Yesterday, I launched into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis, compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5- or 3-page summary in standard format. Unlike the — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.
To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.
Yes, your synopsis does need to be ultra-polished, but then, so does everything you place under a prospective agent’s nose. Synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.
No matter how good your book is, your best strategic move is to take some time to make your synopsis gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.
On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.
My readers, of course, are far too savvy to make that mistake, right?
Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”
There was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer.
Actually, if you can bear it, it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.
What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well. As clever readers Cindy and Dave pointed out in the comments on yesterday’s post, it’s getting more common for agents to request — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence — a 1-page synopsis.
Tale a deep breath: if you’ve been working your way through the Book Marketing 101 series, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind. You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)
Unfortunately, the 5- and 3-page versions are not sitting in my hat next to the 2-minute pitch and that rabbit, so I can’t pull them out as if by magic. So let’s hunker down and talk about constructing them from scratch.
It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first. Why? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.
Because Millicent might, you know, miss ’em otherwise.
It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that look something like this:
ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day, I would guess; Author! Author! hopes he feels better soon) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (∞) do?
Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d like to read it.
For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material.
And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel [that] I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.
Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — and brace yourself, because I’m about to divulge some serious words of wisdom here — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample.
Oh, had I mentioned that before? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a great storyteller.
Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling: from the POV of a novelist, 3 — 5 pages (or 1, heaven help us) hardly enough space to tell the story of a stoplight going from green to red with much panache.
But you know something? Agents and editors think so highly of writers’ talent that they expect you to do it anyway.
Bless them for their optimism, eh? You’d think, after reading hundreds of these things per week, that their faith would waver a bit, but no. Even the most hardened publishing type retains a belief in the possibility of the perfectly entertaining synopsis so intense that it makes the average 6-year-old’s belief in Santa Claus seem like positively Voltaire-ish levels of skepticism.
And that is pretty darned impressive, considering that all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel in a synopsis, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. The results, alas, can be mind-bogglingly boring, even if the book itself is exciting.
“But Anne!” I hear you cry, and who could blame you? “My book is about a love affair between a bomb-defusing stockbroker who moonlights as a cat burglar and a former Olympic ice skater who now sits on the UN Security Council when she’s not designing speedboats or skeet shooting. How boring could a straightforward summary of THAT premise possibly be?”
Oh, my dear, you would be surprised. I read a LOT of synopses each year, and let me tell you, through sheer repetition, the plots of even the raciest potboilers can start sounding awfully similar after awhile.
And the average agent reads as many of them in a day as I do in six months. Under such an assault of plotting, even if the reader is armed with the best possible intentions and the greatest conceivable love of literature to begin with, the eyes begin to glaze, passing indifferently over massacres and heretofore-unknown sex acts alike.
So how, given that your synopsis is inevitably going to be read in the midst of an avalanche of others with similar claims to a reader’s attention, can you make yours stand out?
As any great storyteller can tell you (and will, at the slightest provocation), keeping the audience’s attention is largely dependent upon the storyteller’s skill in juggling a number of factors: pacing, character development, and detail, to name but a few. A storyteller who cannot surprise her audience from time to time is probably going to end up boring them, at least a little.
Work on cultivating the element of surprise. If the plot has twists and turns, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, but do not merely summarize the plot as quickly as possible (as — sacre bleu! — most of the synopses any agent receives will). Try to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to make the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.
Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard [that] before?) And don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified the agent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 — 5 pages?
Or — gulp! — 1?
Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime. Keep up the good work.