Writing the Tight Synopsis

Workshop Presentation at Autumn Authors’ Affair XIV

A while back my writers’ club held a contest for unpublished writers who were supposed to send a book synopsis and first chapter. I read most of the entries, and in doing so, found that in every case the synopses were unclear, filled with extraneous details, none of them representative of what a synopsis should be.

One of the contest entrants grabbed my interest because of the gorgeous writing style in her chapter–and in her synopsis. I could see she was a great writer who needed just a little help, so I decided to do a full critique on her synopsis, because like all the others, it was not a clear synopsis of her book. It was simply an extended example of her writing style, and it would never have gotten her a contract as it was written. So point by point, I critiqued it, first telling the author in a separate note that I thought she had a lot of promise, but I wanted to help her see why her synopsis wasn’t working.

She wrote to me after the contest, a wonderful letter, telling me she understood exactly what I was saying. She had rewritten her synopsis, restructured her story per my comments, sent it with the first three chapters to a romance editor, and had just been invited to submit the whole book. She was ecstatic about the critique because it had helped her so much. I recently heard she sold the book.

The first thing I noticed on her synopsis was that it was full of beautiful description, just loaded with it, and little else. By the time I had gone through the entire synopsis, I had shown her that she only had shown three actual events, or plot points, in her entire synopsis. The fact was, she didn’t have a complete plot and she either didn’t realize it, or she thought nobody would notice because it was several pages long, and she had filled the pages. However, she had filled them with fluffy descriptive phrases, and if I could spot that as fast as I did, any good editor would have spotted it a lot faster.

In my critique, I told her what didn’t belong in there, and why, and what really needed to be in there. I was in my car the next day driving somewhere, and I started thinking back on my career as an author, my early struggles with all of my synopses, and the struggle that almost everyone who has to do them goes through. I realized then that this would be a good writers’ workshop, because a strong, tight synopsis is one of the most valuable tools an author can use. It will sell your book if it’s done right, and it will get you a rejection if it’s not done right. This is because there’s a lot of money at stake when a publisher offers to buy your book. They won’t take a chance on buying a book that’s not clearly plotted, or at least close enough to it that they feel there’s enough there that they can work with–which means not spending a lot of time on it.

One of the things that also occurred to me is that we’re always told our synopsis is a selling tool, and for that reason, we get the idea that we have to show the editors how well we write. That’s why we tend to put so many descriptions in our synopses at first, because we’re trying to show that we can write. However, when you hear that phrase, “selling tool”, you’re only hearing part of it, and as a matter of fact I’ve never heard anyone else explain the rest of it.

The rest of it is, it’s a selling tool for your book, yes. But the part you’re trying to sell at this point is your plot, not just your writing style.

Writing a synopsis does not mean you have to throw yourself into a tar pit before you roll in the feathers. I want to teach you this method today, and I know it works, because this is the method I use when I’m plotting any book, i.e., writing the synopsis.

First, let’s begin with some basic questions: 1. What needs to be in a synopsis? 2. What doesn’t need to be there? 3. What is the real purpose of a synopsis? 4. Who uses the synopsis? 5. When should you write it so that you, personally, will get the most out of it?

Let’s answer the last question first.

When should you write the synopsis? If you possibly can, you should write it before you begin your book. I know that’s a pretty sweeping statement, and I realize there are authors who don’t plot their books, but it’s the rare author who doesn’t because there are too many pitfalls for the new writer associated with starting out blind. It’s way too easy to become discouraged and stop somewhere in the middle. The world is full of unfinished books. Don’t let yours become one of them.

Your long synopsis, also called your working outline, should be your guideline, the tool that keeps you on track, but first, as you go about constructing it, it’s the tool that will tell you without question whether or not you even have a viable plot. It will tell you where your plot holes are, where you need more conflict, where your book really begins, and where it should end. It will keep you from floundering as you go along and help you avoid that middle-of-the-book-sag, where you think you know where you want to go with this story, but you’ve suddenly discovered you might be able to get there several different ways, and which way should you choose?

If you have your synopsis in its long form, which I’ll tell you about in a few minutes, you won’t have to go through all this angst, you can just keep on writing, once you get started. This is your guideline, and if you have it, it will save you months of taking the wrong path, where you might discover you can’t get out of something that’s gone wrong without backtracking and doing a lot of rewriting, thus losing a lot of time. Remember, you may have the same luck the author I told you about had. The publisher may want to see your book as soon as possible. You just don’t know, so you want to be prepared.

The professional author never wastes time if she can possibly help it. You want to be able to sit down and start writing the book and finish it as quickly as possible, especially if an editor is waiting for it. You want to know, before you sign a contract on an unfinished book, how long it will take you to write it, because you’re going to be asked.

My first book out, All That Glitters, sold on three chapters and a synopsis. My second book, Diamonds, sold on the strength of the first three chapters alone. In this case, the publisher happened to be looking for a book exactly like mine at the time, and my agent sent her the three chapters, although somehow the synopsis got lost in the shuffle. My agent had a copy, though, and shot it over to her after the fact. The main thing is, I was ready You always want to be ready when lightning strikes, and it does strike.

Without going into too much detail about characterization here, I will tell you that the first thing you need to know before you even begin writing your synopsis is your lead characters. This is because those people are your story, and whatever motivates them to do what they do is integral to the story.

First, you need to spend some time writing a detailed character outline that will help you get in touch with your characters’ motivations, their past relationships, their emotional baggage, and most important of all, what they want and why they want it. What your lead characters want and how they go about getting it is the bare bones of your story. No matter what else goes into your book, this is still the bare bones of your book—whatever it is that your protagonists each want and how they reach their goals.

All of your protagonists should want something different, because this creates conflict. There should be roadblocks which the lead characters create themselves because of their own emotional baggage. This is inner conflict, and all that goes back to knowing who they really are and what they really want. External conflict is any conflict caused by other people or events. But internal conflict, which your protagonists create for themselves without being aware of it, is what drives your plot, especially when you’re writing a romance of any kind. Mainstream characters also have goals and what they want in a mainstream novel, is called “stake”. You always need to know what’s at stake.

Who uses a synopsis? First, you use it to plot your book. Then the acquisition editor uses it to decide whether or not she wants to buy the book—if she can get it past marketing. Finally, once the book is bought, the marketing and promotional staff at the publishing house use it to write your book cover blurb. So it’s your job to keep this synopsis as tight and uncluttered as you possibly can.

What is the real purpose of the synopsis? The first thing you need to understand is, what the purpose isn’t. The synopsis is not primarily a showcase for your writing style, as I mentioned briefly before. Your style will show up anyhow, you won’t be able to help that.

Your grammar has to be good, and it has to be tight. No editor is going to wade through page after page of beautiful prose searching for your plot, and almost nobody who is writing one for the first time really understands this. But understand it now, today, this minute. Make sure your grammar is top notch and leave out the fancy stuff. There are too many authors out there who have an excellent command of grammar and who do know how to write a tight synopsis. That’s who you’re competing with.

Simply put, the purpose of the synopsis, to the acquisition editor, is to determine whether or not you have a solid plot, and whether or not it’s something they might want to take a look at. That’s it.

What should not go into the synopsis? Here’s something you need to understand right now: NO amount of stunning description, beautiful sunrises, heroine’s hair color, hero’s bulging pecs, dress styles and description, weather reports, geographical description, angst in any form, ecstasy during love scenes, detailed descriptions of the emotional involvements between any of your characters–none of that is going to disguise the fact that you don’t have a well thought out plot. I promise you, the acquisition editor or the first reader will see right through that, and will know that you’re trying to cover up the fact that you don’t know what your own book is really about. Maybe you’re not doing that on purpose, you might not even realize you’re doing it, but when you stuff a synopsis with description, that’s what you’re doing.

This is what holds up most beginning authors–the fact that they put way too much description in a synopsis that’s not integral to the basic plot, trying to show the editor how well they can write. So understand this: Your initial query letter is going to tell the editor whether or not you can write, whether you have a good command of grammar, whether you can string a sentence together and have it make sense, and whether you can string several sentences together to form a decent paragraph. She already knows you can write if she’s requested three chapters and a synopsis from your query letter.

So the synopsis is not where you show her your compelling prose. This is, purely and simply, where you show her you can plot. You can’t disguise the lack of a good plot with all those beautiful descriptions. It won’t work, so understand that right now. All that should go into a short synopsis is the bare bones of your plot. That’s it. The bare bones. If you have more space, and you won’t have much more, then fine, embellish it somewhat. But embellish it with action, not description.

The reason for this is, you might have the best book in the world, a totally saleable book, great prose, fantastic command of grammar, but–understand this, totally understand it–if they’ve recently purchased a book with a plot a lot like yours, or just recently published one, or your plot is not what they’re looking for right now to fill out their list, or it’s not something that they think their marketing department can quickly sell to the major book chains and distributors–and that means something they can describe in about thirty seconds to a minute because that’s all the time they have–then you have to face it, this is a business, they’re there to make money, and they’re going to reject your book.

In this case, their rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your writing or the quality of your plot. It simply means they can’t buy it right now. And because of this, trying to impress them with your prose won’t make any difference. It won’t work. But if you pile a lot of extra detail in there, what it will accomplish is, it’ll annoy the editor, who will stop reading and will not be inclined to ask you to submit something else in the future. So you’re not doing yourself any favors by allowing yourself to do that. It will not help you in any way, either in guiding you through the writing of it, or by getting it past that first reader. It just won’t work. If you understand this right from the beginning, it will help you eliminate the clutter that so often prevents a good book from getting even a decent first reading by any publisher.

So the purpose of the synopsis is simply to let the editor know exactly what your book is about. The action. What your lead characters do that causes something to happen, what happens as a result of that, how they resolve their initial problem as well as all the other problems that crop up during the book. Nothing more, nothing less. The bare bones. That’s really all they want to see at this point in time.

SO–what does go into a synopsis? 1. What happens at the beginning. 2. What your lead characters want. What problem they’re each trying to solve. 3. What escalating roadblocks, both external and internal, you’ve set up to prevent them from getting what they want. 4. What happens at the end. How they solve their problems.

This is very basic; you can create a synopsis that you can make any length, at any time, and send to any number of agents or publishers, each in the length they’re asking for, if you just do the following things.

First–You have to determine, in one sentence, exactly what your book is about. You can do this. You might think you can’t, but you can, because you’re the author and you’ll be asked this same question many times by people who don’t have all day to sit there and listen while you waffle around over what it’s really about. So you need to think, really think about exactly what this book is about, and how you can describe it in just one sentence. Figure that out and write it down on the top of a sheet of paper.

Second–Write one sentence describing your beginning. If you leave out all the fluff and just describe the action, you can do this in one sentence. It’s crucial that you do this, and in only one sentence, because on a one page synopsis, double spaced, you won’t have that many sentences to spare. You will run across publishers who just want one page, and you’ll have to give it to them or face rejection, because if they’ve asked for one page only, you know they’re busy and don’t have time to waste. As an aside, many agents and publishers ask for one page on purpose, to eliminate the clutter I’ve been telling you about.

Third–Write one sentence describing your ending. Just one. Most of your dramatic action will come at the end, but leave out the drama for now and just write what happens at the end, the very climax of your book. And none of that “they both lived happily ever after” stuff. You want some real action here. Yes, you can do it in one sentence. Remember, the main action in your book will come from your lead characters. That’s all we’re concerned with at the moment, and in fact, throughout this whole one page synopsis, that’s all we’re concerned with, period.

It’s a given that you will have secondary characters, but they’re just window dressing, people with whom your leads interact. If they start interacting only with each other, if every scene with secondary characters doesn’t directly affect the lead characters in some way, if it doesn’t advance the main story in some big way, you need to squash that, because every word you have in this book should be in some way about solving the initial problem between your leads. Therefore, in a very short synopsis, at the end of the story it’s your leads that you should be concerned with, and no one else.

At this point, you’ll have three sentences. Now, first you’re going to build a one page synopsis, using these sentences as your base. Keep that first sentence describing your book at the top of the page for now so it won’t get in your way. Now, in between your beginning and your ending, write your major points of action. What happens, action by action. Roadblock by roadblock. And only hit on the major points of action between your lead characters for now.

You can see by this that there’s no place here for anything except your main action, and that’s exactly what you want, because it’s at this point that you’ll be able to see whether their problems are developing logically, from the initial problem to its resolution. This bare bones, one page synopsis is actually enough to allow you to go ahead and start writing your book if you like, and it will allow you plenty of leeway, because now at least you have a logical guideline.

In fact, there’s something else you should understand. Editors, if they buy your book on a synopsis and three chapters, never expect you to follow exactly, line by line, whatever went into your initial synopsis, because things will happen during the writing of this book that you didn’t anticipate at the beginning and that’s okay, as long as they fit into the main plot and advance your story. As long as you stick to the basic plot that sold your book, there will be plenty in there to grab your editor’s attention, to surprise and delight her, and they like that. But don’t ever substantially change the story you’re writing–if it’s already sold–without discussing it with your editor first. I learned that one the hard way.

So having done that, you’ll have your one page bare-bones synopsis, which will contain only the high spots of what happens between your lead characters to get them from A to Z. Save that document as, for instance, onepage. Then, with the document still open, save another copy of it and call it threepage. That’s the next document you work with.

Start adding in more detail to fill in those three pages. If you’re anything like most people I know, you’ll be insane to start adding in the stuff I told you to cut out, but don’t do it–yet. Just start adding in a little more about the action you already have, if you have room, and more action points. More roadblocks. Only things that are really necessary, given this three page limit. Leave out all descriptive phrases.

You’ll find, if you have enough action points and roadblock points, that you won’t really have room for the window dressing details. You might have room to drop in a bit about your secondary characters, but leave them out until you’re sure you have enough room in these three pages to develop them and their interaction with the leads all through the book. If you’re going into too much detail with them, think about writing their own story, but don’t let it take over this one. Stop at three pages, and save it as threepages. Keep that one open and save it as sixpages. Now you’re prepared with a three page synopsis and a one page one. Cool, right? And you’re getting ready to expand it into six pages, aren’t you?

You’re doing this completely backwards from any way you’ve ever thought about before, and it’s working. That’s because you’re doing it logically, from the inside out.

You can do this any number of times, always remembering to save at one, three, six, eight, ten, twelve pages, however many you want, never changing the initial details that were on each page, because every time you embellish these pages into a larger synopsis, you want all of the prior details to remain the same on all copies. That way, your synopses will all say the same thing and be the same story, except that there will be more in the longer synopses. See what I’m saying?

Good. I thought so.

By the time you get to a twelve page synopsis, which you’ll almost never be asked for, you should have a pretty good working outline there, which was built from the ground up using your bare bones synopsis, and which will definitely carry you all the way through the book. If you change anything along the line as you write, you have only to look at the rest of your document to determine, ahead of time, whether this makes sense or not; in other words, whether it will get you to the same ending the way you intended it to. Doing this will save you so much time, so much angst, and while you’re dropping in your action points, will tell you whether you have enough plot action or not before it’s too late. And it will also tell you if you’re escalating the action and road blocks along the way, as you definitely should. (The roadblocks should only get tougher, never easier.) Of course, if you make any major changes as you get into your longer documents that will affect your initial documents, you’ll have to go back and change each document. But that won’t be hard to do.

Normally, when I’m doing this in a workshop, I’ll have the audience take a few minutes and think about the one sentence that describes their book, the one sentence that will describe the beginning of the book, and the one sentence that will describe the end of the book. I allow about twenty minutes for this, and it passes a lot more quickly than you’d think.

So take twenty minutes and write a sentence that describes the bare bones of the book. In other words, what problem your leads have, and what they want. And then, if this is a book you’ve been mulling over, write one sentence that describes the beginning, and one for the end.

A couple of notes: I’m not saying write the actual beginning here; remember, this is a synopsis. You need one sentence that will describe the action in the very beginning, i.e., whatever the most important aspect is of your beginning. This is going to give you an added benefit. Too many times we start books with pages and pages (and more often than not, chapters) that don’t need to be there, when we should be starting with action. Just doing this part of this exercise will tell you exactly where your book should begin, once you have to consider what your beginning really is.

For instance, in a synopsis you don’t want to say something like, “Jack drives down the highway and notices the beautiful red and gold sunset off to the west.” That’s not action. That’s not your beginning. Now, if Jack happens to hit someone with his car while he’s gazing at that sunset, and the results of that action are what your book is about, then you have a different situation. There’s a reason for the sunset in this case. But in this case your first sentence should be something like, “While driving on Highway 101 toward Los Angeles, Jack, while watching the sun set, hits and kills the new wife of a top west coast mobster.” See the difference? You’re off and running. You started with real action.

The same thing goes for your ending. “John and Marsha sit on the swing on her grandmother’s back porch discussing their wonderful future together,” is not an ending. It may be the way you wind up a short epilogue if you need one, but it’s not the ending of what John and Marsha went through to get to that point. No matter what happened during the book, may it be murder and mayhem, or sloughing through the Everglades to find out who Marsha’s real father was, there is a definite point where all their problems are solved. And it should be some action. That is your ending, not what happens afterward.

Okay. Time to try it out. And let me know how you make out, okay?

Best of luck to you!

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