Synopsispalooza, Part III: keeping some of those plot cats concealed in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many diverse people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check each entity’s individual requirements. Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis.

And the crowd went wild; perhaps I should have begun with a 5-page synopsis and worked my way down. There seems to be something about the very idea of a 1-page synopsis that sends aspiring writers spiraling into an oh, my God, I have to write this in the next five minutes tizzy. Or so I surmise from the fact that my e-mail inbox (not the way I prefer to receive questions, folks; post ‘em in the comments, please) has been stuffed to the gills for the past two days with behind-the-scenes pleas to explain further.

I find this a trifle odd, there was absolutely nothing in that last post to indicate that I did not intend to give much, much more insight into the subject. Seriously, did the 27 posts of Querypalooza really leave any doubt about my great love of explaining things down to the last comma?

Relax, campers: this is only the third post into what promises to be a several-week series. To set your mind even more at rest, I’m going to go ahead and respond to a comment on the subject from eager-to-go reader Christie:

Great post, Anne. Just to clarify though, are you suggesting that a one-page synopsis doesn’t have to include the ending of the book? Should it just be a teaser?

Yes and no, Christie. Yes, a 1-page synopsis does not have to include the ending, just the premise and the central conflict. But no, it should most emphatically not be mistaken for a teaser or a back jacket blurb, intended just to provoke interest: a teaser typically just includes the premise, while a back jacket blurb usually consists of teaser + praise for the book.

The overwhelming majority of 1-page synopses both Millicent the agency screener and her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, see in query packets are either teasers or back jacket copy. Neither fulfills the intended purpose of a 1-page synopsis: to convince a professional reader to ask to see the manuscript.

In order to do that, even a 1-page synopsis is going to have to convey something of the feel of the manuscript. But unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide a brief-but-complete overview of the book in question’s plot or argument (more on that later in this series), a 1-page synopsis is essentially a movie trailer for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

These goals should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through Querypalooza series: a 1-page synopsis shares essentially the same objectives as the descriptive paragraph in a query. The synopsis merely allows more room to achieve them. In both, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, ideally, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along: the goal of a synopsis tucked into a query packet is to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis. Certainly, it’s quite a bit more than most that cross Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents of their already-signed clients, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) for a novel or memoir, show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages — or the dreaded one page? I can see how it might feel that way, but believe it or not, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that behemoth sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who didn’t answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned the difference between a synopsis and a back jacket blurb. Again, I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone. I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it — and interestingly, the level of panic about writing them doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to how confident the writer feels about the manuscript itself, its level of polish, or even, in many cases, the writer’s level of familiarity with the publishing industry.

What that gut-wrenching fear does have to do with, evidently, is the imperative for brevity. Which is not, let’s face it, the natural impulse of those of us who sit down and write books.

Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans. Naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes, two excellently-becreamed courses, and a dessert that the waiter took great delight in lighting on fire later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away the fourth waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for the last two years!”

Of course, it was simpler for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches. It is, as I mentioned last time, a learned skill.

To be fair, I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off that her novel might border on the autobiographical? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of each fact-based incident in her 43-minute plot summary how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoir and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear all about it.)

Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot — which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always draft my pitch and synopsis before I write the book. About 1/3-1/2 of the way through the writing process seems to be the best time: less distracting than if I wait until the manuscript’s completely polished. I know that I can always tweak it down the road.

Stop clutching your chests; this honestly does make sense. Naturally, early-penned synopses and pitches will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel know what I’m about to advise, don’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least as a rough draft: you can always revise it later on. Why get the constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise and central conflict.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

I can tell that some of you still are not convinced. Okay, here is an even better reason to take the time early in the process to start thinking about the synopsis: in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, you will have an easier time at the querying and submission stage.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for a synopsis. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…in a month or two…will you excuse me while I track down my heart medication?”

More to the point, if you start earlier, you’ll have a better chance of writing a good synopsis that does credit to your writing skills. As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample — and will be judged accordingly.

A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization. Especially if the summarizer in question is trying to cram a 380-page plot into a scant couple of pages.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in?

Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell her story compellingly: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots. Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s send Aunt Jane into a the agent of my dreams just asked me to tuck a synopsis into my submission packet, and I haven’t even begun to think about writing one! frenzy and aim her toward her book. (If you’re having trouble reading the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + in order to enlarge the image.)

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed last time:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. This is not like pretending you couldn’t hit the volleyball to save your life to get out of P.E. class in junior high school: a writer can’t wiggle out of the necessity of producing a professional synopsis by doing it poorly.

Besides, it’s not in your best interest to underestimate the potential importance of the synopsis in Millicent’s decision-making process. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them. Pass the crawfish etouffée and tell me about your novel.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for quite some time. Yes? “Okay, Anne,” many of you call out, rubbing life back into your tingling appendages, “I get it why I need to take the time to produce a synopsis that presents my book’s premise and central conflict well. But the length of the synopsis listed in the agency of my dreams’ guidelines is not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, so why not just write it as such. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I tuck the same highly flattering 1-page synopsis into my next contest entry to run a little promotional copy past Mehitabel?”

Well, the first reason that comes screaming to mind is that Millicent and Mehitabel have back jacket blurb-style synopses tossed at them all the time. You’re not going to win any points for originality, and frankly, telling an agent or contest judge how terrific your writing is never works out as well as showing them that you’re talented.

Why not? This style of synopsis-writing lends itself to a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts. The result often looks a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. (If you didn’t spot any, or if this is the first you’ve ever heard that there is an expected format for book submissions, please dash as swiftly as your little legs will carry you to the archive list at right, click on the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED heading, and absorb, absorb, absorb.)

But is this synopsis-cum-blurb a successful description of the book? Of course not. To understand why, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of all three of today’s synopses. Force yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example: try to read it purely for content. Then go back and take another gander at our first two examples of the day.

How do they compare? Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the first and second SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above?

Oh, have you forgotten what they are in the haze of panic at the prospect of having to write a 1-page synopsis yourself? Okay, let’s recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but this description dumbs them down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book. It also entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man). Most seriously, (4) this blurb actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners.

Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romantica be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And think about it: isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well. It doesn’t leave enough cats in the bag (Aunt Jane hasn’t left much to Millicent’s imagination, has she?), but you have to admit, it is an accurate representation of the plot, up to a certain point.

Unfortunately, a querier or submitter is not being graded on completeness. Aunt Jane should be concentrating on telling this story well, not in its entirety.

Especially since the brevity of the synopsis renders thoroughness impossible. By getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Hmm, I seem to have placed that last bit in boldface. One might almost take it for an aphorism on synopsizing.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the text (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is one of the great comedies of the English language — so shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the descriptive paragraph of the query letter — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and page 45 has just popped out of her printer. Can you pick up the pace, please?

See how much harder it is to come up with good synopsis ideas when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t have been nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send when the request came in?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet. Or the query packet, if the agency of your aspirations accepts unsolicited synopses.

The results of last-minute synopsizing, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce; I don’t want to send any of you reaching for your heart medication again. After all, writing an eye-catching synopsis takes time.

So take a few nice, deep breaths. You don’t need to polish it off today.

Next time, I’m going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success. Keep up the good work!

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