A synopsis is:
- A summary of your book, all the gumbo
- Composed using objective and not very dynamic language
- The order of events as they occur within the structure of your book, regardless of narratives and / or chronologies
- A product with a maximum of 500 words
- Not an advertisement, a sales description or a preview
You will divulge all your most secret confidences like the perfunctory intelligence officer George Smiley: juiceless, unemotional, unbuttered, and totally spiritless…
To be any good at this exercise at all, you will have to put aside all of your creative impulses and imagine yourself working diligently but without joy like John le Carré’s character, Mr George Smiley. There is something fundamentally disheartening about writing a synopsis (which is why we authors hate doing it), especially since you are being asked to reveal information previously known only to you (the creator) and which should have been kept a secret until the reader “got to that bit” of the story!
I compare writing a synopsis to being a stage magician, at an audition, where the venue boss asks you to show him how you “do the trick” before he (the boss) and the audience has ever seen the trick performed… i.e without razzmatazz, without ruffles and without any “mood” music! Just the bare bones…
Ingredients of a synopsis
So, why do they (agents, competition organizers, awards judges, publishers) want a synopsis? Well, they are going to place a value on your book and they will judge the worth of it (scary, isn’t it?) And they don’t want to waste time reading the opening chapters if your project doesn’t include certain ingredients:
What ingredients do they want?
1: They want to be sure your book has a plot and some kind of narrative arc
2: They want to identify the main characters and understand the character development
3: They want to be sure the hook, theme (or premise) of the book, and the elevator pitch you promised readers are actually delivered
4: They want to measure the appeal of your book and assess the momentum of the plot
5: They want to be sure your book has a satisfying ending
If your synopsis (somehow) manages to deliver all of those accomplishments, they will get interested or (at least) they might become semi-curious in your project… and that’s great! Because these people are more indifferent, more unmoved and more dismissive than George Smiley ever was… so, as you can imagine, they are not easily impressed!
Length: 500 words
Language: methodical, dispassionate, practical
Presentation: no grammar mistakes, no typos, no punctuation errors, no spelling mistakes — think of it as your answer sheet for an English language test
Names: character names in Bold or UPPERCASE for easy navigation
Thumbnail characters: “Smiley (55) a career intelligence officer with British intelligence. Courteous & modest, his features mask inner cunning, excellent memory, mastery of espionage and cruelty.”
Point Of View: not matter what POV you used in your book, the point of view in a synopsis is always third person omniscient (the most horrid of all POVs) because you (the omniscient obeserver) know all the thoughts, all the feelings, all the beginnings and all the endings.
File Name: save your file (for sharing) as “name of book” + synopsis
Step By Step Instructions
- Describe the state of affairs that existed before your narrative begins, that is, the social or cultural context and any pre-existing structures and / or values.
- Disclose the initial incident (the “thing”, whatever the thing is, that starts the ball rolling on your tale)
- Describe the consequences and developments, considering (in the back of your mind) how any happenings and occurrences will have impacted on the existing state of affairs (aka the status quo as shown in the picture above) This will be the “meat” in your pudding so take some time on this!
- Reveal the crisis your protagonist faces
- Explain how your protagonist changes, over time, but certainly after the crisis
- Reveal the resolution
My advice is to “knock out” all of this material without looking at your manuscript… don’t be tempted to open the book… you wrote it — you must some idea of what went on!
Imagine you’re wearing a moth-eaten raincoat, a dusty trilby hat, and your thick-lense George Smiley glasses and you’re working late in a ramshackle basement office compiling a dossier that needs to be handed to the agency director first thing the morning. Your director is a hard man to please!
The result (should be) around 300 words of dry substance (don’t worry if it’s less than 300 … actually that’s a good thing! It means you edited wisely and didn’t allow any hokum to get in!) If it’s more than 500 words then, Houston, you have a problem, you will need to go back and slice out all the stuff that doesn’t need to be said.
But what do you have to do to expand the synopsis to five hundred words? Well, to fill it out (so to speak) you will need to carefully slide in information about your “other” characters and how the events of your narrative impact on them. So the last 200 words will reveal the emotions of your supporting characters and maybe even reveal the arcs of some. Be sure to add a thumbnail (consisting of about 15-20 words) for each character that you choose to “flesh out.”
My advice is to “knock out” all this material without looking at your manuscript… don’t be tempted to open the book… you wrote it — you must have some idea of what went on!
- Describe the setting in no more than 10-12 words
- Use only thumbnails to describe your characters (no more than 15-20 words)
- Skip secondary plots and dead ends
- Spill the beans (you won’t like to do it) but you must!
- Don’t use a supporting character’s names. Just describe the role they perform (the head of the company, the new boy, the second under parlor-maid etc.)
Good luck with your Smiley Synopsis… let me know how it goes!
Tweet me @neilmach