several versions of the synopsis – 4 pages, 2 pages, and 1 page versions, so I’d have them ready if an agent requested them. The 2 page version ended up being my favorite.

How do you handle the dreaded synopsis? What are your do’s and don’t-do’s?

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