Synopsis Alive, Alive-Oh!

Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:

Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.

Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?

I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]

So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:

  1. List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
  2. Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
  3. Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
  4. Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
  5. Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)

I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:

Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.

That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.

By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?


36 thoughts on “Synopsis Alive, Alive-Oh!”

      1. Sorry! It’s so easy to malign when you never attempt anything creative yourself.
        I will write 500 times…. I must be a nicer person. I must be a nicer person. I must….

  1. The second one made me sit up and take notice. I think this must be extraordinarily difficult, a bit like writing a CV. Having had to wade my way through thousands (literally!) of those before setting up interviews over the years I can say that you need something concise, punchy and a little out of the ordinary to snag a prospective employer’s attention.

    1. That’s a very good comparison. I also worked in HR for a while and when you have hundreds and thousands of applicants, you are looking for any excuse to throw away a CV – spelling mistakes, clichés, addressing you by the wrong name etc. It is very hard to stand out, I agree.

    1. And how many times have you tried to stab yourself in the eye with a spoon? 😉 Love the comparison! I’ve tried to summarise some films and novels I like, and I manage to make them sound dull as ditchwater.

      1. I think I can honestly say I have probably (accidentally) stabbed myself in the eye with a spoon more than once. Well, more of a bump than a stab. It’s what happens when I eat dessert in the dark. Anyway. I thought your second one was pretty good, though!

  2. Synopses are NIGHTMARES. I interned in a lit agency after finishing university and even the excellent manuscripts often suffered from fairly dutiful ones. The upside is that you usually include your first chapter with your synopsis, so an agency reader can get a sense of your style *and* where your plot is going (which, I am convinced, is the only reason for synopses in the first place.)

    1. Yes, I suppose they want to know if your plot has a leg to stand on, as sometimes you get brilliant writing for a chapter or two but nothing much going on at all in the book. I’m glad to hear you say that even excellent manuscripts can sound a bit bland in synopsis. I was practising with some of my favourite novels/films and it felt like I was making them sound like football games: ‘And then Johnson passes to Monty, but Monty misses and…’

      1. It’s really hard! That’s the frustrating thing about novels, they are sooo much more than the sums of their parts, and a synopsis is basically just a numbered list of their parts. Most agents do get it, I think!

  3. Some agents say they never look at the synopsis, only to find out what happens at the end… There is a very clever book called ‘Write a great synopsis’ by Nicola Morgan. It takes you through the process step by step, getting to the heart of the matter and omitting the boring bits. You can download on kindle, it’s not very long.

  4. Synopses are so difficult, aren’t they, Marina Sofia?! It takes time, practice, and a lot of revision. Your second version, by the way, looks fabulous!

  5. It must be *really* hard to work out the angle you want to take, and how you want to emphasise certain things. And tbh the two examples you quote sound like they’re from different books! Certainly, the second one sounds more lively, but a synopsis never really does tell you what the book is about – and frankly, if I’d read that one of Star Wars I never would have gone to see the film…. 🙂

    1. LOL! I know, they sound like different genres and different books, don’t they?
      As for the Star Wars description, yes, so many of the film plots sound tedious when described like that… I wonder how producers ever get excited by any of those pitches.

  6. Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey's Writing Blog and commented:
    I recommend building a synopsis by writing a paragraph summarising each chapter… as long as you don’t write like James Patterson when he has over 150 of them in his books! Here are Marina’s thoughts and experiences of writing a synopsis.

    1. Thank you for your suggestion and for reblogging. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Especially when you go back in time or alternate between time periods, as so many novels nowadays seem to do.

  7. It’s a nightmare writing a synopsis. I took a course on it and worked with an editor.
    If you need someone to give you constructive feedback – I’ll do it. I think – for others, I’m quite good by now. 🙂 That said – I’m currently slaving over one for myself. I’ve written the query and it was very easy and is good but oh my the synopsis. So, really – I know what it’s like.
    You can send me your query – if you like at beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

    1. What a generous offer, thank you, Caroline! I agree, it’s much easier to spot the holes in other people’s synopsis (or query letter) than in your own. I can, of course, do the same for you if you like!

      1. Well, that’s now very nice of you. I hadn’t even thougt of that. 🙂 I’m waiting for feedback on the book and since that can take a while (I’m taking a course) – I have the synopsis on hold for now. But at a later date – I might take you up on it.

  8. I don’t enjoy writing synopses; sometimes I use chapter headings to get me started; and an editor once wrote a thorough synopsis for a serial (Hidebound) that was running in a publication she was connected with. Wow! Impressive! I still use it sometimes. (She gave me permission.)

    1. That’s a good idea – although my chapter headings tend to be 1, 2, 3 etc. but perhaps I should do a list of the scenes and consider chapter headings at least while I’m working on the book, makes things easier to see and find.

  9. Like many others have said, synopses can be brutal. I found it much easier to write loglines, like with movies, and then I beefed it up. Or at least I tried to. Also, I’d be happy to look over your query. My email is rcrisp2112 at gmail dot com.

    1. You are very kind, Robert. I find it far easier to review other books without spoilers, to whet readers’ appetites to pick up a book, but that’s not the purpose of the synopsis I gather. It has to entice without sounding salesy, matter-0f-fact yet intriguing… a strange beast, indeed.

  10. No idea what publishers look for in synopses, but the second one definitely works better for me! Do you have to keep it to a specific number of words?

  11. when you can find one word that says the same thing as two or three words, go with one. for example, instead of “…and is finding it difficult to adapt…” consider “…and is struggling to adapt…” fewer words, same meaning, allows a reader to glide through more easily.

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