Synopsis! This single word strikes fear in my heart. There’s something about an editor saying “Submit a synopsis and a sample chapter, or the first fifty pages” that turns my blood cold. I know that my fear is unnecessary. I know that there’s a standard structure for writing a synopsis which I can follow but which I can never seem to get. I also know that putting together a synopsis doesn’t have to be scary or painful, yet every time I am asked to submit one I hesitate.
A synopsis as I have come to understand the term is a complete summary of your book. It’s kind of a proposal, where you explain your novel’s characters, the main plot and subplots, and any other relevant details that help distinguish your novel from the others that a publisher gets all the time. The length can vary, from one single page to sometimes even five pages, depending on the submission guidelines of publishers.
In your synopsis you must have your plot, a clear layout of the story line, the setting, your story’s physical time and place and the overall structure of your novel. And a sense of how the plot, characterization, theme and various aspects such as subplots weave together, from beginning, to middle, all the way to the end. In plain English, the synopsis tells your story, the whole story, touching on all the important scenes. As Laura Ann Gilman writes:
“A synopsis with clear writing that sticks to the point, isn’t cute, and doesn’t cloud the plot with too many details or side plots will make me sit up and pay attention.”
Because some editors or publishers ask for a shorter synopsis, and even impose a limit of not more than 500 words, this is something I always have trouble with. How can you highlight the necessary points of your story line in just a few sentences? In just one page or a few words, how do you know if you have said too little or too much? I always have this fear of whether I have left out important stuff or I have included too many unnecessary details. Have I said enough to grab the editor’s attention? Have I left out things I should have included? I find it all so confusing.
Melissa Ann Singer writes:
“Too much detail is actually worse than too little.”
So how do you go about it? What do you include so that it catches the eye of the editor? Is Evan Marshall wrong when he suggests to just tell what happens, just tell the story, with events in the same order as in the novel? Is he then wrong when he tells us to aim for a length of one synopsis page for every twenty-five pages of manuscript? Or do you focus on how to play with your words and make your synopsis sizzle? In the words of Toni Weisskopf:
“If you can intrigue me for ten pages, and I enjoy your [sample] chapters, I’ll probably want to see the manuscript.”
What is the best way to go about it? If we follow Marshall’s advice, we’re bound to fail with all those publishers who ask for a short synopsis. On the other hand if we write a one page synopsis, how can we succeed in highlighting all the important aspects of our book? Either way there’s no guarantee. So is it best then to think of a synopsis:
“as a first date. You want to put your best foot forward. If things go well, it can become an ongoing relationship.” Toni Weisskopf