writing your synopsis

As a writer, editor, and coach, I’m always looking for ways to sharpen and expand my skills. Currently, I’m taking a class on Advanced Fiction Editing with Alice Osborn at EditorialBootcamp.com. This past week, our homework assignment was to write a synopsis. I wrote mine for my own novel in progress, The Hunter’s Daughters.

What an eye-opening experience! This is my first novel (and my first synopsis) and it’s still very much a work in progress, but writing my synopsis helped me immensely.

How Writing my Synopsis Strengthened my Novel

Content. Writing my synopsis helped me realize I was trying to cram too much into one book—and what parts of the story most needed to be told. There are some scenes I’ve written which will likely be cut from the book now because I’ve realized that they don’t advance the plot or add enough to the story to make them viable scenes. Writing them was an important part of my process, but they aren’t an important part of the book.

Structure. I’m a pantser—I do use some pre-writing in my process, but I don’t focus much on structure. Instead, I focus on relationships and key scenes that I think need to be in the story. When Alice gave us our assignment, she reminded us that we need to make sure our synopsis shows our novel’s turning points, so I decided to focus my synopsis on those turning points. Identifying those turning points made me more aware of the novel’s structure.

Weaknesses.  Your protagonist should always have something big at stake; if she doesn’t, your reader won’t care. Pinpointing the turning points in my novel  made me more aware of the weak spots in my plot, where my protagonist needs to have more at stake.

Timeline. My novel follows the stories of a mother and her two daughters. Although the three of them have their own story arcs, they all feed into the overall storyline of the book. In the writing process, I have been focusing on each individual story though. Writing my synopsis made me more aware of how each character’s story fits together in the timeline.

How to Write Your Synopsis

If you’re feeling stuck—particularly if you’re a pantser, like me—you might find writing a synopsis of your story to be helpful. Just like your book, your synopsis might take more than one draft to complete. Don’t be discouraged!

Theme. I started my synopsis with a brief blurb describing the overall story and theme of my book.  Think of the brief paragraph or two you read on a book’s back cover. I used it in my synopsis as an introduction, but you could opt instead to put this in your cover letter when you send your synopsis. This will also be useful for your query letters.

Get pumped. Marg Gilks wrote an excellent article on writing your synopsis at Writing-World.com, where she devotes an entire section to writing with enthusiasm.  She suggests imagining that you’re writing jacket copy for your novel, or describing a terrific movie you’ve just seen to a friend. You want your prospective agent or publisher to get excited about your book, and to want to read it, so show some enthusiasm of your own. Be your own book’s cheerleader.

Outline. Start writing your synopsis first with a chapter-by-chapter outline. Write a very brief summary of each chapter (or, for a short story, each scene). This may be just right for you, but chances are you’re going to need to boil it down even further. Even if you don’t use the chapter outline in whole for your synopsis, this will be another useful too to have as an author.

Turning points. Once you have your outline, pick out the turning points in your story. These are the places where your protagonist must make a decision, and that decision changes the course of the story. At this point, you might realized that there are some weaknesses in your novel,  like I did. Don’t stop, and don’t give up. Keep working on your synopsis. Once you have the whole picture and see how everything fits together, then you can start to fine tune the weaker spots. Writing your synopsis will help you get to that Big Picture view.

Length. Marg Gilks suggests two to ten pages for your synopsis, but Nathan Bransford suggests a two or three page synopsis. For our homework assignment, we were told no more than three pages. When you’re sending out a synopsis, find out what your prospective agent or publisher wants to see. Don’t send a ten-page outline if they ask for no more than two pages. This is where your chapter outline comes in handy—if your prospective agent or publisher wants to see a longer synopsis, you can use your chapter outline as a jumping off point to tailor your synopsis for the person you’re sending it to. For your own purposes though, I suggest keeping it to no more than three pages. This will force you to distill your story down to its most vital pieces.

Spoilers. Don’t hold back in your synopsis. Tell the whole story, even the spoilers. Your prospective readers don’t want to know what the twists are, but your prospective agent or publisher will. Tell them everything in your synopsis.

Present. Write your entire synopsis in the present tense, even if your book is written in another tense.

Characters. When you first introduce a character, write his or her name in ALL CAPS.

Using Your Synopsis

I recommend writing your synopsis well before you’re ready to send your novel out to prospective agents or publishers. You might even want to write it in early stages of your writing your novel, or when you feel stuck.

You might find, like I did, that writing your synopsis is hard at first. Don’t be discouraged, because it’s also a great way to perfect your skills as a writer. You might also find, like I did, that writing your synopsis sheds too much light on your novel’s weak points. Once again, don’t be discouraged. Use it as a tool.

If you’ve identified your novel’s weak points, then you can fix them. Don’t give up at the first sign of difficulty. Use your synopsis as a tool to strengthen your novel instead.



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