Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Basic Elements of A Synopsis

At one time or another, an agent/editor has asked us for a synopsis and our first reaction has been similar to the cat's! What should be in a synopsis? What should not be in one? These are the two questions that usually come to a writer's mind when they are asked for a synopsis. There are as many answers as there are people to ask the question of. Here is the format I've used:
First let's discuss some generic format rules.

  1. How long should a synopsis be? If the requester does not give specific guidelines, 1 page for each 10,000 words in the manuscript, to a maximum of 10 pages, is a general rule of thumb. As in all things we write, say the most in the fewest words, if you can do it in 5 pages, do so.

  2. Write the synopsis in present tense. Example: A sniper kills 4 people on Boston Common and homicide detective MIKE HOUSTON is called to the scene... Try to avoid long blocks of text; keep the paragraphs short.

  3. The first time a character name appears put it in caps or bold face. See the example in item 2. Restrict the number of characters to only those important to the story line. Too many characters can lead to confusion.

Content. As stated earlier there are many theories as to what should be in the synopsis. Over time you will become familiar with what your agent/editor requires, however until then here are some pointers.

  1. The Setup. This is the beginning point of your story: premise, location, time frame and main characters' backgrounds. Like the opening line/page of your book, this is where you need to hook the reader. The object here is to hook the agent/editor.

  2. Why? This should be considered throughout the synopsis. Unlike the manuscript, in a synopsis you don't want to keep the agent/editor in suspense. In other words this is not the place to tease the reader. In the example above tell the reader what the sniper's underlying motivation is as well as the reactions and decisions made by your characters.

  3. Characterization. This includes background, personality, occupation--everything that makes your character who he/she is. It does not, however, include a physical description of the character. Unless there is something about the character's physical attributes that affects him/her emotionally, leave it out. A good rule of thumb here is: The less said, the better. You do want the reader to make a connection with your character, so focus on emotional aspects of the character. As I said earlier, only include major characters in the synopsis.

  4. Plot Points. Include all major plot points; do not include subplot points. Focus on the basic story line and your major character.

  5. Conflict. You must present the conflict clearly. Conflicts are simply the barriers your main character must overcome to achieve his/her goal. For example, if your main character has a fear of birds and must pursue the villain into an aviary. The main point here is that the conflict must be difficult for the hero to overcome. The American Indians believed a warrior's ability was as good as those of his enemy...the better the enemy was; the better the warrior was. No conflict = no story...

  6. Emotion. Emotions are always a key element, however in some genres, such as romance, it may be the key element. Inject emotion into your synopsis whenever possible, it keeps it from being a dull read. After all, if the reader finds the synopsis boring, what does that tell them about the manuscript?

  7. Action. Action is what drives most stories forward. However, don't put action into the synopsis unless it results in some important consequence to the plot. When putting action into a synopsis it is better if you adhere to another old axiom: If in doubt, leave it out.

  8. Dialogue. Dialogue should only be used in a synopsis when it creates more impact than a description of the conversation. It is best to use no more than a couple of lines of dialogue in a synopsis.

  9. The Black Moment. The moment of reckoning should always be in the synopsis. At what point does your character believe that the odds against him/her are so great that everything is at stake?

  10. Climax. This is the moment you having been building up to since page one, word one. The final confrontation. It must always be in the synopsis.

  11. Resolution. Tie up all the loose ends. Any questions posed in the synopsis should have been answered by this point. This is not the place to keep the reader in suspense about the ending.

  12. Essential Basics. The 1st essential is to write the synopsis in present tense. Tell the story as if you were relating it to your best friend. Avoid passive language, you want to keep the reader involved. Focus on the main story and avoid extraneous information.

  13. Formatting. Check the submission guidelines! Strictly adhere to them. If you are unsure about something--ask.

  14. Submission. At the risk of being redundant: check the guidelines! Strictly adhere to them. If you are unsure of something--ask.

A writer's clearest work should be the query and synopsis. After months of work completing a manuscript it would be a shame to ruin its chances with a poorly written example of either. Put as much effort into them as you did when you wrote your great American novel!

Mystery Man

No comments: