There is one word known to strike fear into the hearts of most writers. Synopsis. Most of us would rather perform brain surgery from space using a lemon zester and a squirrel than be forced to boil down our entire novel into one page.
But alas we need to for numerous reasons. First and foremost, if we want to land an agent, it works in our favor to already have an AWESOME synopsis handy because the odds are, at some point, the agent will request one.
Sigh. I know. Sorry.
A Quick Aside
When it comes to synopses, I lean toward the, “Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission” camp. Which is where already having a seriously spiffy synopsis helps.
Think of it this way. E-mail sucks. Getting lots of email and having to juggle it all sucks. Agents get a lot of email. Since I am also a person who gets a ridiculous amount of email, I can tell you with conviction that I LOVE people who save me work. They do this by saving me steps.
Most queries these days are via email and since agents don’t like getting their computers crashed by a virus? This means the query will be pasted into the body of the email (no attachments).
Believe it or not, agents like writers. In fact they need writers. They don’t get paid without a writer and last I checked agents also really like being paid in money—not adorable pigmy goats and trust me you will only make THAT mistake once.
Where was I?
Agents need writers. Just as much as they are looking for reasons NOT to read our book, they are simultaneously looking for reasons TO read our book.
I know it’s a paradox much like time travel. Don’t think about it too long or your brain will cramp.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with ending your query with: I have taken the liberty of pasting the one page synopsis of my novel below for your convenience.
Worst case scenario? They don’t scroll down. OMG!
But best case is they DO scroll down and they like it! Better yet, you are off to an awesome start because you just saved them a crap-ton of time.
Why Do We Need a Synopsis?
If you don’t want to automatically include the synopsis that’s fine, but if you write a really good one (which IS possible if the story is strong)? Why the hell not?
All right, so what if you aren’t brave enough to include a synopsis and are just praying that the subject never comes up and the agent just asks for a full. Okay, great! Problem is, if you do get a book deal, often the editor will want you to write a synopsis of the book you are writing next (for approval of course).
Ugh, so if you go traditional, really no dodging it.
Some of you might be saying, Oh, but Kristen! Traditional is sooo yesterday and I am self-publishing. I don’t need a synopsis.
Technically correct, but actually I do recommend a synopsis for all the reasons writers loathe writing them.
Why All the Angst?
So a big reason that writers hate writing synopses with the power of a thousand suns is that we believe every word we have written is precious and every character vital and necessary. We lack perspective, especially if we haven’t had any time or distance away from the work. This is normal.
But a bigger reason that many writers hate writing the synopsis (particularly for first-time novels) is it makes it painfully obvious we have no story or a terribly flawed story.
The synopsis strips away our pretty prose and all our verbal glitter and it lays our story bare.
Today I want to talk about the BIG PICTURE stuff. What is it our synopsis is really out to reveal? If we don’t first grasp that, no amount of tips I give for writing a great synopsis will help.
Synopsis as Skeleton
The synopsis is the skeleton of our story. What do skeletons do? They support everything else. The skeleton is the guidepost for all that is to come. We can see the skeleton of a fish and “see” the fish even without benefit of gills and scales. We can see an elephant skeleton and get an idea of scope and size and finished “entity/product.”
But most importantly, we don’t have to be a doctor to look at a skeleton and tell that something is horribly wrong.
We don’t need a lot of imagination to see how this skeleton above is going to flesh out, pardon the pun. We can see just at a quick glance that this human skeleton is going to have a lot of problems because of the various deformities.
The same holds true with a story skeleton. If the narrative orbital sockets are located in the posterior, we don’t care how pretty the eyes are if they are in the @$$.
There is no amount of witty dialogue or clever prose that is going to rescue a plot that is missing vital parts or has them in the wrong place.
Yes, we are sending a synopsis in hopes of selling a story, but how is the synopsis doing this? Plain and simple? The synopsis is letting the agent see if the skeleton is solid, symmetrical and is of a creature that is rare, cool and maybe never seen before.
An agent is also looking at a synopsis because she knows it is the fastest way to reveal terminal (deal-breaker) errors.
***For the self-published folks. Technically you don’t need to write a synopsis, but if you can’t for any of these reasons below, the novel might not yet be good to go and this could save a bunch of nasty reviews.
Is the premise weak?
I get pages all the time from “finished novels” but there actually is no story. Just because we have 80,000-100,000 words does not mean we have a story.
Is it really a novel or just melodrama?
Do we have a solid plot or just “scene” after “scene” of bad situations?
Does the “plot” rely on trickery? Gimmick?
Often writers are having a panic attack about writing the synopsis because the entire book rests on a “clever” twist ending that often really isn’t a twist but rather a gimmick.
I.e. It was all really a bad dream.
Does it require deus ex machina to resolve?
I call this a Luck Dragon. So protagonist is enduring plight after plight and all seems lost when she finds…………a journal!
Does it really resolve?
New writers often don’t understand structure, which naturally means they don’t yet understand that series follow similar structure guidelines to a singular novel. And btw, it is OKAY to be new, so breathe!
Even series still follow three act structure. But say the story follows four or even five act structure. doesn’t matter. The story is not over until the core story problem introduced in the beginning is resolved.
Series work the same way. If it is a connected series, then it works a bit like those Russian nesting dolls. Every book has a bigger and bigger problem to solve until finally the CORE problem is solved/antagonist is defeated.
In LOTR: Uruk-Hai defeated—> Saruman defeated—>Sauron defeated
Which means NO BATMAN ENDINGS.
Stay tuned for next
Often I get, Oh well the reader will have to read the next book to know if she lives. Nope, not how that works unless we write for Days of Our Lives.
No matter the structure we use, our story must come equipped with a satisfying resolution or that skeleton is missing arms. In the case of a connected series, often a gatekeeper to the Big Boss is defeated but the journey continues toward that final showdown. No being clever by withholding a resolution.
There is only one The Lady or the Tiger? and the only reason that story is read at all is because it’s one of the only ways English teachers can get back at us for having to read our crappy essays.
Is the writer breaking genre constrictions in unforgivable ways?
For instance, romance comes with an HEA (happily ever after). No HEA? It ain’t romance and if the author is selling it as romance in the query, but the story ends in a breakup? The agent knows this is a new writer who doesn’t understand that genres have expectations.
Is the story just not all that remarkable?
Once the plot is laid bare, is it truly anything unique? A fresh twist on an old idea? Or is it really just more of the same?
My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who decides she wants to have a baby and the struggle of being an older mom.
Okay *falls asleep*.
My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who finds out she’s pregnant with her first child at the same time her teenage stepdaughter reveals she, too is expecting.
*perks up* Hmmm, interesting.
The Good News
When we can write a concise and interesting synopsis, it shows our level of skill and the strength of our story. If we can write tight and clean here, it bodes well for the book. If your brain is in knots writing your synopsis, relax.
If the story is there the synopsis is too. It’s just a matter of unearthing it.
Though we will talk more on how to do this later, I do recommend starting with forming a log-line. If you can boil your entire book into one sentence? The synopsis can be built using that and it is far easier to build UP TO one page than whittle DOWN 300 into one.
Here is an earlier post about how to do the log-line. Additionally, if you need more help, I have a class coming up on how to do your log-line and the added benefit is I do your log-line WITH you so you walk away from class with that in hand 😉 . I also have a class on how to write queries and synopses to help you as well.
What are your thoughts? Have you been struggling with the synopsis and think it’s because there might be bigger issues going on? Are you a more seasoned writer and remember the nightmare of trying to fit a first-time “novel” into a single page? Any thoughts? Questions? Suggestions?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
I’ll announce September’s winner next time. Been out of town and need time to tabulate the results. Thanks!
Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks!
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
NEW CLASS! OCTOBER 14th Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS
You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?
***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.
FRIDAY October 21st Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.
If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.
In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.
The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.
Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.
SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors
Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.
The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.
The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.
This class is going to cover:
- How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
- What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
- How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
- What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
- How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
- How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
- How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
- How can a blog help you sell more books?
- How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.
Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
Great post, Kristen. I’ve had other authors recommend pasting the first chapter with your query, too.
That is another option. Again, the agent can simply opt not to scroll down and it saves time for all parties.
Which option would you think is the best way to do it?
Synopsis and first three pages. Again your pages and writing could be great, but ultimately they are repping the entire story and if it isn’t there? It isn’t there. But I am not an agent and am going off what agents have told me and a tad bit of common sense, LOL. If you have the query, then a one-page synopsis then a couple pages pasted the agent can simply quit scrolling if and when she loses interest. I would NOT however EVER paste a full. I have actually had writers do this to me and it is just too presumptuous. If I want a full I will request one but nothing wrong with a page or three.
Awesome, Kristen! Thanks for the advice! 🙂
Reblogged this on Whispers in the Wind and commented:
Good info about writing a synopsis.
I like to write a synopsis because it helps me to make sure my stories make sense. It can be a daunting task but I don’t dread it that much. I’m interested in learning how to do the log line, so I’ll check that post out too. Thanks for sharing your insight.
Thanks for the advice and insights. I breathed a sigh of relief when my current story passed the “test”. I’m on the second book of a series, and was glad to see that the story getting bigger with each book was expected.
Shaman Elizabeth Herrera, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks! Have not yet written synopsis but actually looking forward to it.
Great post as always. I am working on writing a solid draft synopsis as part of my pre-writing to be sure I have a solid handle on the WIP. Never been very organized with my writing and wasted time and energy as a result, I believe. So trying a new approach. Synopsis draft, expand to rough outline with character notes…. write.
Super post! I found that the outline I drew before writing a book helps a WHOLE lot with the synopsis. Got myself the “stages” of a good romance (romantic suspense), and I built my outline from this structure. It helped TONS with the synopsis, not to mention with the book! It’s incredible what a good strong structure can do.
Having worked in journalism, word count reduction became a challenge and joy. Saying more with fewer words is a skill every writer needs and mastering it gives one a leg up on tag lines and synopses. Word counts aren’t numbers, it’s the practice of focus, honing communication to it’s bones and then adding enough flesh to inform the reader. I think writers should embrace this necessity as good writing, not run from it. It’s just part of what good writing is.The synopses is an opportunity to sharpen the quill. No reader likes a dull pen.
I remember the first time I heard the word “synopsis”. An agent wanted a synopsis of my book. I had no idea what he was talking about or how to write one. I have since heard though that it’s
‘ss a good idea to start writing your synopsis when you START writing your book rather than writing it as an afterthought. Who these days would start a business without a business plan so why should we start a book without a plan (aka synopsis).
Tears still in my eyes from laughing. Don’t know if this will work as our Google + page is private, but here goes for a trackback: https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/109756666812560592704
Love, love, love reading your posts, especially this one. You make that synopsis medicine go down with a shovelful of humor and helpful wisdom. Cheers!
So true! Writing synopsis was soooo much harder than writing the book in the first place!
Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
This is so true. Back when I wrote some books ( company went out of business), trying to write a synopsis was harder than writing the book itself! A bane of most writers btw. Here is Kristen Lamb’s take on it!
Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
I think I may need to write a synopsis soon so this is great information to have. I hope this helps me write it better and faster.
Hi there! Laughed out loud while reading your comment to us newbies…I was holding my breath! You have a wonderful gift of breaking apart and explaining a most non-fun topic. When it comes time to write that first synopsis, I’ll bring my cat on a leash!
Question: would a kidlit synopsis also be 250-ish words?
#BAM Thanks Kristen!
Hi Kristen, I found this post extremely helpful as God has led me to a novel while in the midst of a nonfiction journey. I am loving it all! However, I need practical information to help me stay the course. I am thankful God created so many writers who are willing to encourage and teach others!
Weird–I just finished writing one before I checked my email and saw your tips. I felt better about it. Thanks.
Breaking the plot done to the bare bones–I’ve got that, but making it interesting is that hard part. You know, which detail does one add back in to showcase the uniqueness.
I actually don’t mind writing a synopsis. You get all the fun of plotting without actually having to write the novel. What?! You mean I have to write the novel too? But I already know how it ennnnnds!
There is actually a sequel to The Lady and the Tiger, featuring a massive guy with a sword who is known as The Discourager of Hesitancy. Maybe I need to hire him to keep me at my desk til I finish the rewrites 😀
Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.
“The synopsis is letting the agent see if the skeleton is solid, symmetrical and is of a creature that is rare, cool and maybe never seen before.” Which agents don’t want. They want a skeleton which is just like yesterday’s skeleton except for this one little change over here. This way they can go to the money men who run the industry and say, it’s very relevantly similar to that story you did last week that made a lot of money, so you can have some confidence that this will make a lot of money too. ‘If you please, sir.’
“A bigger reason that many writers hate writing the synopsis (particularly for first-time novels) is it makes it painfully obvious we have no story…” The problem I have with my synopses has usually been the opposite. I have so much story that I can’t boil it down without having to leave out half of what makes the story work. I only recently discovered how to think of my most recent story so that all the parts can be included and all make sense. All the advice I’d read (the main character, the major conflicts, the stakes) had to be jettisoned, or at least reconfigured so much it may as well have been jettisoned. (See my point above about originality to see how well I expect it to go over.)
Yes, you are correct about what agents want, but therein lies the peril of traditional. They are going off what sold before to predict what will sell in the future and that is just the constraint of that publishing model. But I would be hesitant to say they never take risks. Harry Potter was rejected time and time again because it was from the POV of a young boy and Rowling was continually turned down because “Boys don’t read.” Additionally, Anne Rice was turned down over and over for “Interview with a Vampire” because “No one wanted a story from the ‘monster’s’ POV.” Yet, agents/publishers eventually did take risks on these works and they birthed entirely new genres. “Interview with a Vampire” is almost solely responsible for all the vampire works of the past 30 years.
So we try. If it doesn’t work but the story is good, we now have other options which authors didn’t have before ten years ago.
Great post. I once had an agent tell me she found my synopsis more compelling than my manuscript. She was right. That helped me enormously in developing my narrative voice.
Also, if you’re self-pubbed, you need a product description as well, which I think is even harder because it’s more sales-y than summary and you have to push the reader’s emotional buttons.
But you’re right, writing a synopsis is a good way to test the structure of your story. Likewise, the better one’s grasp of structure, the less stressful it should be to write a synopsis.
Ah, I said this below in comment 48. one is synopsis (says everything) and the other is the blurb (for sales, hooks the reader but doesn’t give away the store).
Great post! You don’t think that an agent might be miffed that you didn’t follow their explicit submission guidelines by providing extra material?
We need to remember that when we get an agent it is a working partnership. If we have been respectful and followed all the other guidelines and only added this to the message for ease an convenience and the agent is miffed? I would move on. Our time is valuable as well and this (my POV) shows we value their time. If they are more about control than being a professional then I would just look for another agent. Doesn’t bode well for the future if an agent is more interested in control and head games than business. In the case of an e-mail all you are asking in this instance is for the agent to simply use two fingers and scroll down. It isn’t like you mailed a fifteen pound unsolicited manuscript to them.
Good point. Thanks for replying!
What I hate most in submitting the synopsis in a mystery novel is the big reveal of the ending. I know, I know….the agent needs to see the whole plot, but I can’t help thinking the synopsis will spoil the enjoyment of the manuscript.
It will spoil it, but that’s what the synopsis is for! I have seen agents say that sometimes they will just stop after a couple paragraphs, once it’s clear you know how to structure a story, and get into the sample pages. OR they won’t read the synopsis at all, but want to have it on hand in case they want to rep you and need to have something to show to the rest of the agency. I guess if I were an agent I would want to have the whole story available to me just in case…
The cat draggin’ was less dramatization that you may think, though usually more about writing the query than the synopsis.Yes, the two go hand in hand, but trying to get all the salesmanship into the query is just hard for me.
I have found the synopsis much easier to write if you take time away from the novel and then come back to it. What’s really important, what’s going on in each part of the book that ‘s critical? How would you describe it to your best friend that you know won’t read it unless you tell her the whole story, ending included? Or, if it’s anyone like my sister, she just flips to the last chapter, sees how you end it, and then decides if she’s going to read the book. So, all that build about the ending is lost on her anyway.
I have never found a synopsis terribly hard to write. A good synopsis, well, not sure I’ve ever written one of those.
Using the snowflake method (for the first time) to build my story has really helped me writing the synopsis as well.
What is the snowflake method?
Hi Pauline, it’s a method to plan your writing. I’m sure there are many versions of it out there. I followed the method described in this link http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Wrote a short introduction to your article at http://www.firstchevalier.com/kristen-lamb-hates-synopsis-writing-too/ and posted to my Facebook author’s page as well with links back to your original post. It provides an excellent incentive to at least accept the drudgery that is synopsis writing.
Reblogged this on Love's Last Refuge and commented:
Oh that Demon Synopsis!
Thanks for the advice. My biggest challenge related to writing the synopsis for my WIP is that I have two protagonists and I am having trouble explaining the two story lines as well as the problem and resolution within one page.
I have exactly the same problem. My stories have multiples of everything and they all interact to resolve all the conflicts simultaneously. Creating a synopsis for that is impossible, if you try to do it from the POV of a single actor, but multiple actors gets so complicated you may as well just send them the story. What I did was create a ‘virtual protagonist’, a part of the story from which all the actions of the various actors make sense. In my latest novel that was a spell that had been cast, affecting everyone on the earth, and the actions of the characters as they tried to deal with a spell they were mostly unaware of were ‘virtual actions ‘ of that virtual character. Basically treat the plot of the book as if it were a sentient character, trying to resolve itself.
Reblogged this on Kat's Writing Runway and commented:
“If the story is there, the synopsis is too, its just a matter of unearthing it.” Wonderful post by Kristen Lamb on tackling that dreaded synopsis and the part it honestly plays in the process of selling your Novel. Nice and helpful.
Passing on some advice someone once gave me about plot vs scene-by-scene terrible event: If you have a plot, you can link events by cause and effect. You can use words like “therefore,” “because,” “and so,” etc. If you can only use words like “and then,” you have chronology, not plot. I found that very clarifying.
The question we are all asking: What does the hat look like that you’re putting our names in?
Okay, okay, this is useless. Moving on to the next comment.
Since I want this to be useful, here, for anyone thinking “even indy writers have to do synopsis for publishing their books” like I was musing a little:
“As nouns the difference between synopsis and blurb is that synopsis is a brief summary of the major points of a written work, either as prose or as a table; an abridgment or condensation of a work while blurb is a short description of a book, film, musical work, or other product written and used for promotional purposes.” http://wikidiff.com/blurb/synopsis
See? It’s different.
Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
A very important blog post was published by Kristen Lamb – “The Dreaded Synopsis”. Thank you, Kristen. Your support is enormously valuable!
Thanks for your suggestions, Kristen! I’m revising my MS and writing the synopsis, so this post was timely for me. For me, including the premise and the major plot points almost fills up that first page!
Got a link here from one of the commenters at Janet Reid’s blog and really enjoyed this post! Especially that strange skeleton. A really excellent visual for what makes the synopsis important. 🙂
Too many book reviews are mere synopsis. That’s spoiler stuff. I limit mine to author style, fluency of story, quality of story, , character development and such not a story summary. Naturally a review is different than synopsis.
What you said about expectations and genre’s was very interesting. Would love to see more on understanding genre’s and what the expectations are of each. Thanks for your writing and expertise. You clearly know what you are talking about.
I actually have a post on genres. This should help you out. Great to meet you!
Hi Kristen –
Thank you for the post.
Like everyone else, I too, hate writing synopses but for a slightly different reason. I quite enjoy crafting loglines (as you’ve said elsewhere, they’re the key to your plot, really) and, when it’s working, I love “proper” writing. But a synopsis seems to be neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring. It’s neither the full flower of your prose nor is it everything stripped back to its absolute essence. It’s more of a half-way house that is quite difficult to balance.
I am not an author or ever thought about being one. The only things I have written is a dozen or so annual reports. I enjoyed your article as it was informative, concise and very interesting . I may even think about writing something.
Would your class work for someone writing a screenplay?
Yes. Storytelling is storytelling.
Another point of view, if you don’t mind…
The synopsis can also be the one sentence you write when coming up with the concept of what the book Will be, before you start writing.
Yeah I call that a log-line and recommend starting with that and building. Way easier to build one sentence into a page than boil 300 pages to one.