Monday, February 15, 2010

So You Want to Write a Synopsis?

Fellow Prairie Chick Karyn mentioned she had never written a synopsis and was gearing up to create her first one. I thought this might be a good time to review the process of synopsis writing for veterans, or to talk about them for the first time with synopsis virgins.

Here are some synopsis basics:

1. The synopsis is formatted much like your manuscript. Use a font like Courier or Times New Roman that is easy to read. Double space all text with a least 1” to 1 ¼” margins. Justify the left margin only. Even though the temptation may be to cram as much of your story into the small space available, resist the urge to use single spacing and tiny margins. Your editor’s tired eyes will thank you.

2. On every page except the first, create a header in the top left hand corner consisting of your last name, a slash, your novel’s title in capital letters, another slash and the word Synopsis. For example: Richards/TILL SEPTEMBER/Synopsis. Number the pages beginning with the second page in the upper right-hand corner.

3. On the first page, against the top and left margins, type single-spaced your name, address/email and telephone number. Against the top and right margins, type single-spaced your novel’s genre, its word count and the word Synopsis. Double-space twice, center your novel’s title in capital letters, double-space twice and begin the text of your synopsis.

4. In the text, type a character’s name in capital letters the first time you use it. Also, to avoid confusion, always refer to a character the same way throughout the synopsis (not Dr. Martin in one place, the doctor in another, and Martin some place else).

5. The synopsis is always written in present tense.

6. The synopsis tells your novel’s entire story, even those chapters you may be enclosing in your proposal, and always the ending. The synopsis is a miniature version of your novel. To leave anything out defeats its purpose as a selling tool.

7. Follow the publisher’s/agent’s guidelines as to the length of the synopsis they would like to see. If no specific length is advised a general rule of thumb is one synopsis page for every 25 pages of manuscript, but even that can be too long. Remember that editors and agents read many, many synopses. If yours goes on and on they may not bother with it.

8. One method of boiling down your novel is to do a read-through, jotting down main points of each chapter. Then you further condense these points into the most essential elements of the story.

9. To condense your manuscript into these few pages, you must write as clean and tight as you can. Cut extra adverbs and adjectives. Focus on the story’s essential details and plot points. Actual dialogue is rarely used in a synopsis.

10. It is usually best to write a unified account of the whole story rather than breaking it up into chapters.

11. Since you have to grab your editor’s attention in the same way with the synopsis as you do with the manuscript, begin with your hook. Show the problem the hero and heroine are facing, and how they are going to solve it.

12. Don’t forget to show in your synopsis the emotion and motivation that happen in your story. They are just as important as any physical action a character might perform. In a romance it’s also important to show the characters falling in love. Without these things, synopses are dry and uninteresting. Editors and agents are looking to see if you can deliver this emotion and human drama to readers.

13. Give a sense of the tone of your novel. If it is a romantic comedy, show some humor; a gothic novel would have a sense of foreboding, and a romantic suspense would be filled with mystery and danger.

14. Stay invisible in your synopsis. Don’t use devices that emphasize the mechanics of storytelling, such as using headings like “Background”, “Setting”, “Time”. These elements should be woven smoothly into the narrative. Also, don’t use character sketches at the beginning or end of the synopsis. Again, background and important facts about the characters should be smoothly woven in.

15. Never review your own story, as in “In a heart-wrenching confession…”, or “This is an exciting, fast-paced story of love.” Let your story’s attributes speak for themselves.

16. Once your synopsis is finished, polish, polish, polish. Editors and agents will judge your writing by the quality of your synopsis. If it has grammatical and spelling errors, or sloppy presentation, they will assume that the rest of the writing is the same and will not ask to see more.

So that’s my two cents on synopsis writing. If you don’t believe me, here are other sources on the subject:
good basic info
deals with writing various synopsis lengths
synopsis samples

One thing to always remember: check the guidelines of the agent or editor you are submitting to see what length of synopsis they prefer and how they like to receive it (snail mail or email). Be prepared to write more than one synopsis in various lengths. The synopsis is part of your selling tool kit so treat it as carefully as you do your manuscript.

Have you written a synopsis? Does condensing 350 manuscript pages down to 10 pages of synopsis make you want to rip your hair out? What is your most burning synopsis question? Do you have any tips to make writing a synopsis easier?


Silver James said...

Good morning, Chicks! Jana, great advice! While I hate writing blurbs like whoah!, I actually don't mind writing a synopsis. When I start, I write a paragraph for each chapter, detailing the characters and action. During the revision process, I'll refine the use of characters--deleting detailed reference after they've been introduced and often combine paragraphs to show continuity of action. The first paragraph is an introduction--sort of an overview of the main characters, the gist of the setting and the beginning of the plot. The last paragraph is a summary/ending/climax of the book. (And if there's another book in a series, I tend to foreshadow the next book with a tease. But that's just me!)

My CP outlines her book. Really outlines it--Roman numerals and the whole bit, with one line to describe the chapter and following letters to describe the action/characters. Then she writes her synopsis based on that outline.

Anyone serious about publication needs to work on this (AND blurbs! *cringe*) as dutifully as they do on their book. Oftentimes, the synopsis will get your foot in the door so an editor or agent will read the proposal or full manuscript. As you said, Jana, they are so busy, they make snap judgements so the first thing they see needs to be a writer's very best words!

Karyn Good said...

Thanks, Jana! I'm a little behind on getting that synopsis written so this gives me lots of incentive.

The tips, advice and links are very helpful. Being a synopsis virgin I needed a place to start. I like the idea of starting with a single sentence, then a single paragraph, a page, etc.

Now I just have to sit down and get it done!

Suse said...

Hi Jana, thanks for an excellent resource for writing a synopsis. I have written a couple and know it's not an easy task. There is a reason they call it the "dreaded" synopsis.

I like that you emphasized how important it is to show what type of writer a person is. It's like a job interview. You need to do well in both to get the "job".

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver!
Excellent advice. I think starting with a brief chapter outline is the way to go. The hardest part of a synopsis is figuring out what is essential and what can be left out. Look for those vital plot points or turning points that take the characters in another direction. Those are the things that have to be included in your synopsis.

This is going to sound a little crazy, but I find that sometimes it's easier to write a synopsis before I actually write the book! At the beginning you have only the broad strokes of the story, which is what your synopsis needs. You aren't as distracted by all the details at this point. The drawback here is that often changes are made to the original plan for a story. You have to make sure your synopsis actually tells the story of your story!

Thanks for stopping by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I have a feeling you are going to be very good at writing synopses. You're already a dynamite blurb writer, and I think the two are closely related. Both capture the essence of a story in as few well chosen words as possible.

Good luck with synopsis writing!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
A synopsis is sort of like a job interview. It's your selling tool, a representative of your best writing. Like Silver said, if you're serious about publication, you need to learn to write the "dreaded" synopsis.


Janet said...

Excellent post, Jana! Clear, concise, with enough details to make even the most nervous synopsis writer feel confident!

You've already had the privilege of reading my many attempts at a synopsis for Lady Bells. I consider my tries poor to say the least. I'm now going (Karyn - I am writing a synopsis, jus a little behind as well) to write the synopsis like a short story. A condensed version (Reader's Digest, if you will) of the main plot/story. Hopefully, it will read well.

I'm bookmarking this, Jana - and will return to it often. Thanks.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I hope the post is useful. There's no doubt that Synopsis writing is difficult. Not only do you have to convey the plot, you must give a sense of the characters, and the tone of the book. That's a lot for a little synopsis to do!

Good luck with your synopsis. Let me know if you need a reader.


Jana Richards said...

Hi all,
In a little more shameless (or perhaps shameful) self-promotion, I want to let you know that I'm going to be interviewed at Long & Short reviews tomorrow ( On Wednesday, Feb.17 between 6 and 10 EST I will be participating in a chat on the Long & Short reviews Yahoo loop. You need to be a member of the Yahoo group to participate but it's an easy process. Just go to their website for more information.

I hope some of you can attend because I'm terrified I'm going to be spending the whole evening alone, staring at my computer! Please come out and chat!


Jana Richards said...

Jana here again. If you've never joined a Yahoo group before, the process is simple.
1. Type the following into your browser:

2. You'll get a screen that says "Find a Yahoo Group". Type in "Long and Short Romance Reviews" and hit search.

3. The Long & Short Romance Reviews Yahoo group will show up. Just hit "Join this group" and follow the directions.

Thanks for bearing with me!


Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow! Is this timely! I've had a few friends checking my synopsis for Emma's Outlaw as I ready for the Genesis contest and they all agree on one thing... Apparently in the one single-spaced page we're allowed, I've spent the majority of the page showing the story line instead of the character and spiritual arcs. So, I'm working on that.

Here's another resource for you all:
which is the synopsis writing page at eHarlequin.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I can certainly relate to your synopsis writing challenges. A similar thing happens to me. I get so focused on trying to get across what's happening in the book that I don't always show that the book is funny or that the heroine is motivated by her trust issues. Those nuances are really difficult to portray but really essential.

Good luck with the synopsis for Emma's Outlaw.