Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Writing the Dreaded Synopsis

I'll admit it. I love writing books. I love writing queries--I know, I'm weird that way. While I don't love writing synopses, I don't mind them either. They take me back to grade school when I had to do book reports and sum up what I read in 2-3 pages. You'd think it would be easier to do your own synopsis--being that you wrote the book yourself and know it better than anyone else. Easier said than done, right?

One of the biggest mistakes I saw when I recently judged a writing contest was that the synopses often read like my aforementioned book reports. Dry. As in drier than the Sahara dry. e.g. Jane did xxx. Then xxx happened. Then Jim Bob came along and did xxx... Then this judge almost died of boredom and had to get a glass of wine to revive herself.You want your synopsis to be like a book report...on acid. Think more like a jacket cover, but with the ending included. You want to excite the agent, not induce a coma.

Pam McCutcheon, the author of Writing the Fiction Synopsis, gave a great presentation on this topic at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Check out her website and her books. (Yeah, I'm not done blogging about the conference yet, so you better hope I attend something else soon.) After keeping in mind that you need to do your research to see what format and length each agent wants, the following guidelines from Pam's book are amazing tips for all synopsis writers out there.

Pam started with a line of plot points A-E.

A (ordinary world)--B(trigger point)--C(change of plans)--D(black moment)--E(resolution)

1. The beginning of your synopsis should include the goals, motivations, and conflicts of ALL major characters, their typical world (Plot point A) and the trigger event that sends them in a different direction (Plot point B). Tip: Start the synopsis with your logline.

2. The middle is where you add scenes that lead up to the change of plans at the midpoint (Plot point C). This is usually where the character moves from being reactive to proactive.

3. End the synopsis by describing the dark moment where it looks like the hero will lose and the villain will prevail (Plot point D), followed by the conclusion (E). Make sure to tie up loose ends in the plot (especially the ending-it annoys agents when you leave this out.)

Consider adding other things such as genre, tone, theme, and setting. You'll have to make adjustments based on the specific length requested. Most agents want anywhere from 1-5 pages. If it's longer than one page, it should be double-spaced. It's best to have several saved in different lengths, so you're ready to go depending on agent preferences.

I'd start by filling in your plot points A-E--then add the acid. Good luck! Any other synopsis tips out there?


  1. This is great advice - I'm so terrified of writing a synopsis, I'm horrible at shortening things. I'm more of an... elaborator. :)

  2. Ha, just the word synopsis in the title made me feel ill!

    Great post! I'm going to have to try this out. I didn't know you judged a writing contest! Was it online?

  3. Valerie - no, it was for the regional conference I attended. It was a great experience!

  4. Mine is one of those 5 page coma inducing ones. I'm going to try to rewrite it today. Thanks, Kristi!

  5. Great tips. Where was this blog two days ago when I had to trim my synopsis down for my editor? Rats! At least I know what to do next time.

  6. Synopsis' freak me out. Just the idea of writing one (or a query) makes me ridiculously glad I'm not finished my MS and am not at this stage yet.

    I dread the day I get there. Honestly.

    But, really good advice, I'm bookmarking this page for when the time comes.

  7. Ah, yes. I am an expert on writing a dry synopsis. That was the major critique I kept getting from my writing group. "Spice it up, Sam!" So I camped out at the bookstore for an afternoon and read way too many book jackets. This helped a ton with synopsis and query writing. Great post!

  8. rachelle gardner just had a one-sentence contest over at her blog (http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/06/one-sentence-summary.html) the results make for interesting reading.

    it's difficult to determine how much to take out, how little to leave in and where the balance between brevity and Hook lies. i struggled with my one sentence for over a week and i still wasn't satisfied.

    it's a great exercise, however, in knowing what to say about your book in as few words as possible.



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