Mastering the Selling Synopsis
by S. K. McClafferty
edited: Saturday, May 24, 2003
Posted: Saturday, May 24, 2003
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Brief rundown on writing a winning synopsis.
Mastering The Selling Synopsis
There are few things I hate more than writing a synopsis. Trying to clearly and concisely condense a 500 page manuscript into a few pages, while giving a good representation of one’s characters, their motivations, their conflict or conflicts, their attraction to one another and how it works within the plot, and still managing conveying one’s witty writing style is tantamount to demanding that all editors who work in those really tall buildings sprout wings and fly to the corner deli for lunch.
Needless to say, it is a process I dread, but for years I have gritted my teeth and done the best job I could, consoling myself with the falsehood that unlike my manuscript, the synopsis need not be a gem of astounding brilliance; it merely had to be a clear representation of my finished work, a tool to clue my prospective editor in on the high and low points of my story, and how it turned out.
It worked for me, and it made sense, the first clue--had I been paying attention--that it wasn’t destined to last.
I got the call from my agent a few weeks after submitting my latest manuscript, and unfortunately, the news wasn’t good. She said that my manuscript was good, but that my synopsis could not be submitted as is. She said the rules had changed, and the tried and true method of just putting down the story was no longer good enough. During a brief conversation, she informed me that they no longer cared how the story turned out. They wanted to know about the relationship, and a 3-line hook in the opening representing the story which would be used to sell the book was now necessary.
She might as well have imparted the news that I was now required to don a clown suit and deliver my synopsis personally, via a singing telegram. After the screaming died down, I popped a few Luden’s Throat Drops and decided to try my hand at giving my agent what she wanted. It took me a week to redo the synopsis, and not only did I learn the new technique, I also learned to think of myself not only as a writer, but also as a salesman.
In short, the hook is your commercial--a 3-line opportunity to nail your reader and convince them not only that your story has intriguing possibilities, but that you are an accomplished and fabulous writer with a style to die for.
If the idea that the fate of your work rests on 3 short lines intimidates hell out of you, then don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. No one wants to spend months, perhaps even years, pouring their heart into a manuscript that will live or die on the weight of the writer’s equivilent to a 60-second sound bite. Unfortunately, it is our current reality. Perhaps if we are very lucky, publishing will return to saner times and better methods of operating. Until then, here is what I discovered while writing my own synopsis hooks.
No One Knows Your Story Better Than You Do.
Okay, so in the past few months, while crafting your story, you have spent countless hours getting to know your characters. You know what they eat for breakfast, their mannerisms, their motives, and the milestones in their lives... some of us know our characters better than we know our own families, whom we just pass in the hall now and then. Now is the time to compile your information. Sit down with a paper and pen and list everything you can think of that is important to your characters. Now, list the adjectives that best describe them.
It doesn’t really matter how long the list turns out to be, because you will be picking and choosing among the listings you have compiled for the words that best describe your characters. Remember, you only have 3 sentences to encapsulize your story, so keep your choices to a bare minimum.
For example, let’s say my heroine is Annie, the daughter of a rancher. Annie loves her father. Her mother left her father when Annie was 10 and because of it, Annie was robbed of a normal adolescence. This has made her self-reliant, strong, and able to handle a ranch hand’s chores, yet there is also a softness inside her, a secret yearning for finer things.
Annie: has a mouth like a stevedore, is the prettiest girl in all of West Texas, and a well-read, blue-eyed blonde. She drives a pick-up truck, is a crack shot marksman, and a 3-time rodeo champ.
So, my hook might read: “Annie Quigley, the prettiest gal in all of West Texas, can out shoot, out rope, and out swear any man West of the Pecos. Since the age of 14, Annie has been her father’s right hand man, and disdains all things feminine... until Bret T. (The) Challenge turns her world upside down. Bret, womanizing rake, and owner of The Bar None, a huge corporate ranch, intends to buy up all of the smaller neighboring ranches, including the Quigley place, and from all accounts Old Man Quigley should prove to be his most difficult acquisition ... yet to Bret’s surprise, Quinten Quigley agrees, with a single stipulation: Bret must woo and wed his unruly and troublesome daughter in order to possess the ranch.”
Note the information I conveyed in 3 sentences. We now know that Annie is pretty, capable, and rough around the edges, as opposed to Bret, who is a wealthy, lady’s man (conflict). Bret not only is the head of a huge ranch, he intends to absorb the little ranches nearby (plot). We also know that the story takes place in modern West Texas (setting, local color).
Also, note the types of words I chose. In describing Annie as the “prettiest gal in all of West Texas,” we know she is going to take the hero’s breath away (attraction/sexual tension). She is also described as “her father’s right hand man.” Bret is “a womanizing rake.”
All of my choices are strong words that convey a clear picture of my characters and plot, and they do it quickly. Don’t waste words when writing the hook. Keep it lean, clean, and pack a wallop with your choices. Remember, it might be your best chance to woo that editor into reading the rest of your manuscript.
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S. K. McClafferty