Sunday, September 20, 2015

How to Write a Terrific Synopsis

This wasn't exactly the shot I was going for, but I love how the photo captures the luminous autumn light we get this time of year.

Every time I see the word "terrific," I think of the Charlotte's Web animated movie, where the goose spells it "T, double-E, double-R, double-I, double-F, double-I, double-CCC." I actually futzed with that title a bit, trying to choose the best adjective. Because, who am I kidding? Most of us are shooting for the stars by going for an adequate synopsis. Or any synopsis at all.

For those unfamiliar with what I'm talking about, I mean a synopsis for a novel (or novella). They are the bane of most writers' lives and even multi-published career authors are often required to create them. They're a royal pain. When asked to synopsize their novel in a few pages, the typical writer will respond, "If I could do that, I wouldn't have had to write 100,000 words in the first place."

Yes, the synopsis is an evil construct of the publishing industry.

But it's also a necessary evil.

Synopses are used at many stages of a book's lifetime. They're used by artists to create covers, by publicity people to plan marketing, by foreign rights agents to sell to new publishers. This is why the adequate-, or any-at-all synopsis really isn't good enough.

It needs to shine.

A synopsis should be so terrific that it wows the judges and saves your bacon from a dismal fate.

(See what I did there? Hee hee hee.)

So this week will be all tips and tricks from the Word Whores on synopsis writing. I'm hoping to learn a few things, myself! For myself, I'm going to share a tip I learned just a week ago from the savvy and delightful Melissa Cutler. She gives a workshop on synopsis-writing, called The Total Package, that I highly recommend. I can't recapitulate her entire workshop, but I can share my key takeaway.

It was, at the risk of overstating, revelatory.

The reason so many writers hate writing synopses, Melissa says, is that we think we're supposed to recapitulate the plot. Yes. Yes, that is what I thought. And, of course, that's terribly boring. When you synopsize a plot, it ends up sounding like "and then, and then, and then." Get an eight-year-old to tell you about their favorite movie and feel how your eyes roll up in your head within thirty seconds. Yeah - that.


Melissa says this is wrong-headed. Instead, a synopsis should talk about the character arc. It should focus on who the characters are, what they try to get, what gets in the way and how they struggle and eventually change.

I hope some of you are nodding along, lightbulbs going off in your writerly heads. That sure happened for me. I'm going to try this approach on the very next synopsis I write. For once I don't dread the prospect.

(Though I might bribe Melissa with cupcakes to read it for me.)


  1. Yes! I did this on the last synopsis I wrote, character driven instead of a happened then be happened then c happened. And the synopsis came out so much easier!

  2. Still want to slam my head repeatedly in the door. O_o