If you've queried, are querying, or are planning to query in the near future, chances are you have heard people being unhappy about synopses. It's not entirely without reason: these things are hard. Because Susan Dennard is amazing at life, she wrote a super handy guide on making a synopsis paragraph by paragraph. Today's post isn't meant to replace that, but more to talk about the in-between steps, or strategies for helping you make the most of that guide.
tl;dr: if you haven't read her guide yet, read it and then come back here. Done that? Awesome. Now let's get into the nitty-gritty how-to-tough-out-writing-a-synopsis-when-all-you-want-to-do-is-not part
1. Be prepared to revise/ less is more, but writing more at first can help you get to less.
The problem: Yeah, okay, this isn't a fun thing to admit, so it goes at the top. When I tried to write my first synopsis by making each paragraph perfectly mirror what was happening in Susan Dennard's guide before moving on to the next, I got super frustrated and quit a lot.
The fix: It's not going to sound elegant, but it is going to work: word vomit up your main plot and streamline it. Give yourself permission to make it a first draft and realize that the synopsis is not going to come out of your head fully formed. Granted, this means that you will probably end up with three pages worth of synopsis when you finish. This is okay. This is normal. You do need to get it to at least half that length or so (more or less, depending on what length is acceptable) but having the full musculature down will help you pick out where the bones of the skeleton are.
2. Focus on the main conflict and tell the ending.
The problem: You have all these great subplots, and you are super sad that you don't get to include them all. Also how on earth are they even supposed to want to read the full if they know how it ends.
The fix: Honestly, getting agents/editors to want to read more (or all) of your manuscript is the query's job. The synopsis' is to convince your readers that you can incite, build, and resolve tension-- that you have the skills to both write this book and to break down how you wrote it for a reader. This is also an important skill! It's not that the people asking you for this are spoilsports and don't want to read your nine million fun subplots (because they so are not and likely would enjoy the subplots), it's because they need to see that you can develop a character and raise stakes across a book. If you look at it that way, then yeah, it makes sense to tell the ending-- otherwise, how would you show how much the character changed or that the plot resolved?
3. Be wary of including too many named characters.
The problem: It's like a party up in here! You know all these characters by heart, but you also are aware that agents and editors are incredibly busy people are not likely to be able to keep ten different characters straight over your synopsis. But all these characters are important! I have an ensemble cast.
The fix: Step back and go through #1 again-- streamline. A good synopsis rule of thumb is to aim for three named characters (but like all good rules of anything, you can bend them a little when it's for a worthy cause): your main character, the antagonist, and then either the best friend/sidekick/mentor or the love interest. Notice how Luke and Ben are named in Susan Dennard's synopsis but Han Solo and Leia aren't. They're instead referred to as "the pilot" and the "the princess" which hey, it does what it says on the tin.
If you absolutely require a lot of characters, then consider mentioning them by their titles/what they do instead of by name. It's easier to keep track of that way and it's a little reminder to the reader that this person is a recurring character but perhaps not quite important enough to make named status. If it sounds too stupid like that, like there actually is a fourth character that you cannot live with calling "the princess" all the time, then okay, name them. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules in writing, but my personal rule is no more than five named characters and you better provide me with an excellent reason for naming the last two.
4. Don't worry about being descriptive or not voicey enough.
The problem: I have so little page space and word count leftover, but I really need to convince this person that I've built a sweeping world and/or that my protag is fun to be around and engaging enough to stick with for a full book.
The fix: Again, voice and caliber of writing is going to help you the most in your query and then your manuscript. You're absolutely right: you don't have a whole lot of page space, and you do have to limit yourself. The way I worked it was that I allowed myself a paragraph at the beginning to sketch out my characters with a few choice adjectives, and then a few sentences to paint an ending scene/to talk about the scene I ended on in a little more descriptive detail--but, detail that related back to the main plot. Young wandering lord reunites with his countrymen, fights epic battle, looks out on ruins of his ancestral home glistening in the dawn.
The purpose isn't to sell us on the book-- it's again #2, show us that you can develop tension and resolve conflicts. Ending on a pretty scene is alright, but it's not like every single line of your synopsis must be gold-plated. It is literally just the facts.
5. To thine own self be true.
The problem: You need to stop. You hate this synopsis, you hate this story, and you feel like you're killing all the magic by writing out the ending and you never want to work on it again.
The fix: Take a break. If you've stuck with me thus far (yay!) and you seem to like the advice this girl from the internet is giving you, then listen to this one especially: this is not easy, it does not make you a bad person/incapable writer/whatever negative noun if it takes you a while or it is hard. Ask my CPs: I told them I was going to start my synopsis for a week, like every day of that week. I just didn't. I was worried I was going to suck all the coolness out of my story by writing it down. Like saying oh hey did you know the narrator is actually Tyler Durden before someone watches Fight Club. It would be lame.
That being said, you still have to buckle down and write it later. Take a deep breath, find your ass-kicking music, crack your knuckles, and when you get on fire getting the first draft of it down, absolutely do not stop. It's is so much easier having something on paper to work with than not.
6. The right time to write a synopsis-- before you even write the first draft, in the middle of drafting, or at the end of revisions-- it when you know what happens in your story.
This is less of a problem/fix situation and more of a hey, this all sounds very overwhelming and how on earth do I start? situation.
You start whenever it's right for you. I wrote my query for my latest manuscript when I was, what, about halfway through drafts or so? (I guess I am a halfway person) I probably could have written the synopsis at the same time. I do know some people who love to write the synopsis first, before writing anything in the story--actually, I am going to try this for my WIP-- so that you work out a basic framework for yourself plotwise and you have a skeleton to start from rather than digging the skeleton out of the story later. Or, you can do the tried and true write-it-at-the-end approach. All of these are valid, and all will work-- all you need to do if you revise your manuscript after writing your synopsis is just to make sure that the main conflict is still the same between synopsis and book.
And there you have it! Got any synopsis tips or tricks to share with us? Drop them in the comments below!
When Alex Yuschik isn't writing her next YA novel, she's working on someone else's as an intern at Entangled Publishing. She writes about lock picks, ghosts, the abandoned places in cities, and how not to strike bargains with stars. Between sneaking in time to game and rocking out to indie music, Alex spends the rest of her free time working towards her PhD in mathematics. You know, as one does.
You can find her on Twitter @: https://twitter.com/alexyuschik