This week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.
What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.
“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.
Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!