Continuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.
A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:
-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.
-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.
–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.
Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them
I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.
Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!