Saturday, June 4, 2011

Overcoming the Dreaded Synopsis


"I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork."  - Peter de Vries

Remember the part in 127 Hours where, in order to save his life, Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, is forced to cut off his festering arm  after it becomes trapped under a boulder? This is what writing a synopsis is like.  Granted, it's a tad less gory and the author--most of the time--doesn't lose a limb while constructing it.  Still, in my book, it ranks right up there with medieval torture.  That's right, I'd rather be subjected to the iron maiden than write a synopsis.  To be honest, just the thought of writing this blog made my eye twitch a little and the procrastination bug take over.  In fact, while writing this I switched channels over to Dr. Phil to distract me--that alone should tell you how horrendous I believe the process to be.  Why are synopses the bane of  a writer's existence?  Well, for me, it's the prospect of condensing roughly 400 pages of text into a mere handful of tightly packed sentences.  It's an undertaking that's both daunting and seemingly impossible, like trying to squeeze an elephant into a Volkswagen or myself into a pair of skinny jeans--both of which would require the jaws of life to extricate.

When I first began querying, I stayed away--far, far, away--from those agents who requested a synopsis as a part of their required query packages (in fact, I considered those stating their repulsion of synopses as my literary soul mates). Even though I knew the dreaded deed was stalking me, looming in the dark recesses of my mind, I still thought it avoidable--like the silly newb I was.  So imagine my surprise when an agent I'd queried requested my full manuscript AND my synopsis.  Needless to say, I went from excited to 'oh shit' in two seconds flat.  That weekend I spent hours typing and pouring over my synopsis until I finally deemed it good enough to send to its requester (Rule No. 1 of the querying process:  Never, ever deem anything just 'good enough'.  It has to be perfect or you're wasting the agent's time).  The agent ended up rejecting my manuscript, but I learned a valuable lesson because of it. As a writer, you have to be prepared; your work needs to be polished.

Most of you have probably already reached and/or exceeded the whole querying process or you bypassed it altogether by self-publishing.  But for those of you who haven't yet gotten to the querying/synopsis point, the following will provide you with some pointers on the what, the when, and the how of composing synopses:


A synopsis should be a short and concise summary of your book including all the major plot points and-dun, dun, dun--your super secret ending.  It should be written in the present tense and in third person (though I 've read articles that state if your book is in the first person, then your synopsis should be too, I tend to disagree).  Most importantly, your synopsis should be effective. What makes for an effective synopsis?  The elimination of unnecessary words (adjectives), a clear, compelling hook at the beginning, and focusing only on those key points in your novel as well as the main characters, for example.

There's somewhat of a debate over how long your synopsis needs to be.  I've read anywhere from one page for every twenty-five pages in your novel (or 16 pages for a 400 page novel); one page for every thirty-five pages; or as long or as short as you think you need to effectively get the point across (my personal favorite).  More and more, I'm seeing agents only requesting  a one or two page synopsis.  Cramming 400 pages of material into one page may seem like an impossible undertaking, but if you devote a limited number of sentences to your main characters, conflict, what your characters stand to lose as a result of said conflict and the conclusion, you should be able to manage it. The key to an excellent synopsis is making every word count.  Every word you use should have meaning and only serve to further your synopsis along instead of stalling it out like a used car on the side of a highway. To play it safe, it may be a good idea to write both a short synopsis (one or two pages) and a longer synopsis to cover your bases for the different agency requirements.

The following suggestions include some ideas on how writers can improve upon their synopses:

  • If you absolutely have to include a back story, make for darn sure it's completely relevant to the main story and keep it as brief as possible.  If your prospective agent is falling asleep before finishing the first page, you can pretty much be guaranteed a 'thanks, but no thanks'.

  • As with back stories, if you must include dialogue, do so sparingly. The exception to this is if you're writing comedy and there's a flood of comedic dialogue you believe will effectively sell your book.

  • Don't be vague.  What powers does your character possess?  Is there something that makes your protagonist or antagonist tick?  Do they have their own brand of kryptonite?  What evil lurks in the hearts of men?  Agents don't have time for cryptic and neither does your career. 

  • Check your flow.  When you're transitioning from one idea to another, make sure the transition is smooth and not chocked full of meandering curves and pot holes.

  • Always check your spelling and punctuation.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but when you're in a hurry--like I was--to get your synopsis out the door, it's something that is easily overlooked.

  • Jump right into the characters and action. Agents are busy people and simply don't have the time to read three pages of back story before the introduction of your main characters and plot.

  • Read your synopsis. If this book wasn't your brain child would you read it?  Does the plot make sense?  Is it easy to follow?  Does it sound like something worth a few hours of your time? Do the characters sound real and engaging?  If you can't answer in the affirmative to all of these questions, then perhaps it's time for an overhaul.

  • After you've perfected your synopsis, read it to others who have absolutely no idea what your story was about going into it.  Do they look riveted or are their eyes lifeless and glazed over like contestants on The Bachelor?

  • Queries and synopses are two completely different animals. A query letter is an approximately three paragraph letter solely  intended to hook your prospective agent. No great details are revealed and being vague is acceptable.  Synopses are informative like reading a miniature version of your novel.  You must elaborate on your pitch by including all the dirty details.  Essentially, a query letter is like giving someone a peek inside your head while a synopsis is like baring your entire soul to them.


When is the best time to begin your synopsis?  It's a literary question that's as old as the whole chicken and the egg spiel.  For those more organized writers who've outlined their entire storyline ahead of time down to the very last detail, writing their synopsis even before they begin their novel may work well for them.  But for those of us who aren't overachievers (I kid...sort of), waiting until the completion of our novels may be more advisable as we tend to be more fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants type of writers whose story lines are subject to change.  What I believe works the best, and what a few of my writer friends do themselves, is to write your synopsis as you go.  That way you're not scrambling to put something together at the end of your novel.  Sure, you'll still undoubtedly have revisions to make, but you'll find your stress level virtually cut in half as those revisions will be far less extensive resulting in less hair pulling and bashing of your noggin against the keyboard.

How (Format)

I've heard a few variations on exactly how a synopsis should be formatted--enough that I'm beginning to think no one really agrees on how to do it.  With that said, probably the most consistent way I've seen is as follows:

  • The upper left hand corner of your first page should include your contact information.  Just below your contact information, centered, should be It's A Wonderful Life...Now That The Jersey Shore Has Been Cancelled (or whatever your actual title is), your genre, word count, and your name. When it comes to your word count, remember to round (I usually like doing it to the nearest 500th).  For example, agents don't usually give a rip about the extra word if you list your word count as being  95,501.

  • If your synopsis is longer than one page--which it most likely is--it should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs.  If it's one page, it should be single-spaced with spaces between paragraphs (Isn't that a Dave Matthews song).

  • Beginning on your second page and continuing on each subsequent page, there should be a header at the top of the page with your name, title and the word "synopsis" aligned in the left hand corner with your page number aligned on the right. 

  • Avoid fonts such as Thisisthebestdarnstoryyouveeverread New Roman, GuaranteedNewYorkTimesBestSeller Sans, and ImthenextStephenKing Script.  Fancy schmancy fonts only make you look presumptuous and unprofessional.  None of which you want to impress upon an agent.  Stick with good ol' Times New Roman and 12 point fonts as anything larger will make your synopsis look more like a billboard for the sight impaired. You can also put the Lisa Frank stickers and glitter pens aways as dolled-up cover pages are completely out of the question (and if this is a shock to you, perhaps you shouldn't be writing).  The only thing that should stand out in your synopsis is the quality of your writing.

  • When a character is mentioned for the first time, CAPITALIZE their name.

  • Wide margins all the way around -- 1" to 1½".

If you're like me, you learn by example.  Therefore, I have included links to some examples of killer synopses below:

Now I'd like to hear from you.  How do you handle writing your synopsis?


Lyn Midnight said...

Ooo, this is exactly what I was looking for! Very helpful. :) Thanks, Sara! I laughed at your repulsion of the concept and the 'literary soul mate' part. Truthfully, I am the same.

A few days ago I came to the delightful moment of sharing my WIP projects with my blog audience. Then I realized I had no blurbs to share. It was so painful and if I have to imagine turning those blurbs into synopses, I'd have to pull out my hair, one hair at a time. Which, of course, I will have to do at some point.

So thanks for this, I'll use it as a reference point. ;)

Kendra said...

Ah, yes, the hell that is writing a synopsis. Over the last few years I've learned how to craft a synopsis. Doesn't mean I particularily enjoy it. I'm actually at this stage of my writing at the moment so I feel the pain...and the need for vodka and Vicodin...

Carolyn Arnold said...

I have something for you over on my blog

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Lyn-I'm so happy you found this helpful. I always hope readers of my blog take something away from it--even if it's the assumption that I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

Kendra-LOL! I need to stock up on my Vicodin and Vodka supply. I have a feeling I'll be needing it.

Carolyn--Awesome! Thank you! I'll be over soon to pick it up.

Sophie Li said...


Synopsis ... *shudders* I am SO not looking forward to it.

Thanks for the tips though. How is yours coming along?

Rebecca T. Little said...

Thanks for the wonderful collection of links for "synopsifying" things (ok, so I made up a word). Much appreciated remediation there as am getting ready to knock out the synopsis for my collection of words :)