Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dreaded Synopsis

Having already accumulated a decent list of agents' names, along with their contact information and submission guidelines, it's time to actually complete the queries. Several requested a synopsis. If "query" holds a place in the minds of most writers similar to "colonoscopy" and "biopsy," for "synopsis," add "without anesthesia" to the first two options. Paring a book of (in this case) over 96,000 words into a single page requires leaving out everything that, for me, makes a book readable; dialog, the interplay between characters, the voice of the writing, and humor only begin the list. The synopsis can be no more than a quick, superficial telling of what happens. Not what characters think, who they love, or what they say. Even motivations are implied; there just isn't room to explain anything.

I used to hate doing synopses until I discovered this technique a couple of years ago. I hope someone finds it helpful.

The first thing is to make a chart of the key events in each chapter. This is only a few words; no more than a sentence. "Tom and Marty meet in Tease." "Doc and the kids at West's house." "Marian vents." I just spent a year and a half writing the book; I know the context. (This is made a lot easier if you kept what I call a "scene inventory" as you go, brief descriptions of what happens in each chapter. I outline, so the inventory is pretty much organic for me. Pantsers may have to track things as they complete each chapter.) A white board or large sheet of paper (like for a presentation on an easel) works well.

After making the notes for each chapter (this book has 64), I circle the four to six absolutely key elements that have to be included in the synopsis. "Tom kills Carol." "A body is found in a vacant." "Rollison reads Frantz's phone records." Whatever. Then I start eliminating all the scenes that don't help directly connect these elements. (This part is easier on the white board, as you can just erase what you don't need.) Main character finds a love interest that allows you to more fully flesh out his personality? It's important for making the book work, but extraneous to a synopsis. Sub-plots that don't directly relate to the main story? See ya. Never has "kill your darlings" had more relevance or poignancy.

Remember, the synopsis can't be more than a page or three long. Getting it down to one page is best, as someone will almost surely want one no longer than that. If you're going to have to reduce that far, you might as well get it right and send it to everyone. That single page has one purpose, and one purpose only: to get the agent interested enough in your story to want to read the entire manuscript. Period. She can revel in your deathless prose, witty banter and engaging characters when she reads the full. Books are sold on story; sell the story. As Marcus Sakey writes in this excellent morsel of advice, seduce her by letting her know what's going to happen, but making her wonder about exactly what transpires while she's getting there. Make her want you..

What's that? You want to see my synopsis? What, and you'll know how the book comes out? Get real. "But," you stammer indignantly, "how can I tell if the synopsis is any good?" If an agent reads it and requests a full, it was good.

I'll let you know.


Anonymous said...

HI Dana,

Is this the story you were reading for the group a while ago? Best of luck!! I've missed you at the meetings (actually I only just started to go back after about a year absence).

Synopses are the worst. what drives me crazy is one agent will want a max. 3-page synopsis and another wants max. 1-page. Ugh.


Dana King said...

Yep, same story. Finally finished it.

Charlieopera said...

It's a VERY good book.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Charlie. I'll get the check out tonight.

GG Byron said...

Dana -- What's the "group" that Denise/Anonymous mentioned in her August 30th post? I'm a newbie fiction author (murder mystery in prep) and live nearby Laurel.
Thanks, GG Byron (pseudonym)

Dana King said...

Denice and I belong to a writers group that meets semi-monthly in the Chantilly (VA) library. It's a pretty good group writing-wise, and the people are very nice and supportive. I'm more of an adjunct member now, as it's a forty mile drive each way for me and after work traffic twice a month eventually took a lot of the fun out of it.

Drop me an email at dlk11756 (at) and I'll be happy to provide more details, or talk about writing with you.