How to write a synopsis if you hate writing synopses

Spoilers! Just one reason to hate synopses. But I rather like this T-shirt, and I should mention it’s from Threadless.

I just finished the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, and am now querying agents. So I’ve had to write a synopsis.

I don’t know any writer who relishes the synopsis. Essentially, you take 100,000 words (103,000, in my case) and boil it down, spoilers and all, to 500. And hate every moment.

But we have to do it. And this time, I came to an important realisation, one that made the process so much easier.

First, you need to get it down.

Phase 1 – outline the story

  1. Start with the protagonist. Introduce them and the status quo.
  2. Describe the incident that kicks off the main action and how it affects the main character.
  3. Describe how everything becomes complicated, the main plot turns, how they test the protagonist and make them change their goals.
  4. Mention any traditions and tropes of your genre that will appeal to your ideal readers. Amazing settings, outlandish murders etc.
  5. Describe the protagonist’s lowest point.
  6. Add the ultimate crisis or confrontation, and how the protagonist faces it.
  7. Finish with the resolution – how the protagonist is changed (or not), whether they’re wiser, happier, sadder, more true to themselves etc.
  8. Now consider other characters, if you haven’t already. Who else should you add so the synopsis makes sense? Choose the most important characters.
  9. How do those main relationships develop? Add that.
  10. Also add themes and issues.
  11. And lastly, what’s your most original and exciting idea? Make sure you’ve showcased that.
  12. Splice it all together, so it flows as a story in its own right.

Broad strokes

You’ll have to fit it into just one page. There’s a lot you might have to leave out. In Ever Rest, I have four main characters, but there wasn’t room in the synopsis to explain all their arcs. So I left one out. My synopsis is a version of the story with just three of the main characters.

So you now have a document that makes sense but probably looks entirely soulless, compared with the rich experience it is derived from.

Hold that thought.

The conversation

Here, we eavesdrop on writerly life.

Husband Dave is also a writer (here’s a post about the two-writer household). It’s useful for support and also for tough love.

Dave: ‘Have you got your synopsis ready?’

Me: ‘Yes. I hope nobody reads it.’

Dave: a severe look.

I realised. That would not do.

I searched my soul. I had written the synopsis in a state of frustration and rebellion. This is stupid. Why do I have to write this? I’d prefer you read the whole book instead.

Does that sound familiar?

Phase 2

So here’s the biggest secret.

I decided I had to stop hating that document.

Writers are creatures of expressive emotion, and that emotion shines through our work. The reader can tell which characters we’re most committed to, which situations arouse our deepest curiosity, which ideas we love. We draw on our most genuine parts to write a story. We believe in it. We need to bring that belief to the synopsis too.

I read my synopsis and saw it had no soul. It was just a series of events. I rewrote those events, concentrating instead on the characters’ emotions. The rage, the hope, the fear, the distress, the dread, the yearning. Suddenly, I was enjoying it. I still loved telling the story the long way, the proper way. But now, I loved this new way to tell it.

That’s what you’re looking for. If someone reads your synopsis, you want them to crave the full-length experience, not to shrug and move on.

So set yourself a challenge. You know you’ve got a fine book, full of emotion, jeopardy and your own genius originality. For your second phase of synopsising, write with that spirit. Don’t write it with disdain. Write it with love.

(There’s a lot more about writing synopses in my Nail Your Novel workbook.)

Oh, and what’s Ever Rest? And why, if I can self-publish, am I looking for an agent? All discussed here

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  1. #1 by Davida Chazan on September 6, 2020 - 2:47 pm

    I don’t mind writing the synopsis of books for my blog, but… I only do it when the ones that are on Amazon or Goodreads are WAY off base (or give spoilers away). I’m sure it will be something else altogether when I need to write one for my own novel (if I ever finish writing it)!

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 6, 2020 - 4:14 pm

      Ho ho, Davida, I hadn’t considered that kind of synopsis! Of yours, you book bloggers have your own particular challenges! Good luck with your novel.

  2. #3 by acflory on September 7, 2020 - 3:48 am

    I’m glad you’ve finished a new novel, but according to Kristine Rusch, traditional publishing is dying a slow death because it can’t pivot to take advantage of the pandemic. That was the gist of what she’s saying, and she was a successful traditionally published author, and now she’s a successful Indie.

    Given the pandemic, its hard to argue with Rusch’s assessment. Things may be different in the UK, but here in Australia, my state is in stage 4 lockdown. That means that most retail outlets are online only. If bookshops are closed in the UK too, and if the traditional marketing avenues used by traditional publishers are also closed – e.g. book signings, book fairs, book everything – what could you possibly gain?

    Sorry, but I’m really puzzled. If you get an agent, that agent will take 15% of whatever you get from the publisher, and if the book doesn’t sell well during the first print run, you may never get a second one. Yet according to standard contracts these days, the publisher will own your copyright for life + 70 years or something ridiculous like that.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket. 😦

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 7, 2020 - 6:57 am

      Hi Andrea! Yes, I know of Kristine Rusch. I also know of those pitfalls you very rightly point out. And am worried about them. I wouldn’t accept a publishing deal that didn’t give realistic and fair terms – and actually, nobody has to accept boilerplate contracts. Reversion rights are one of those terms that we should all argue about..
      Publishers can still get good publicity for a book, even if it’s just online. There are places you can’t get if you’re doing it all by yourself. However, it has to be the right kind of publisher and it’s better if you have the right kind of scary agent telling them they’d better not drop your campaign in favour of another author’s. Anyway, we shall see.

    • #7 by MrDisvan on September 7, 2020 - 12:38 pm

      It’s a lot easier to become a successful indie-published author if you start as a successful traditionally published author, Even then it’s no guarantee. What can traditional publishing do for you? It’ll get you a lot more readers, not least because traditional publishing is pretty much the only way to get reviewed in the places with real reach. There are no guarantees, as I said, but the median book royalties (not all income) for traditionally published authors is ~$12,000 a year, while for indie-published authors it’s ~$3000.

      • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 7, 2020 - 1:56 pm

        That’s a great point, Mr Disvan. What you really want a publisher for is their friends! The people they can introduce your book to. Books are sold by relationships. Every author has their own relationships that will sell books – whether indie or traditionally published. But they don’t have as many useful relationships as a publisher does. That’s why I feel it’s worth seeing if a publisher would be a good fit for my book.

      • #9 by acflory on September 8, 2020 - 10:36 am

        I know there are a lot of traditional /readers/ out there, but how many of them buy from bookshops any more? As for the reviews, I’m a voracious reader, and I rarely read Amazon reviews much less those in, say Kirkus or whatever.

        I do, however, find new authors via recommendations from people I know and trust.

        As for the $12,000 advance, that’s payment for years of work. At least the $3000 is ongoing because the author retains their copyright.
        -shrug-
        As a fan of Roz’s work, I’d like to see her become wildly successful. If a traditional publisher can do that, then I’ll recant. 🙂

  3. #12 by The Story Reading Ape on September 7, 2020 - 7:05 am

  4. #15 by jenanita01 on September 7, 2020 - 8:06 am

    If I ever finish the WIP, I was thinking about having an agent. Not sure if this is sensible, given the present atmosphere!

  5. #20 by Annalisa Crawford on September 7, 2020 - 10:01 am

    It should be the easiest thing in the world, shouldn’t it? You love your novel, you know it better than anyone, you should be able to give a quick, enticing summary… Why, oh why does it go so wrong?

    Good luck with the submissions!

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 7, 2020 - 1:49 pm

      Hi Annalisa! Yes, it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Another thing that should be easy is describing your book to a friend who casually asks about it. Instead, we usually end up flailing around in a sea of muddle.
      And thanks for the good luck wishes! We’ll see what happens.

  6. #22 by rosihollinbeck on September 8, 2020 - 12:11 am

    Thanks for this post. It is terrific. I will be posting the link on my blog.

  7. #24 by jennifermzeiger on September 9, 2020 - 1:25 am

    “Instead, we usually end up flailing around in a sea of muddle.” What a great description! And ugh, synopsis. Someday I’ll learn to love them…maybe. =)

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 9, 2020 - 6:56 am

      I now love the synopsis I’ve written of Ever Rest! I never thought this was possible. But this also demonstrates another truism of writing. Sometimes we don’t like the writing, but we like having written.

      • #26 by jennifermzeiger on September 9, 2020 - 11:48 am

        That truism hits the nail on the head! Some days it’s just work but it feels great when it’s finally on paper.

  8. #27 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 14, 2020 - 6:45 am

    Thanks for mentioning my post!

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