The Dreaded Synopsis

It has been my recent pleasure to speak with young writers who all want to be the next somebody, and who all seem to be plagued with the same common problem; How to write a good @*^%*#@ SYNOPSIS. Wanting to be the next somebody is a problem in itself, and something agents and publishers never want to hear. The kiss of death is telling an agent your book is the next DaVinci Code or Harry Potter. Don’t do it. The synopsis, however, is something I might be able to help with a bit.

Most tell me they find it easier to write the book than the synopsis. I shared this problem for a very long time as well. Writing my novel was a breeze compared to the dreaded synopsis. This is true, I told the young writers, because with your book you have unlimited space and words to tell your story. With a synopsis, you have three paragraphs and no more at most to say what you said in seventy-five thousand or more words.

The trick is to make the synopsis intriguing enough for an agent or publisher to want to read the entire book. This trick is about as easy as eating tomato soup with a fork. However, I will share some tips, tricks and common sense things I have learned from studying successful synopsis writing of others, research and good old fashion idea sharing from peers. There is no magic here, and you may still struggle along the way, but if you follow this guide, you will eventually get there.

Let’s start with the first of three paragraphs. Begin this paragraph by introducing the two main characters, the protagonist and the antagonists. (That’s the good guy/gal, and the bad guy/gal to the rest of the world.) Next, in one sentence explain what happened to get the ball rolling in your story. Then, again try to keep it to one sentence, tell where they are and when this is happening.

In the second paragraph, explain what your protagonist (good guy/gal person) and your antagonist (bad guy/gal person) are planning to do. Tell how, where and when they are going to do it, and, of course, why. Do Not mention any other characters from your story unless it is impossible not to.

The third paragraph tells how the story ends. Tie it back to the what happened moment in the first paragraph. Never leave your synopsis as a mystery. Agents and publishers want to know how the story ends. Tell them. They hate guessing games and don’t have the time to figure out your ending, so don’t be shy and tell them.

Keep in mind that the synopsis is a summarization of the book that has already been written, so don’t rewrite the book as a synopsis. Incorporate the following elements into the three short paragraphs I just outlined.

The Hero.

The Situation.

The Goal.

The Villain.

The Disaster.

The Solution.

If this sounds like a Hollywood movie poster, it is. The people who write Hollywood movie posters are experts at writing a synopsis. In my experience, many times the poster has been better than the movie, but that’s another matter entirely.

Last bit of advice. Never use the first draft of your synopsis no matter how good you may think it is. Read it, read it again, and then make it better. I find that after I have tweaked a synopsis at least ten times, it is finally ready to be shown.

Practice, as they say, makes perfect. In the case of synopsis writing, this is very true. In the case of eating tomato soup with a fork, not so much.

 Al Lamanda is the author of the Edgar Award nominated mystery novel Sunset. The sequel titled Sunrise was voted best crime novel of 2014 by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. The third installment titled First Light was released in July, 2014. The latest This Side of Midnight will be released in the summer of 2015.

About MCWriTers

Kate Flora is the author or co-author of fifteen books, including her Joe Burgess police procedural series, her Thea Kozak series, two true crimes, a stand-alone suspense and a memoir, as well as many short stories. Her books have been Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Derringer finalists. She’s twice won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction and won the 2015 Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. She divides her time between Maine and Massachusetts. Flora is a former international president of Sisters in Crime.
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4 Responses to The Dreaded Synopsis

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    Al, could you enlighten this guppie about one more thing? When do you use your synopsis? I know what an elevator statement is, and a query letter. Is the synopsis part of the latter? Or do I tackle agents in the streets and hold them down for three paragraphs?

    • MCWriTers says:

      Heidi,

      As a rule, an agent or publisher will ask for a synopsis after they have read your query letter, so have it polished and ready. Most will ask for a sample chapter to go along with the synopsis, so make sure it’s polished as well.

      Best,
      Al

  2. Karla Whitney says:

    That is really useful information, written like a well-polished synopsis! (show, not just tell) Thank you very much, Al.

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