How to write a really good synopsis, part IV: the nitty and the gritty

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For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (okay, so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since I haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with howls of protest on the subject — really? The prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep annoys nobody? — I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the basic goals and strategy of a 1-page synopsis intended for tucking into a query envelope or to copy and paste at the bottom of an e-mailed query.

Before I move on to the ins and outs of writing the longer synopsis, I feel I should respond to some of the whimpers of confusion I’ve been sensing coming from some of my more structurally-minded readers. “Hey, Anne,” some of you have been thinking quite loudly, “I appreciate that you’ve been showing us visual examples of properly-formatted synopses — a sort of SYNOPSES ILLUSTRATED, if you will — but I’m still not positive that I’m doing it right. If I clutch my rabbit’s foot and wish hard enough, is there any chance that you might go over the various rather odd-looking formatting choices you’ve used in them before, say, I need to send out the 1-page synopsis currently wavering on my computer screen?”

Who am I to resist the charms of a well-stroked rabbit’s foot? Let’s take another gander at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

For veterans of my extended forays into the joys and terrors of standard format for manuscripts, none of the formatting here is too surprising, right? Printed out, it strongly resembles a properly-constructed manuscript page — and with good reason.

For the most part, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs (ALWAYS), Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized in the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.) As with the first page of a manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

And, as with manuscript pages, if you format your synopsis like this in Word, copy it, and paste it into the body of an e-mail (as many agencies’ querying guidelines now request), much of the formatting will remain intact: indented and double-spaced. Easy as the proverbial pie. Of course, the slug line — the author’s last name/title/page # that should appear in the header of every page of your writing you intend to submit to professional readers — won’t appear in the e-mailed version, nor will the margins.

I see some of the sharper-eyed among you jumping up and down, hands raised. “Anne! Anne!” the eagle-eyed shout. “That’s not a standard slug line in your example! It says Synopsis where the page number should be! Why’d you do it that way? Huh? Huh?”

Well caught, eager pointer-outers. I omitted the page number for the exceedingly simple reason that this is a one-page synopsis; the slug line’s there primarily so Millicent can figure out whose synopsis it is should it happen to get physically separated from the query or submission it accompanied. (Yes, it happens. Millie and her cronies deal with masses and masses of white paper.)

If this were a multi-page synopsis, the slug line should include the page number, but regardless of length, it’s a good idea to include the info that it is a synopsis here. That way, should any of the pages mistakenly find their way into a nearby manuscript (again, it happens), it would be easy for Millicent to spot it and wrangle it back to the right place.

Sometimes, it seems as though those pages have a life of their own. Especially when the air conditioning breaks down and someone in the office has the bright idea of yanking the rotating fan out of the closet.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: like a manuscript, a query or submission synopsis should not be bound in any way, not even by a paper clip. If a synopsis page does not feature either the writer’s name or the title of the work (and the subsequent pages of most query synopsis often fail to include either), how could Millicent possibly reunite it with its fellows if it goes a-wandering?

Heck, even if it’s all together, how is she supposed to know that a document simply entitled Synopsis and devoid of slug lines is describes a manuscript by Ignatz W. Crumble entitled WHAT I KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING AND YOU SHOULD, TOO?

Don’t make her guess. Unidentified pages tend to end up in the recycling — or, if the Millicent happens to work in one of the many, many agencies that does not recycle paper (you’d be amazed), in the trash.

A second (or third, or fifth; extrapolate) page should also look very similar to any other page of standard-formatted manuscript, with one vital exception: the slug line for a synopsis should, as I mentioned above, SAY that the page it decorates is from a synopsis, not a manuscript, in addition to displaying the author’s last name, the title of the book, and the page number. (If you don’t know why a slug line is essential to include in any professional manuscript or why anyone would name something on a pretty page of text after a slimy creature, please see the SLUG LINE category on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this page.)

One caveat: if you are planning to submit a synopsis to a contest, double-check the rules: many literary contests simply disqualify any entry that includes the entrant’s name anywhere but on the entry form. (This is a sign of honesty in a contest, incidentally; it’s substantially harder to rig the outcome if the judges don’t know which entrant wrote which entry.) If you’re entering a name-banning contest, you should still include a slug line, but omit the first part: TITLE/SYNOPSIS/PAGE #.

Okay, some of you have had your hands in the air since you read the example above. “But Anne,” the tired-armed point out, “aren’t you ignoring the elephant in the room — or, in this case, on the page? You seem to have given some of the character names in all capital letters. Why?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction and memoir synopses capitalize the entire name of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first.

Why only the first? 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. She reads pretty fast, you know.

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 synopsis text that looks 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) 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 love 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 — wait for it! — a 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 — chant it with me now, long-time readers — in a query or submission packet, the synopsis is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that fourteen or fifteen times already in this series? 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, well-rounded characters, but that the writer is a terrific storyteller.

I heard that monumental collective gasp of dread. Don’t worry — in the days to come, I shall be talking about ways in which you can tweak your synopsis in order to convey that lovely impression.

For the nonce, let’s take a quick field trip back to yesterday’s examples of a not-so-hot 1-page synopsis. Now that you know what Millicent is expecting to see, do you notice any formatting problems here?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, screaming, “It doesn’t have a slug line! It doesn’t have a slug line!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Make that two if you bellowed that it doesn’t say anywhere on the page that it is a synopsis.

Take a medal out of petty cash if you noticed that the pages are not numbered: a major no-no in any submission, ever, and one of the more common mistakes. And yes, you should number it, even for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rules SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. The first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

Top yourself with a halo if you also discovered that Aunt Jane made the rookie mistake of adding her name to the synopsis anywhere but in the slug line. For book-length works, the first page of text — regardless of whether it is in the manuscript, the synopsis, or any other requested materials — is not a title page.

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros.

Everyone happy with his or her score on that quiz? Excellent. Let’s tackle the other negative example:

Where do we even begin? Millicent the screener would almost certainly not even read this one — in fact, she might burst into laughter from several paces away. Any guesses why?

Well, for starters, it starts too far down on the page, for one thing, falling into the same title-page error as the previous example. It’s the over-the-top typeface, though, and the fact that the page uses more than one of them, that would set Millicent giggling and showing it to her coworkers.

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering, either. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that in mid-guffaw.

It makes one other error for a fiction synopsis, a subtler one — and this one may surprise you: it mentions the title of the book IN the text of the synopsis.

Why is this a problem? Well, it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking ABOUT the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

And anyway, the title is already both at the top of the page (and SHOULD be in the slug line): why, Millicent wonders impatiently, cradling her too-hot latte until it cools — she’s learning, she’s learning — would the writer WANT to waste the space and her time by repeating the information?

“Wait just a minute, Anne,” I hear some of my former questioners call from the rear of the auditorium. “You’re talking about the cosmetic aspects of the query synopsis as though it were going to be judged as pitilessly as the manuscript I’m hoping Millicent will ask me to submit. Surely, that’s not the case? The synopsis is just a technical requirement, right?”

Um, no. As I said, it’s considered a WRITING SAMPLE. So yes, it does tend to be judged — and dismissed — just as readily as problematic text anywhere else in the query packet.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But isn’t it better that you hear it from me than to be left to surmise it from a form-letter rejection? Or, as is more often the case, NOT surmise it from a form-letter rejection and keep submitting problematic synopses?

What? I couldn’t hear your replies over the deafening roar of aspiring writers all over the English-speaking world leaping to their feet, shouting, “Wait — my query or submission might have gotten rejected because of its formatting, rather than its writing or content?”

While they’re frantically re-examining their query packets and rethinking their former condemnations of Millicents, is anyone harboring any lingering questions about submission formatting? This would be a great time to ask, because next time, we’ll be leaving technicalities behind and delving into the wonderful world of storytelling on the fly.

Keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “How to write a really good synopsis, part IV: the nitty and the gritty”

  1. Since nobody else offered any lingering questions, I’ll be the goat.

    1) On the first P&P example, there’s no page number in the slug line…but you ARE supposed to put the page number on a 1-pg synopsis? I ask because, though I read the sentence three times, it’s after 3 a.m. and my brain is slowly decaying.

    2) When putting your title on the synopsis…is there a preference as to boldface, capitals, none of the above? On my drafts I haven’t been doing anything except regular 12-point TNR but on the first example it’s in boldface.

    1. 1) I’m sorry; I thought I had addressed this issue in the post itself, but I’m sleep-deprived this week. Must have deleted it. So I’m glad you asked.

      The example is correct: there’s no need to put a page number on a single-page synopsis. Technically, page numbers are in the slug line purely to help get things back in order if they get mixed up, not a possibility if it’s all on one page.

      2) Agents have different preferences; what you’re doing sounds fine, but do be open to the agent of your dreams asking for a change before s/he trots it around to editors. Mine likes boldface, so that’s what I use. All caps on a title is rare, though.

      1. No worries. Sleep deprivation is running rampant lately. And anyway, you have a most excellent excuse. 🙂

        So long as Agent of My Dreams wants to peddle my MS to a good publisher, I’ll change whatever nit-picky formatting they like. I’d even print the bloody thing in Wingdings if they asked (though methinks such an agent would be a poor choice with which to entrust one’s book).

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