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Writing a Dynamic Synopsis

Writing synopses can be a daunting task.  Distilling your entire manuscript into a few measly pages often feels like an impossible job, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that synopses are necessary.  There’s just no avoiding them.  You need them for many contests, you need them for submissions to editors and agents, and as your career progresses they become the basis on which you sell books you’ve not yet written.  So there’s no time like the present to get comfortable writing them. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be coherent.

I think of the synopsis as me sitting down and walking a friend through the story. You hit the high points, tell it in the voice of the book, and limit yourself to the details that are essential to the plot.  Easy, right?  Ha.  It’s never as simple as that in practice, is it?

Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

1.  Too vague. (AKA “movie-narrator syndrome”)

Most of us have seen a lot of movie trailers, so it’s easy to fall into the “In a world” voice when we’re synopsis writing.  (“In a world ravaged by treachery…” “In a world where trust is a priceless commodity…”)  We get caught up in the drama of the words and forget that our reader doesn’t know what we mean by them.

Example:

When a life-altering event changes everything, she fears the consequences might impact their relationship for ever… until he says what she secretly longs to hear and makes impassioned vows.

Do you have any idea what’s going on?  Me neither and I wrote that mess.  What life altering event?  What does it change?  How would it impact the relationship and what does she long to hear?  What vows?  It could be this:

When Janie finds out she’s pregnant, she’s terrified the news of the baby will send commitment-phobic Johnny running for the hills… until he finally confesses his love to her and vows never to abandon his child the way his father did.

Or, it could just as easily be this book:

When Johnny is blinded saving her life, Janie is wretched with guilt and fears he will never forgive her for costing him so much… until he declares his love and vows he would have given up more than just his sight to keep her safe.

Different book, right?  Try to avoid using euphemisms to describe plot points.  They don’t actually tell your reader anything.  And don’t get sucked in by the movie-trailer-ese.  You don’t have a bunch of pictures running beneath the voice-over to help tell the story.  (Though that would be pretty cool, huh? The book trailer synopsis, a hot new trend coming to a publishing house near you!)

2.  Too detailed. (Look!  Trees!)

Feeling like Goldilocks yet?  Too vague, too detailed… synopsis writing is all about finding just right.  Too many details bog down the synopsis and make the pace feel slow – which by the transitive property gives the reader the impression that the book might suffer those same pacing problems.

I don’t need to know what she was wearing (unless it’s a critical plot point) or what her father gave her for Christmas when she was three (unless it was a magic necklace that she has to use to save the world).  You want enough detail to tell your story and display your voice, but not so much that the reader can’t see the forest (plot) for the trees (details).

On their first date, Mike takes Mary to Nino’s Fine Dining, a trendy new Italian restaurant with great marinara, but Mary doesn’t like tomatoes so she orders the alfredo instead. Mike then tries to get Mary to eat the garlic bread, but she repeatedly refuses, thinking of the embarrassing possibility of garlic breath during a goodnight kiss. Even their waiter, Marty Martinelli who is going to community college nearby and studying nutrition and philosophy, begins to notice the awkward tension at the table, commenting on it when he brings their tiramisu with two forks. Mary dives in for some sugar-therapy and Mike says this is the most animated he’s seen her all night. It’s good to see her appetite.  His tone implies sexual appetite, but Mary thinks he’s calling her fat and she’s been insecure about her size ever since she was picked on in seventh grade by Madeline Morrison, who later went on to become a supermodel and world-renowned party-girl.

Mary bursts into tears, throws the half-eaten tiramisu in Mike’s lap and runs the four blocks home to Marina Street, ruining her Ferragamos – which cost her two weeks’ salary to buy in the first place. She calls her best friend Mavis who was waiting by the phone to hear all the gory details of the date. Mavis comes over immediately and they stay up until three a.m. eating Ben & Jerry’s, drinking two and a half bottles of 1998 Chateau Margaux and writing a list of all Mike’s faults on Hello Kitty paper – which they burn in the fireplace as soon as they sober up enough to realize he might find it and read it when he comes to the house next Tuesday to replace the faucet in her downstairs bathroom.

Did you stop reading?  The focus is on the details, not on the progression of the story or the relationship.  What if it said something like this:

After their disastrous first date ends with Mary chucking her tiramisu in Mike’s lap rather than the goodnight nookie, er, kiss, they’d both been hoping for, the last thing Mary wants is to see Mike again.  But how can she avoid it when he’s already scheduled to come fix her sink?

Still not great, but cleaner.  I’d take another pass and punch it up a bit.

Think of it this way: The more details you give, the more the publisher/editor/agent has to object to.  Keep in all the necessary details, but cull the ones that serve no purpose other than to remind the editor that she can’t get her seven-year-old to eat tomatoes and picky eaters driver her crazy and she would just as soon not read an entire book about Mary the Tomato Hater and Mike of the Garlic Breath.

3. Passive voice.

Writing a synopsis doesn’t give you permission to abandon active writing. It should be just as active as the book.  You want it to feel exciting.  Have the reader on the edge of their seat.

Their relationship is threatened by Tom’s shock at Trudy’s revelation of a secret in her past which she has been haunted by ever since she was run out of Tulsa by a warrant for her arrest for her inadvertent complicity in a bank robbery.

Sometimes when we are trying to cram a lot of information into a synopsis, we forget that it isn’t just about the details we are conveying, but also about the way we tell them. We want the reader to have a sense of our voice and passive language can suck the life out of a bit of active prose faster than just about anything.  Let’s try again:

Trudy dares to tell Tom about her past – and the warrant hanging over her head for armed robbery.  She begs him to understand, but Tom can’t see beyond his shock. How can his sweet, innocent Trudy be a getaway driver?

Again, it isn’t perfect. I’d probably give it another pass or two before turning it over to an editor, but the paragraph already has more momentum than its predecessor.

4.  “Writer speak”.

I know the workshop speaker on that synopsis workshop told you to talk about “turning points”, “raising the stakes”, “heightening the emotional tension”, “developing the characters”, and “inciting incidents” – but those things are the subtext (emphasis on sub) and those phrases should not be in your synopsis.

It’s a matter of show don’t tell.  Don’t tell me:

Anna and Adam are trapped in a cabin, raising the stakes on their relationship and heightening the emotional and sexual tension between them.

Instead show me:

Trapped in the isolated cabin and forced to share a twin bed, Anna can no longer ignore the sizzling attraction she feels for Adam, and with gunmen poised to strike at any moment, she realizes she must seize this opportunity to be with him, since it may be her last.

You don’t have to say you are raising the stakes for your reader to get it.  Just tell the story and save the “writer-ese” for your next RWA meeting.

5.  Unfinished stories.

I know it’s tempting to save some climactic twist for the reader to discover when they devour your manuscript, but you really need to include the resolution in your synopsis. We should be able to see we’re going to get that emotionally satisfying pay-off.  Trust me, it won’t turn your reader off reading the actual book.  If they have faith you are going to give them a solid book from start all the way to the finish, they will be more likely to read your book.  So give ’em the ending.  Show the resolution and the HEA.

Are you uncomfortable writing synopses?  Do you have any synopsis tips you’ve picked up along the way?  Have you written your Golden Heart synopsis yet?

***

Today is the release day for The Naked Detective, my fourth Karmic Consultants story. I’ve posted a snippet of the synopsis I sold it with.  You tell me, did I practice what I preach?

Ciara Liung is the FBI’s secret weapon, a psychic with an amazing ability to locate lost and stolen jewels.  Her new handler, Special Agent Nathan Smith, will believe it when he sees it – which may be problematic since Ciara’s ‘gift’ only works in the nude.

Ciara’s ability is as much a curse as it is a gift.  Touching everyday objects causes a noisy psychic feedback and when her skin touches the skin of another person, the dissonance is nearly unbearable.  To avoid as much unnecessary psychic noise as possible, Ciara is all but housebound.  The only relief she gets is when she is floating naked in her pool, where the constant static dissonance is washed away in the water that acts as a catalyst for her gift.

Recently injured during an undercover operation gone wrong, Nate Smith isn’t looking forward to being a desk-jockey with a limp for the rest of his career.  Especially one whose only job is to liaise with a so-called psychic.  He’s certain Ciara’s gift is just a cover for a scheme of some kind.  He just can’t figure out how she and the thieves he thinks she’s working with could possibly benefit by returning the jewels they steal.  He may be crippled and forced to walk with a cane for the rest of his life, but he’s still a field agent at heart.  And he’s determined to unravel her plot.

When a famous ruby necklace is stolen from the royal family of Monaco and the FBI gets a tip that it might be fenced in the US, Nate comes banging on Ciara’s door to demand she find it.  The sparks instantly fly when she opens the door in nothing but a towel, but Nate ignores them.  He refuses to be drawn in by her charms – no matter how much she looks like Lucy Liu…

40 responses to “Writing a Dynamic Synopsis”

  1. Kylie Griffin says:

    Vivi, I always love reading advice about synopses, probably because I hate writing them! LOL I really liked the practical examples you gave in your post – thank you – they’re a great guide to seeing what not to write and how to improve what you do have. 🙂

    I’ve found Gracie O’Neil’s post on “How to write a synopsis without turning homicidal” a VERY helpful guide. She breaks it right down to 50 words or less to begin with then develops that 50 words into a 1, 2, 4 and 8pg synopsis with lots of great examples along the way. I’ve used her free pdf download to construct my latest synopsis.

    For anyone interested here’s the link – http://romanceshewrote.com/

    Just look for the title Special Giveaway in the right hand bar on the side or scroll down to the same heading dated August 13th, 2010.

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  2. Diana Layne says:

    Vivi, way to condense synopsis writing, very helpful for those writing synopses for their Golden Heart entries. I found I have trouble writing synopses outside of the romance genre though. It would seem simple, follow the same dang principles, but without a love interest, it totally stumped me.

    Love your little synopsis snippet too.

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    First, Congrats on the release and the review in RT. You are a super star.
    I’ve come to like doing a synopsis. Learned a lot along the way. First it’s to be written in present tense. In a synopsis tell don’t show. Yikes! Yes I did say that. Hit the high parts of story by outlining the GMC. Leave no unanswered questions. Be sure to bring out the story genre. Make sure you tell what makes your story inspirational , suspense, or paranormal. And… the romance. Short synopsis, leave secondary characters names out. Name secondary characters only if they are huge in the story. Tell the story resolution or HEA.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Thanks for the release day congrats, Rita! You’ve got a solid list of synopsis basics there. I would’ve given anything for a straightforward list like that when I was trolling in the internet, trying to figure out what a synopsis needed to be to write my first one.

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  4. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Yay! Release day.
    Yuk – synopsis. I think my synopsis are like really bad sex. Awkward. Clumsy. Thankfully over quickly. They leave you wanting more – of someone elses synopsis.

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  5. Congrats, Vivi!!! And this post rocks! Synopses are the worst, but I have to say, it does get easier. You learn to find that “just right”, that balance between too much and too little. Especially when your editor tells you, “I don’t want 13 pages, I want five. Seven at the most.”
    🙂

    Super nice post!
    ~D~

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Definitely a learned skill. I don’t know if I’ve gotten better at them or I just worry about them less, but synopses are much less stressful for me now than they were before I’d written fifteen-or-so of ’em.

      Thanks for the congrats, Darynda!

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      • Also, I guess I shouldn’t say they’ve gotten easier, because I now have to write them BEFORE I write the ms. Maybe that’s why they seem easier. I think once the book is written, it’s harder to summarize.

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    • Elise Hayes says:

      I had to laugh at your comment, Darynda. My agent once asked me for a synopsis of my next book. So I sent her 12 pages. She responded with a very nice, “Well, I was actually expecting 5 or 6 pages, but ok.” 🙂

      So now when people ask for a synopsis, I ask. There are wildly different expectations out there and it helps not to have to be a mind-reader to figure that out!

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      • Yes there are, Elise! I try to keep mine around 5-7 pages now, but it doesn’t always work. Used to be, there was a “rule”: One page for every 10,000 words. I agree with you, we should just ask.
        🙂

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  6. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Vivi. I always write my first three chapters and then the synopsis. Writing the opening first helps me to get to know my characters, their GMC, and the main story conflict well enough to outline the rest of the plot. Then writing the synopsis, before I go any further, keeps me from being tempted to put in too much detail. Since I haven’t written the book yet, all I have are major plot points, black moment, and resolution. This also gives me a road map for writing the rest of the book.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      What a smart way to do it, Laurie. Do you ever have to change the synopsis afterward to match the book? I find if I’m writing a synopsis for a book I haven’t written yet that there’s always something I have to correct at the end of the day.

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      • Laurie Kellogg says:

        I absolutely have to revise when I’m finished, but the basic story usually stays close to what I first envisioned. It’s usually the details that change or I’ve learned something more about my characters.

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  7. liz talley says:

    Great, great advice, Vivi. I’m not great at synopsis, but I’m not horrible. In reading your tips, I have to say I’m more likely to slip into passive voice. Seems easy to do in a synopsis. Heck, it’s easy for me to do anytime.

    I still have to read the The Ghost Exterminator. You’ve got another already? Guess I better get to reading, huh?

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Well, if you’re reading them in order there are actually two more after The Ghost Exterminator. 🙂 But they are only available digitally right now. The Karmic reading order is:

      1. The Ghost Shrink, the Accidental Gigolo & the Poltergeist Accountant (in ebook and in print in the Tickle My Fantasy Anthology)
      2. The Ghost Exterminator (in ebook & print)
      3. The Sexorcist (in ebook & coming to print Mar 2011)
      4. The Naked Detective (in ebook only)

      Don’t worry. Plenty of time to catch up. I don’t have another release for almost three weeks. 😉

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      • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

        Slacker.

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      • Elise Hayes says:

        I just got my print copy of the Ghost Exterminator, Vivi, and the opening rocks. I can’t wait to read more of it tonight.

        I don’t yet have a Kindle (or equivalent e-reader), so I’ll have to wait until after Christmas to get to your e-pubbed books.

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        • Vivi Andrews says:

          Oooh! Enjoy, Elise! Hope it brings you some grins. 🙂

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          • Elise Hayes says:

            It is SUCH a fun book, Vivi. I only have time to read before bedtime and it just kills me when my husband says it’s time to sleep and turns out the lights! Maybe I’ll be able to steal away more time this weekend…

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  8. Yeah! Congrats on the release, Vivi. I’m sure The Naked Detective is going to be a great read.

    I guess I’m strange. I love editing and I love writing synopsis. I usally write mine after writing only the first three chapters of a wip. (it’s my mini-plot) Of course, I tweak it later. And I so agree, voice is so important. Let it shine.

    Great post!

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I’m much better about them than I used to be. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t even flinch when it’s time to write synopses. I feel so professional (LOL!) that I’m so blase about them these days.

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  9. Kate Parker says:

    Great post. Thank goodness my writing doesn’t sound like my synopses, because I really don’t want my writing to sound like bad sex. My problem with synopses is they are so dull I could fall asleep in the middle, and so could the reader. I’ll keep this in mind as I work on that Golden Heart synopsis.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Thanks, Kate. One thing I try to do when a synopsis is getting dull is to pull a favorite phrase from the book itself – some turn of phrase I really loved or a few words of dialogue that really zing – and work that into the synopsis somehow. That can really put a spark of life into it.

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  10. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oh, this is so useful…and funny…and smart!!!

    I have to race back to work (grading, not NaNo, unfortunately) but I will be saving a copy of this.

    The examples are great!!!

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  11. Firstly, Happy Release Day! Looks like I’ll be adding another Vivi Andrews to my virtual TBR. Can’t wait for my next long plane ride, when I’ll finally get to curl up with my Sony Pocket Reader!

    Secondly, you should take up a second career as blurb writer. I guess that’s an editor’s job, mostly, but hey, you’d probably rock at that, too.

    Really, I’ve never thought about this stuff so clearly before. You so easily point out all the pitfalls I’ve already fallen into. Thanks for getting this post up before the GH deadline!

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Glad I could be of help, Jamie. But as for a career as a blurb writer – no, thank you! The folks who write my blurbs are much better at that than I could ever be, and I’m soooo grateful for them!

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  12. What a great post, Vivi. Loved your examples and wow, The Naked Detective sounds wonderful. Happy Release Day!!

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  13. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    I know it’s late, but I hope your release day rocked!

    Thanks for the tips. My first GH finaling manuscript had a two page synopsis. Why? Because I write long chapters and wanted to get all of chapter three in there. Distilling 120K into two pages was no fun–and, since there’s no nice way to say it, it sucked. I’m working on it as we speak so am extremely grateful for the tips. (And, yes, I’ve given myself a bit more breathing room–not tons, but a bit.) 😉

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  14. Wonderful post and very helpful tips. Thanks!

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