Oct 01 2009
Synopses that are just a sentence or two long are intensely useful because 1) they’re often required as part of the query process and 2) they convey a lot of information in very little time. The editor or agent reading your manuscript has a thousand other manuscripts in his pile and you have maybe a minute or two to impress him before he tosses you. The synopsis is your best opportunity to do so.
Here are a few tips about how to write an extremely short synopsis.
1. It’s usually more effective to refer to characters by their profession and/or key traits rather than by name. Calling him a “neurotic detective” tells us more about the character than calling him Adrian Monk. Unless the name adds something critical, I’d recommend leaving it out. (For example, if you’re writing about a real person, you obviously need to name him).
2. Don’t dilute your synopsis. If there are too many character traits or too many characters or too many conflicts, it will probably feel cluttered and distracted. As a rule of thumb, I’d recommend no more than 2 traits for a character, 3 characters and 2 conflicts. If you feel a strong need to bring in more characters (because you’re doing a book about a team of superheroes, for example), you can talk about the team collectively in the first sentence and spend the second sentence developing a few key members.
3. Boiling your book down to 1-2 sentences can be emotionally difficult. Sometimes it feels like you’re somehow admitting that the cut material isn’t good enough or whatever. Don’t look at this like you’re losing something (the details that aren’t important enough to make the two sentences). You’re gaining something: clarity and focus. Ultimately, making the cuts will help your pitch.
4. If you’re having trouble cutting down material, try coming up with a synopsis for a stranger’s work. It’s usually easier to figure out the big picture when you’re not emotionally attached to every detail. After you’ve done that, bring the same mindset to work on your story. If a stranger had to describe your book in a sentence, what would he say?
5. The most important elements of the synopsis are the protagonist, conflict/antagonist, and premise. Many first-time authors get tangled up by side-plots and side-characters that aren’t essential to understanding what’s going on.
6. If we understand the conflict, we will probably understand the story. For example, if I told you I was writing a version of Aladdin where the main antagonist was Jasmine’s father instead of Jafar, you instantly know that the book is about Aladdin overcoming social obstacles to true love rather than a black-and-white villain. You’d also be able to surmise that the climax of my book is either the sultan allowing the two to be married or a tragic ending.
If you liked this article, I would recommend Sharpening Your Story with a Two-Sentence Synopsis and How to Write a Novel Synopsis.