What I Learned About Synopses: What They Aren't, and the 8-Fold Path to a Synopsis' Soul

Photography: neotint

Some of you may be wondering why updates to my various blogs stopped cold the first couple weeks this March (or even earlier). That’s because I participated in an SFF Online Writing Workshop Synopsis Focus Group, wonderfully administrated by Pen Hardy. Let me tell you: it was an intense 2-week experience, despite just being online.

And although I’m an unpublished peanut gallery idiot, I learned a ton of things and then some, mostly about what a synopsis is and what it isn’t.

And then the Internet Zeitgeist struck, and now synopses are a hot topic in the writing blogosphere. And I thought: ah well, might as well join in on the fun.

So here’s what I learned from OWW….

What a synopsis ain’t

There’s some confusion out there about what a synopsis is, and what it isn’t. Synopsis is actually a kind of overloaded term, but a synopsis is typically just a plot summary. That’s all—though, at the same time, that’s not quite all.

Here’s what a synopsis isn’t:

  • A list of events that happen in your book. Not kidding you about that one.
  • A chapter-by-chapter outline. That’s (not surprisingly) an outline, not a synopsis. I imagine a lot of agents, actually, saying, “Dear Dog, please don’t be a 20-page outline, but a 2-3 page synopsis.”
  • Your book. By which I mean you can’t include everything, not even if you condense every blow into tiny sentences.
  • Some set format, although there are certain rules that a synopsis follows, just like there are rules for haiku or renga.
  • Not necessarily double-spaced courier [new] 12pt 1-inch margins blah blah. Unless your agent/editor/publisher really, really wants that.

As far as I can tell from the examples that worked in the workshop, the examples from writers Pen interviewed for the workshop, and the more relevant examples in Michael Resnick’s I Have This Nifty Idea, Now What Do I Do With It?… after those “aren’ts”, all bets are off.

How you synopsize your book depends heavily on your story, but also depends heavily on the incorporating all that into the soul of a synopsis.

The 8-fold path to the soul of your synopsis.

These are what I’ve determined so far.

1. Figure out what type of book yours is.

Is this a romance or other relationship-focused story? Is this a bildungsroman? Is this a rollicking adventure, a fantastical Rama-like travelogue, or about a particular idea or mystery?

Often your book can be thought of as a combination of types, but for the synopsis, it’s important to look deep inside your plot and figure out: what’s it really all about?

This is an incredibly important step, because it affects how you’ll structure your synopsis. Forget the “focus on one character and go all the way through” thing, or “you can’t break up a synopsis into a background and character section” or whatever. Sometimes that just don’t work—although, remember, a lot of times it does. You will be much happier if it does, in fact; relatively speaking, those kinds of synopses are much easier.

2. Find the center.

For many books there’s a main character that can be focused upon, but for some this isn’t the case. Maybe the center of your book is a relationship; maybe it’s a race or a family; maybe it’s a thing or place or group. A synopsis of The Lord of the Rings can very legitimately focus on the Ring.

Whoever or whatever you focus on, it helps if they have at least some of the following characteristics:

  • The center and/or thoughts of the center is/are present throughout most of the book. Frodo has been considered the focus of Lord of the Rings before, but it’s only the Ring that’s been there the whole time.

    Another example: Ender is not present throughout Ender’s Game, but the book begins with two characters discussing his situation, and even when he isn’t present, much of the time he ends up involved in the topic of the conversation.

  • The center is the one that causes the plot to move forwards, either directly as an actor in the situation, or through indirect influence (as in the case of the ticking time bomb that is the Ring).
  • The plot can’t happen without the center: it can’t start, it can’t move, and it certainly can’t end. Without the Ring, there was no need for anybody to go through anything in Lord of the Rings. Without Sherlock Holmes, a lot of mysteries would go unsolved. Without a central lineage of patriarchs through every generation of the Buendías, One Hundred Years of Solitude would be a mess.

    The center is the catalyst for everything else that follows.

If you follow the above rules strictly, you might end up with multiple “centers”, like the hero and the villain. At which point the rule is: do what works. You might need a couple very different tries before you get it right. Generational novels like The Joy Luck Club must be blasts to synopsize….

3. Find the core of your plot.

This is something you should be able to describe in a relatively short sentence. The core of your plot will involve the center from step 2.

Lord of the Rings is about a lot of things, with a ton of important characters, and what may be considered multiple main characters, all with important plot threads that help tie up the main one. But the core is: A young Hobbit must destroy an evil ring. Nothing about the King returning, or exactly what the evil of the Ring is, or Mordor and Morgoth, or the coolness of Gandalf, or the loyalty of Sam, blah blah blah.

Lone Wolf and Cub is a 28-volume epic that covers a long journey of vengeance by a samurai named Ogami Itto and his son, stemming from Retsudo killing his wife, and involves the entire Yagyu ninja clan and branches, and at some point Abe-no-Kaii joins in as a third party, who eventually causes Edo to flood, and Retsudo and Itto work together, blah blah blah. But the core is: A samurai and his son go on a journey of vengeance.

Maaaaany things happen in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the core is: the mystical events in a family’s rise and degradation over five generations.

Helps if you do the same. It really does. Even if it’s “a teenager and his AI hunt Cthulian monsters.”

4. Extract important events from the book that strongly support the core.

It helps if you use the most important events first, then fill in any logic gaps with second-most-important events, but only if it’s really, really needed. That is, if it strongly supports the core, and the center is present somehow (even if it’s indirectly).

You may find that making a list of events is helpful. One column for Really Important Stuff, the next column for Stuff That Glues Together Important Stuff. Items in each column should be about equal in importance value (I can’t give you rules on this: you know your book way better than I do).

You really shouldn’t have a third column.

5. Write your synopsis like a present-tense, omniscient POV story.

A synopsis, like a story, is not simply a list of events. It’s not even just a list of events that strongly supports the core, or a list of events that contain the center throughout (although both help). Each event most follow from the others logically, and this relationship must be made clear, or else you risk losing the reader.

And since the point of a synopsis is to show that you have a coherent grasp of the plot, confusing the reader is a bad thing, and may also mean that you’re confused about your own story (which may not be the case, but that’s the impression).

Events follow each logically by the following ways:

  • By cause, then effect. Make this relationship clear.
  • By time passing; this event happens, and then this event happens. Join up the two events (“After [some additional bit of motivation/plot], the second event…”).
  • By character motivation, whenever any character is the actor (as opposed to, say, weather); why do they do this thing? I know, show-don’t-tell, but your space is really rather limited, and a synopsis doesn’t count on surprises or subtlety—it counts on laying everything out so that you show a logical procession in the plot. Tell can indeed be the right choice, more often than not.

First, put down major events. Then fill in with second-most-major events. Link them all up logically like the above. Now you have a sort-of story. It’s not the best story in the world; it’s not at all complex like your book. It’s more like someone telling someone else about a movie they saw that afternoon, or a really cool book they just finished reading.

Which is what you want.

Now, there are basic rules, like haiku:

  • Present tense.
  • Omniscient POV.
  • Include the main story plot.
  • Include the ending.
  • Typically 2-3 pages, hopefully around 1-2. Short is good, as long as you have your bases covered. Single-spaced Times New Roman in a readable font size (not below 10pt, and preferably around 12pt) is usually okay, unless it’s not with the agent/editor/publisher you’re targeting.

Sometimes synopses are broken into different sections, sometimes not. Sometimes the two main characters are described before hitting into the main story, sometimes not. It depends on your book and what you want to emphasize in this synopsis. Some folks write different synopses depending on the tastes of different agents or editors.

6. Read lots of different examples.

Once you have the first draft of your synopsis, you’ll have a better idea of the problems you’re facing, including the problems that are your personal bane. Now go find examples. Many examples. Don’t worry about all the contradictions; that’s like worrying about why a bunch of stories conflict with each other on how they’re structured.

Try to find the synopses of books that resemble yours in some form or fashion. This may be difficult, and a lot of times you won’t find any such real synopsis. You may want to turn to sources like Wikipedia at this point, because sometimes folks who aren’t writers can capture the heart of a story better than us writers can. Weird and not always true, but true a high enough percentage of the time to freak me out, personally speaking. At the very least, you can use them as a starting point.

It helps if you’ve read the books for the synopses in question, so you can see what was left out, what stayed, what was concentrated or diluted.

Coincidentally, there’s also a group of professional writers participating in what is basically a blogging carnival with real examples of synopses that sold. This is an incredibly useful resource, especially since these are a) modern and b) you might have even read some of those books already.

7. Rewrite.

Well… yeah.

8. Have someone who doesn’t know your book read it.

If there are any places where they mention confusion, take a good hard look. You’ve usually left something out. After all, you know your story back and forth and sideways, but no one else does. Synopses are for other people to get an understandable summary of your plot.

Another question is: do they want to read your book? Not so much from a taste perspective, as from an excitement and enthusiasm direction. That’s the other part of the deal; if you can’t express your story in an exciting way, and it’s your baby, why should anyone else be excited?

If you pay little attention to audience otherwise, really pay attention here.

My conclusions about synopses.

  • They’re hard. I’ve never poured as much sweat as I do into these little pages.
  • Don’t freak out. The tighter you get, the more likely it’s your nervousness rather than your enthusiasm that gets onto the page.
  • They can help you find parts of your story that don’t quite work.
  • Doing them pre-book-writing can be rather useful to focus yourself… though you’ll have to do it again after the book is written.

5 thoughts on “What I Learned About Synopses: What They Aren't, and the 8-Fold Path to a Synopsis' Soul

  1. Great article. I gave it a stumbledupon review.

    I agree synopsis building is hard. I suggest to newbie writers to use your synopsis to tighten your story when you get to revision mode.

  2. Tina, thanks very much! I’m glad you enjoy my posts.

    Dee, thanks for the review! And yes—a synopsis after the first draft will probably help quite a bit with getting orientated to what’s important.

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