Writing a Synopsis or Wading Barefoot Through Razor Blades

The time has come again for me to write a novel synopsis, which I look forward to about as much as, well, you guessed it, wading barefoot through razor blades. Either way, there will probably be bloodshed. Writing a synopsis is not easy. It is not fun. But it is necessary. Most publishers and quite a few agents want one as some point in the querying/soliciting process.

Here’s the problem. Unlike writing a query letter, there seems to be precious little out there on how to write a good synopsis. The consensus seems to be that you know one when you see it. The only two solid pieces of advice I’ve been able to glean from various sources are these:

  • Don’t just list everything that happens.
  • Include the ending.

Okay, that’s something, but it’s still a little like one of those “How to Draw Spiderman” books. (“Draw a big oval for his head. Next draw two smaller ovals for his eyes. Now draw the rest.”) So the last time I had to do this, I decided to approach the problem from a different angle. The stated reason most agents and publishers give for wanting a synopsis is that they want to see if your story as a whole is compelling and holds together, but it is also another way to compel a reader to want to read more, and in that sense it is a lot like a query letter.

Ergo, I used my query letter as a template of sorts. There are many, many good resources out there for writing a query letter, among them Nathan Bransford’s blog, and of course Janet Reid’s QueryShark. They might differ on the details, but they all agree that a good query letter answers four essential questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What is standing in the way of the protagonist getting what he or she wants?
  • What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t get what he or she wants?

It made sense to me that a good synopsis would answer the same questions. After some experimentation, I came up with a basic synopsis outline:

  • Introduce the protagonist.
  • State what the protagonist wants.
  • State the consequences if the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants.
  • Briefly relate the obstacles the protagonist faces and overcomes as he tries to get what he wants.

By writing the synopsis this way, I was able to the focus on what was important and avoid the trap of just listing everything that happens. I also discovered, though, that it was much easier to match the tone and voice of my query letter and my novel.

This is not to say there won’t be pain as I approach writing the new synopsis. Squeezing an entire novel into one page or even three will still be the cause of much wailing an gnashing of teeth, but at least I have a roadmap to help me navigate around the worst.

I’ve found this is what works for me. How does everyone else make writing a synopsis a less painful process?

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