The Terrifying Task of Writing a Synopsis


I’ve written nine different major drafts of this historical novel, and I’ve made dozens of smaller revisions. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve rewritten the first ten pages. I know this book down to every line and word—so much so that when I’ve deleted a passage I liked (kill your darlings!) and then later decided I needed it somewhere else, I’ve been able to retype it—from memory—word for word.

So if I know the story so well, why is writing the synopsis so HARD?

Because it’s a different type of writing altogether. This isn’t the vivid scene-building that makes a reader feels they’re actually there, or the witty dialogue that sounds like my characters speaking, nor is it passage after passage of exquisite description that makes people feel they’ve traveled back to this time and place. No, this is book jacket material, marketing fare: what will get the reader to pick up this book? What will be an accurate yet compelling description that makes them decide they must have this book? What will hook and draw them in, yet hold up to scrutiny after they’ve finished the story? What will perform the essential seduction of the agent – the editor – the reader in something, oh, around a page in length?

Like always, I’ve read the advice on writing a synopsis. Writer’s Digest says include the narrative arc, capture your unique voice, and reflect the story’s point of view. The Literary Consultancy says to think of it as an opportunity and a challenge (and ask yourself why the process is so hard.) Jane Friedman says a synopsis should include story advancement as well as color, and should not be confused with jacket copy. Every time I read something new, I revise the synopsis. I think I’m up to draft 100 by now.

The real problem? I want the synopsis to say everything. I want to give the agent (right now, I’m writing for agents) a sense for the layered depth, the complexity, the turns of amusement and exasperation and imminent loss experienced by all my major characters. I want to capture their voices, their motivations and wishes and worries and dreams. I want to show how carefully the plot fits together, all the dominos set up precisely in their row. And I want to use language that is full of active verbs, is urgent, exciting, present-tense, and unputdownable.

In short: I am asking my synopsis to do WAY too much.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the synopsis so far:

  • Keep it short. The idea is to get the reader to ask for the full, leaving them feeling they want to know what happens next. If the synopsis has already told them everything that happens next, what then? I want to create the sense of “I have to read to figure out how the book does all this.”
  • Do use active verbs and the usual precise language. I noticed a lot of passive voice in my early drafts. A lot of repetition. A lot of using the same word over and over—in short, all the things that happen when I’m writing quickly and just getting ideas down.
  • Snapshot the full image—the characters’ inner and outer worlds. I agree with Jane that the synopsis should give a peek into emotion. After all, the characters’ emotions are what is going to build reader identification with them, so why not include it here?
  • The goal is to communicate, not sell. When I had “sell” in mind, I noticed myself starting to use language that sounded like a great deal of template jacket copy I’ve read. I want my book to stand out, don’t I? So tell the story in the voice of my novel, not in the voice of the publicist I am trying to be.
  • Listen to what the synopsis is telling you. Back around draft 5, when I was doing a chapter-by-chapter outline, I realized I still had scenes that were doing much the same work in terms of character development, obstacles, and putting the squeeze on my main characters. The loose and sloppy synopsis meant I still had a loose and sloppy draft. I admit, I went with the synopsis and pitched this version of the book to an agent on my A list. He passed, and now I’ve missed the chance to pitch him the more slender, spicy, page-turning version. So maybe I should have listened to the synopsis a lot earlier.

My goal now is to put all this to work and turn out a synopsis that is sharp, snappy, fascinating, and makes the reader’s eyes fly to the next word (Chapter One). I’ll let you know how it goes.

What have you learned from writing the dreaded—I mean, wonderfully challenging synopsis? Leave any tips for me in the comments, and I’ll be happy to put them to use!

The Terrifying Task of Writing a Synopsis

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