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