Thursday, March 03, 2011

Writing the Imperfect Synopsis

Writers hate the synopsis. It interferes with our illusion that writing fiction is some mysterious creative process, handed down by a lyre-playing Muse, to be messed with at our peril. It makes our writing feel like a grubby commercial venture. The synopsis, in a writer's eyes, has more in common with a business plan than a showcase for the writer's talent. The agent or editor features in this hellish fantasy as a less than friendly bank manager, glaring at them from behind an imposing desk, or perhaps as a gatekeeper, with a large "Keep Out" sign above their heads.

I've just finished a one page synopsis and sent it off to my agent. I have no idea if it was any good. It is what it is. But the power of the synopsis lies very much in the eye of the beholder. One agent or editor may adore a particular approach to the synopsis, while another despises it. A good writer always writes for a specific (imagined or assumed) readership, so tailoring a few pages to a particular kind of reader or brief shouldn't be hard.

If you know what is preferred by the person to whom you are sending the synopsis, all well and good. But if you don't, what to do?

A synopsis is more than an extended blurb. It has to achieve a number of goals. First, and most importantly, it should tell the person reading it what happens in the book. Note, not what the book is about, per se, but what happens and in what order.

That's trickier to achieve than it sounds. Good novels have sub-plots that weave into and through the main plot. Do we mention those? Do we leave them out? If they have a bearing on decisions made, actions taken, that turn the plot, then they need to be in the synopsis. If they are secondary to that plot-turning process, then we can safely leave them out.

Though much will depend on the length of synopsis required or requested. My recent synopsis had to be one page only, and that meant squeezing a complicated plot down to its bare bones.

With fleshier synopses of two to three pages, or even longer - though if you start writing the book itself instead of a non-fiction summary of its parts, you're in trouble - you could perhaps afford to mention the milk-maid's dalliance with the master, which provokes the son to leave home and join the army, which makes the wife hate the husband - and the freckle-faced milk-maid - when her beloved boy is subsequently killed in action. Otherwise, just start with the married granddaughter packing her bags years later, when her husband has an affair with his secretary and she remembers her grandmother's suffering under similar circumstances.

But only mention it in passing. A few words should suffice.

A synopsis should also sketch out the characters of your main protagonists, but without going into unnecessary detail. (Impossible? Perhaps!) It should also convey a sense of what kind of book this will be, whether it will have a strong sense of place or time, and if it will be eerie or funny, slick or innocent, fast-paced or leisurely. But always without labouring the point or stating such things baldly. Do not open, for example, with 'This is a funny book.' Keep that for the 3-minute pitch. The synopsis is a different beast altogether, where on-the-nose statements cannot be admitted - except by the very, very skilled or the very, very famous.

So here I am with my recent synopsis. Roughly 250 words to describe a book which is admittedly short at an estimated 65,000 words - it's a Young Adult historical - but nonetheless complicated, with a couple of weighty sub-plots and some historical background to boot.

To keep the thing short, I jettisoned the sub-plots except as passing references to unnamed characters at points where they impact on the main plot. I omitted to mention several important personages who will have to appear in the book occasionally - because it's based to some extent on real events - but who have almost no bearing on the main action. Mostly I assumed historical knowledge (though it's true we had already discussed the historical background over a deliciously tasty lunch last month) and so didn't need to sketch that out beyond mentioning the dates over which the story is set.

I did not, however, as many writers like to do, give a 'flavour' of the book by writing it in the same 'voice' as the book. I have never understood why this is a necessity with some editors. If an editor needs a sample of actual writing, they should ask for it. The synopsis is an entirely functional and non-fictional document, written by one professional for another, already weighed down with strict requirements of form and length versus the demands of the plot; it shouldn't also be laden with the ludicrous expectation that it should sound 'fictional'.

One common thing writers feel instinctively when describing their stories in advance is that they shouldn't reveal the ending. 'I won't tell you what happens after that ... but it's very exciting.'

We don't do that in the synopsis. It's a non-fictional document, remember? It's like packaging; it should tell the would-be buyer what's inside, and how many grams of fat, and is that saturated or Omega-3? In the synopsis, we tell the editor and agent precisely what happens at the end, and why. Yes, even if it's going to spoil it for the little darlings.

Having said all that, the synopsis must be a flexible document. It should be constructed like a house in an earthquake zone, to move subtly with the earth, not resist the quake and tumble down, killing your protagonists in their beds. Publishers ask for changes. Sometimes they ask for them at the start of the writing process, and sometimes halfway through - or later. You will need to be open to those changes, and not have your story so tightly bound together that no daylight can be admitted between plot-points. 

So the ideal synopsis is a little imperfect: it should err on the side of being too lightly written, kept flexible, with gaps - rather than holes - left for the editor's input, and neither too pithy nor over-ornate. A synopsis should always suggest rather than state baldly. Never forget that your synopsis will become, in many cases, a collaborative document. Writing a novel isn't quite like writing a screenplay, but by the end of the process, a number of different experts - often with clashing views on how a novel or even a synopsis should be written - will have stuck their fingers in the pie of your story and cheerfully wiggled them about.

In other words, you need to bear in mind that your finished novel may not resemble that first synopsis at all. It may have certain vital elements that were carried over, a basic thread or theme, perhaps even the same characters. But they will be changed now, their existence and actions more suited to what your novel has become over the course of its writing.

Rather sadly, the days of the writer as eccentric genius, who goes off into a hotel room for ninety days and emerges with a ground-breaking novel handwritten on a roll of perforated paper - which is then published to great acclaim without the agent or editor having done much beyond changing a few commas and lighting a congratulatory cigar - are long gone.

So the synopsis is unavoidable, and one of the banes of a writer's life; it represents the key to the first gate of the novel, beyond which a writer may not pass without permission.

Or not in any hope of publication.


Sarah Ketley (constance) said...


great post! thanks for sharing it on twitter :-)

Even as a newbie i know not to do the "i won't tell you the end bit" its funny though so many people seem to do that still!

Ah well, i know one thing, but do i know anything else that is the question. *grin* probably not.

Thanks again

Sarah ketley

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your post - Talli Roland directed me to it after retweeting. I have just finished a paranormal romance but have recently decided to e-publish. I made a few attempts at the synopsis, with help from my editor, but it is a flexible document. It shouldn't be set in stone because it so often is the case that plots will change, characters will be cut etc, once the novel is in the hands of agents/publishers.

Thank you for this very insightful post. I have also retweeted it.

Best wishes, CJxx

Rachel Lyndhurst said...

I think I'd better print this out and stick it to the fridge.

Top advice, Jane and strangely comforting - I really hate the synopsis!

Ranae Rose said...

I'm glad you posted this Jane, as I'm currently in the process of writing the dreaded synopsis (which will be heading your way, so a peek inside your brain was especially welcome). It was releiving to know that you don't think the synopsis should reflect the 'flavor' of the book...mine don't. I look at them and think 'Gah, this is so dull compared to the actual story!'


Thanks Jane.
Your piece is v informative but it seems to presume an already brokered deal so that the synopsis will be written before the novel.
Which is not always the case, in fairness. Most writers try to sell their book on the basis of the synopsis and probably have most if not all of the book finished.
I find it hard to write even AFTER the novel is written.
I couldn't agree more with "it shouldn't also be laden with the ludicrous expectation that it should sound 'fictional'."
This will be very useful to me when teaching fiction classes, to let people know what a synopsis actually is.
Now, back to my synopsis...agh, torture!

Lily Childs said...

Great advice Jane, thanks. Hopefully it won't be too long until I need to use it.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks, Sarah and Crystal, hope it's been useful!

Nuala, sorry, I didn't mean it to come over as an 'only brokered deal' synopsis piece. It's not always the case that a synopsis is written before the book, but it is quite common nonetheless, especially within genre writing rather than literary fiction. Certainly in romance or sci-fi, for instance, a writer might commonly attempt to get a contract on the back of a synopsis with a few sample chapters. But I agree this is generally once a writer has had at least one work published and so doesn't have to prove they can 'finish'.

Writing a synopsis AFTER the novel is written is harder, in my experience, than before you've written it. You bring so much baggage to the table AFTER it's finished, that writing a one or two synopsis of your book at that stage would be like trying to squeeze the entire contents of a three-bedroomed house into the back of a Mini Cooper. Before it's written, everything is potential and therefore much lighter and more flexible.

Re the 'fictional' thing, some publishers seem to expect a synopsis to be written in the style of the novel itself. Which is madness, really, isn't it?

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, that should have been a 'one or two PAGE synopsis'. ;-)


Thanks Jane - it's a great piece and I've been working on the synopsis for my new novel since I read it. So thank you for the jump start! The novel is still a WIP and I'm hoping to bag an agent in the UK with it. But I will finish the writing first ;)