Synopses are a necessary evil. If youre unpublished, editors
want to see one to ensure your story ends appropriately, and if youre published, the
synopsis may be all the editor sees. So, the synopsis becomes a vital selling
tool. But it is important beyond that as well. Once the editor falls in love
with your story, she will use the synopsis to sell your story at the buying meeting, to
write the back cover blurb, and to give the cover artist some idea of what your story is
about. So, its important to make your synopsis shine as much as your
How can you do this on your own? Well, after judging numerous contests, critiquing new writers works, and researching synopses for my book, I have found a number of problems common to most beginning writers. Heres how to spot and correct the ten most common ones (from least to most common):
10. The format is incorrect.
dont see this as often anymore, but I still see it often enough that it needs to be
mentioned. And its actually several problems lumped into one. First, some
people still use the incorrect manuscript format. I wont go into the details
of correct format here since most of you should have it down pat, but in case you
dont, check out my format article.
Second, some fail to make the synopsis the correct length, meaning it doesnt meet the length requested by the agent/editor/contest. To fix this, do your homework. Most editors, agents, and contests have detailed guidelines that explain how long your synopsis should be. Get a copy of those guidelines (or call and ask), then give them the length they ask for. I know of a few agents who wont even look at your submission if you send them a ten page synopsis when theyve requested no more than four. Dont shoot yourself in the foot this way.
Third, some writers write the synopsis as if it were a term paper outline, telling us in boring, line by line detail everything that happens in each chapter. In a good synopsis, the writer tells the story as if he were relating it to a friend across the dining room table. Dont explain every scenejust hit the high points and make it sound as interesting as your story.
9. The synopsis concentrates on the first three chapters of the novel.
occurs when the writer finishes chapter three and decides its time to write a
synopsis and send it off to a contest or editor to get some feedback. Since the
novel isnt finished, the writer elaborates on the completed portion of the story to
the detriment of the rest, so that 75% or more of the synopsis covers what happens in the
first three chapters. To fix this, do some hard thinking about your story and flesh
it out fully before you send it out into the world.
8. The tone is inconsistent.
Ive seen some synopses with widely varying moods that do nothing but confuse the reader. For example, the writer might start off describing a horrible, angst-filled character background, then segue into a humorous romp. It leaves the reader baffled, wondering what kind of story it really is. So, make sure your tone is consistent throughout the synopsisand that it matches the tone of your novel.
7. The writer speaks directly to the reader.
writer inserts comments in the synopsis that address the reader directly to ensure the
reader "gets it." For example, she might write, "The conflict
is..." or "At this point in the story..." Resist this urge.
Talking directly to the reader jerks him out of the flow of the story.
Or, the writer might tell the reader how to feel by promising the story is heartrending, humorous, exciting, etc. If you tell the reader how to feel, you run the risk of putting his back up. Quite literally, the reader will be the judge of whether your story makes him feel the way you intended.
6. The synopsis ignores market considerations.
problem, the writer forgets to show how the story fits within the targeted genre (e.g.,
she leaves out the development of the relationship in a romance or forgets to show all the
clues in a mystery, etc.). There are certain expectations for each genre and you
need to ensure these expectations are met in your synopsis or you run the risk of it being
For example, in a romance, you must show the development of the relationship. I can hear some of you saying, "Duh!" but believe me, many people leave it out. They get so caught up in the external plot that they forget to show how the romance develops. This may include such important steps such as the lovers meeting and attraction, their first kiss, the time they first make love, the moment they realize and/or declare their love, and their final commitment to each other. Make sure you show when these pivotal points happen in the synopsis.
5. The synopsis lacks emotion.
Often, writers will show the development of the plot, point by point, but forget to explain how the characters feel, react and change as a result of each plot shift. Since most people read novels for the characters, they want to know how the characters think and feel about whats going on in the story. So, if something devastating happens to the heroine, show us how that changes her reactions to her goal, to the other characters, or to whatever else is important to her and the story.
4. There is too much detail.
writer gets so caught up in the minutia of his intricate plot, fascinating research,
historical period, or speculative world that the synopsis is stuffed with irrelevant
details and characters. In the synopsis, we dont really need to know how a
spinning wheel works or what a minor character looks like...unless it is a key
element necessary to understanding the plot or the major character(s). Save the
details for the story itselfand include them there only if theyre
relevant. Dont use your novel as an excuse to show off your meticulous
research unless you really want to bore your readers.
A related problem is listing all of your twenty plus characters by name. In a ten page synopsis, thats a lot of names to remember. Just mention the names of the key protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Dont mention secondary characters by name unless they show up several times in the synopsis. Instead, refer to them by function or relationship: the cab driver, the housekeeper, Sarahs daughter, Joels boss, etc.
3. The synopsis leaves questions unanswered.
This is when
the writer leaves out key character motivations or forgets to tie up loose ends of plot
and character development. It also includes the unpardonable sin of telling the
editor she has to read the whole story to find out how it ends. Do this only if you
want an immediate rejection.
Though its difficult to figure out what to put in and what to leave out of the synopsis, make sure you at least show us the resolution of the main characters goals and conflicts, and the resolution of the plot at the end. If youre unsure if anything is missing, give the synopsis to someone who knows nothing about your story and ask her to tell you if she has any unanswered questions after she reads it.
2. The characters arent interesting or sympathetic.
Here again, the writer has concentrated so much on the plot that the characters havent come alive. To fix this, use Debra Dixons Goal, Motivation and Conflict method and make sure you explain what your major characters want, why they want it, and whats keeping them from getting it. Then at the end, show how they have grown as a result of the story. That will help make your reader care about what happens to them.
1. The synopsis lacks transitions.
everything else is done correctly and all the plot and character elements are included in
the synopsis, writers often tell their stories with a series of unconnected declarative
sentences: She did this. He did that. They left. It makes for
disjointed reading and interrupts the smooth flow of the story.
This is the problem I see most often. Writers who use transitions with ease and skill in their manuscripts somehow still fail to use them in their synopses. The objective is to make your synopsis flow as easily as your manuscript, to make the story so interesting that the reader will continue reading without a hitch from beginning to end. So, connect those ideas from one sentence or one paragraph to the next to show how each plot point and character change are related to one another and affect what comes next. Even if you have to use such phrases as "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." or "What Harold didnt realize was...", its worth it to make your story read smoothly.
Take the example above: She did this. He did that . They left. How would you make it flow? Perhaps you could say: When she did this, he grew angry and did that. Furious at each other, they left and went their separate ways. In other words, if you use character reaction, feelings, and motivations to connect your sentences, your synopsis will not only flow smoothly, but your characters will come alive.
For more information on synopses, look for Pam's book, Writing the Fiction Synopsis, A Step by Step Approach.
(Copyright Ó 2000 by Pam McCutcheon)
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