Synopsis, Love ’em, hate ’em, can’t submit without ’em

We’re taking requests on the craft of writing and today we’re covering synopsis.

This is the nuts and bolts of writing craft. To submit to a publisher, you need to write  a synopsis of your book. It shows the editor that you can plot. The sample chapters showcase your writing style, characterisation, world building and pacing etc. While the synopsis shows that you can deliver on that promise.

Synopsis — written in present tense, single spaced (I like to make them 1.5 spaces, because I think all that dense print puts people off). Length varies. A lot of competitions ask for a one or two page synopsis. Because of the world building in a 100,000 word fantasy book a 10 page synopsis is not unreasonable. When submitting to a publisher check out their guidelines and do yourself a favour, follow them. The Allen and Unwin Friday Pitch asks for a one page synopsis.

I’m going to assume you are writing fiction, because we RORees are all fiction writers.  Let’s say your book is 100,000 words plus and it is the first of a series, which you’ve been working on for several years, so you’ve also written (or planned) books two and three. How do you take that level of complexity and reduce it to a one page synopsis or even a 10 page synopsis?

If you’re methodical you’ll probably break each chapter down scene by scene and try to convey what happens in one or two sentences then try to cobble that  together and it will be about as exciting as a shopping list. Stop right there.

Your synopsis is your selling tool.  It needs to grab the editor’s interest and, in a one page synopsis, you don’t have time to tell every twist and turn of the story.

I used to agonise over this until Louise Cusack told me about the 4 Questions. To find the core of your story, ask yourself these four questions:

WHO is the story about?

WHAT do they want?

WHY can’t they achieve it?

HOW do they overcome it?

If you can’t answer these questions, then your story lacks focus. (Ideally, you should be able to answer these questions for each supporting character as well as the protagonist). But for the purpose of the synopsis the story belongs to your main character. So now you have:

This is a story about X, who wants Y, but can’t get it because of Z. He/she overcomes this by doing ABC.

Now you have a start. But this can sound pretty generic. I once saw Kim Wilkins do an excellent  workshop in Synopsis, your Selling Tool.  One of her tips stood out and now that I’ve studied a bit about film I know why. It is all about Resonance. Every book or movie has a certain resonance. With a movie it is the music and the visuals tha tlinger in your mind. With a book it is the visuals your mind produces and the sense of knowing the characters that you take away from the book.

To discover what resonates with you about your book, sit down and write 10 to 15 descriptive words that spring to mind when you think of your book.  Is it dark and are the characters tortured.? Is it full of passion and betrayal? Is it light-hearted and whimsical?

When you have this list of descriptive words, take a look at your 4 questions. You’ll find that some of those word describe your main character and others describe his/her driving motivation. Use these words to give your synopsis flavour so that it is no longer a shopping list but the scent of the meal that list makes.

OK, so I got carried away with that last metaphor.

Try writing a one page synopsis for the book you’ve written. As an exercise, try writing a one page synopsis for a book you plan. It will really help you pull the book together.

Questions, anyone?

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