Image: Matthew Loffhagen
This is a topic that is whispered about in dark, quiet corners of the writing world. The synopsis is essentially Voldemort. Everyone knows he’s there, they know they’ll have to deal with him someday, but that doesn’t mean they want to say his name.
Why is this? The truth is: writing a synopsis sucks. The problem is: it is an essential part to getting an agent’s attention.
The synopsis tells the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. That means you unveil all the mystery—including the ending of your novel (gasp!). Sorry, I know no writer wants to give away the ending, but that’s what agents are looking for. They want to make sure you can tell a whole, complete, and satisfying story.
The synopsis should be about one page (double spaced). The bare bones of the synopsis will look something like this:
- Your main character encounters conflict
- Event #1
- Event #2: Rising conflict
Get in, get out, make them want to read your pages.
Catching their attention
One of the problems with synopses is that they have the annoying habit of becoming a list of plot points—this happened, then this happened, then this happened—but the weird thing is, at their core, that’s exactly what they are. However, the best synopses disguise this fact. Look at it as less of a business document and more of a creative piece.
The first step is the hook. You need to intrigue the reader (most likely the potential agent). Start with the conflict or the event that sets the major action in the novel moving—this should also, most likely, involve the main character. Additionally, make sure that this first paragraph is catchy and compelling. Then, as you go, don’t forget those moments in your novel where you left the reader drooling for more information. Do your best to integrate these moments in your synopsis, just in a much smaller, tighter way.Start your synopsis with the conflict or the event that sets the major action in the novel moving.Click To Tweet
“Kill your darlings”
You know that really cool, fascinating side character that comes into the novel for a brief period of time? He’s great, sure, but if he isn’t significant to the plot, the main character, or if he doesn’t influence the ending of the novel in any way, then he has no place in your synopsis. Yes, this sucks because you’re excited about your characters, but the synopsis is the spinal cord of the novel, not the arms and legs. Side characters need to be cut, and subplots need to be dropped. You have to focus on the main plot and the main character and get to the ending as simply and as compellingly as you can.
Instead of trying to figure out how you can fit your characters into your synopsis, try your best to use as few characters as possible. Then, if there are holes in the plot because you’ve dropped a character, then you’ll know that the character was, in fact, worth including.
Is there room for detail/description?
Yes and no. It depends on two things: the importance of the description/detail and the length of the synopsis. If the setting of your novel is important to the plot, then yes, a quick description might be necessary. If a certain description plays a major role in the feel of the novel as a whole, then yes, if there’s room.
If you’ve found that you’re able to fit the story, the conflict, and the character arch all easily in a single page, then yes, you can definitely go over the synopsis and see if there isn’t space to add just a bit of atmospheric detail. This can help give the reader a sense of place and a visual of what they will experience in the novel. But careful of overdoing this. A synopsis shouldn’t have lengthy descriptions or anything that gets in the way of revealing character or plot. However, a sentence or two here and there, placed carefully like a surgeon, can go a long way.
There is always room for voice
Voice is an important part of what makes fiction interesting to read. This is also true for your synopsis. Therefore, including some of your character’s voice is important . . . it’s just really difficult.Including some of your character’s voice in your synopsis is important.Click To Tweet
While the bulk of your synopsis needs to focus on important plot points, as often as you can, add just a touch of voice. This will help the reader get a sense of who your character is and thus be more interested and invested in the outcome of the plot. This shouldn’t really add any length to your synopsis. As you write the story, simply try doing so as if you were the main character (but not in first person).
However, careful of overdoing this. The synopsis has a very important and clear purpose: outline the story. If the voice starts to get in the way of moving the plot forward, or if it trips up the flow of the synopsis, it needs to go.
Here’s an example:
(Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read Harry Potter, and plan to, skip this section)
Synopsis: The Brief Disastrous Life of a Boy Named Tom
Voldemort never expected to be thwarted. Let alone by a puny little baby.
Because of a mother’s love and sacrifice, Voldemort’s killing spell backfires on the boy named Harry Potter. As a result, Lord Voldemort, the most powerful wizard who ever lived, loses his body and nearly his life. Now, with all the rage of a master brought low, he is determined to not only regain his body and his army, but to take revenge on the boy who lived.
As a disembodied figure, Voldemort only survives because he has split his soul into seven pieces called Horcruxes. While he attempts to regain his body and power, the boy, Harry Potter—who has now entered Hogwarts, the famous school of witchcraft and wizardry—somehow manages to stop him at every turn.
Eventually, through the help of a bumbling servant named Peter Petigrew, Voldemort is able to extract some of Harry’s blood. Peter performs a dark spell, which restores Voldemort to his full strength. With his power regained, he marshals his long-lost supporters and plans for war.
But Harry discovers the truth about the Horcruxes. He knows that destroying them will allow him to kill Voldemort once and for all. Meanwhile, Voldemort launches his mission for ultimate power. He attacks Hogwarts, he overthrows the Ministry of Magic, and he persecutes those who are not born to pure magic families. Meanwhile, he races to not only protect his Horcruxes, but to find the ultimate wand of power: the Elder Wand, which will help him kill Harry and take complete control of the wizarding world.
After Voldemort hunts down the wand, he uses it to kill Harry. But because Voldemort used Harry’s blood to regain his physical form, the spell from Harry’s mother, which has protected Harry all this time, survives through Voldemort. So the boy who lived, lives again. And not only that, he has managed to destroy all of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, making Voldemort vulnerable to death. But Voldemort has the wand, and Harry is just a boy after all.
As students, professors, and other opponents to Voldemort’s reign look on, Voldemort casts a final killing spell on the boy. But Harry has gained the Elder Wand’s allegiance, and the wand refuses to kill its rightful owner. The traitorous spell backfires, destroying Voldemort forever.
Afterward, Harry Potter, the boy who lived and lived again, becomes a famous Auror, fighting against the dark arts, and dismantling Voldemort’s supporters and influence on the world of magic.
This synopsis has all the right elements. It starts off with the main character and the event that sets the story in motion: Voldemort attempts and fails to kill Harry Potter. It sticks to the character of Voldemort, his vendetta against Harry, and his mission for power. It draws the reader in with the opening paragraph, giving a little bit of character and hinting at a coming war and a quest for revenge. It adds just a touch of voice with the insertion of condescending remarks that a dark Lord like Voldemort might make: “Let alone a puny little baby” and “a bumbling servant named Peter Petigrew” and “But Voldemort has the wand, and Harry is just a boy after all.” Finally, it gives the full story (at least in relation to Voldemort) without including all the subplots and characters that won’t make a difference to the outcome of Voldmort’s epic end.
Writing a synopsis is stressful. While your synopsis alone will never win over an agent, it has the potential to turn them away.While your synopsis alone will never win over an agent, it has the potential to turn them away.Click To Tweet
But here’s the thing: Most agents understand how difficult these are to write. If an agent likes your story, and your synopsis isn’t perfect, most likely, he/she will still give your writing a glance. While it’s definitely in your best interest to make your synopsis cut like a diamond, what it comes down to for most agents are the actual pages of your novel. Your synopsis should just wet their appetite for the main dish. It should sing out, “look, look at this wonderful story I wrote!”
Have you tackled the dreaded synopsis? What tricks/advice do you have for writers looking for help?