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Mayra Calvani

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How to Write a Great Synopsis
by Mayra Calvani   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, December 02, 2006
Posted: Saturday, December 02, 2006

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Tips on how to write a good, clear synopsis without too much suffering. This article previously appeared in Voice in the Dark Ezine.

You have finished your masterpiece. You’re ready to submit it to a list of publishers and agents. You read the submission guidelines:

Please submit a synopsis and the first three chapters…

If you’re like me, you cringe. Your blood runs cold. In your mind, there’s no other horror quite like it: the synopsis. The word is a synonym for Chinese torture.

Don’t despair. It doesn’t have to be so painful. If you think about it—really, really think about it—there’s no big deal to writing a synopsis. All you need to do is know exactly what it is and keep in mind certain guidelines.

So, to start with, let’s answer the question: what is a synopsis? Put simply, it is a summary of your story.

The usual length for a synopsis is 2-3 pages long, but some agents or editors may request a one-page synopsis. Others won’t mind a 10-page synopsis. It is usually written in single-spaced format. Make sure to send what they specifically request. The reason many writers hate writing a synopsis is because they’re afraid they won’t do justice to the book. (There are cases in which the opposite occurs, where a writer writes an excellent synopsis of a bad book. I won’t be discussing this mutation here).

Whether the synopsis is one or ten pages long, it must contain:

* The setting (when and where the story is taking place)
* The main characters (not only who they are, but their motivations in the story)
* The main plot (basic storyline)
* Important subplots (only if absolutely essential to the main plot)

Don’t use adjectives and adverbs when writing your synopsis. It’s okay to use them in the first draft of your synopsis, but make sure to delete them all later on. Stick to specific action verbs and only add those details which are essential to the storyline. Don’t physically describe the characters. At this point you don’t need to write that your protagonist has dark eyes like bottomless pools or skin like vanilla pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. A synopsis is not a short story! Remember that your aim is to bait the editor or agent so he/she will request your whole manuscript. But don’t confuse the synopsis with a book blurb either. Blurbs are often used as bait in query letters and aren’t supposed to include the ending of your story. In a synopsis, however, you must always include how your story ends. Try to infuse some of your excitement to the storyline, as if you were pitching your idea to a Hollywood producer with a cigar in his mouth.

Keep in mind that before reading your sample chapters, an agent or editor will read the synopsis first. Chances are if you have spelling or grammatical mistakes in your synopsis, your sample chapters won’t be read but instead tossed into the dustbin. Agents and editors are too busy to bother themselves with writers who don’t know the basic laws of English. So make sure that your synopsis is fully edited before you send it. Don’t spell out the theme of the book in the synopsis. You’ll be wasting words. If you have written a good synopsis, the theme will come through all by itself.

I have two methods for writing a synopsis:

* Method Number One:

First, curse whoever invented the synopsis.
Second, procrastinate as much as possible.
Third, use the “Fairytale/And Then” trick.

This trick is based on the idea that fairytales relax the mind and allow the words to flow more smoothly. Even if your novel is about a serial killer, just start your summary with “Once upon a time…” Then, each time there’s a new story development, write “And then…” Your synopsis will be filled with hundreds of “And then.” No problem. All you have to do once you’ve finished is delete them all. You’re even allowed some description, as long as you get rid of it at the end. Imagine that your novel is a movie, and that you’re describing it to a friend.

* Method Number Two:

First, curse whoever invented the synopsis.
Second, procrastinate as much as possible.
Third, use the “Chapter by Chapter/Gun Illusion” trick.

This trick takes strong imagination and is based on the idea that brains work best under high stress. Imagine the following scenario: someone is pointing a loaded gun to your temple and says, “Summarize Chapter One in 2-3 sentences. You have 60 seconds or you’re dead.” Do the same with each chapter until you’ve covered the whole book. Later all you have to do is put everything together, cut the surplus, polish, and you’re done. I know it sounds demented, but it works!

Possible Structures for your Synopsis:

* All storyline:
You jump right into the story and weave information about the setting and characters as you write the storyline.

* Log line/All storyline:
Like above but you add a log line at the beginning (a log line is the basic storyline of the whole book in 1-2 sentences).

* Background/Storyline:
This is sometimes used for Science Fiction novels or other books for which some explanation or background info is necessary before reading the storyline. If you are setting your book in a fictional planet with different laws than those which apply to earth, for example, then this type of structure comes handy.

* Character/Storyline:
As with a script, here you write a description of the main characters before jumping into the plot instead of weaving the information in the storyline. You may write the names of the characters in capital letters and keep them capitalized each time you mention them in your summary.

You may re-combine some of these possibilities to fit your book. For example, your structure may also be:


Unless your book absolutely needs it, though, my advice is to keep it as simple as possible. For me, the “All Storyline” always works the best.

On a last note, make sure the three sample chapters you send with your synopsis are consecutive. Unless otherwise specified, agents and editors prefer it this way. I know—it stinks, especially since your best chapter, the one where your hero shines in all his glory, the one which is sure to captivate any editor, happens to be Chapter Fifteen. A darn good reason to make sure your synopsis is great.

So get your equipment ready, some nice, fat, juicy bait and… happy fishing!

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