“I did all the wrong things first and learned from my mistakes.”
My stomach still clenches thinking about the painstaking task of writing a synopsis. You know – that single page document that forces an author to take their beautiful 75,000-word masterpiece and condense it down into a dismal play-by-play of what happens? Yeah – that one.
If you’re on the traditional path to publication, surely “write a synopsis” is listed somewhere on your to-do list. Because it’s an essential tool you’ll need to query a literary agent or a publisher directly. Simply put, it’s just part of the package.
But it doesn’t have to be too difficult if you know how to do it right. Speaking from experience, I did all the wrong things first and learned from my mistakes.
So, here’s a shortlist of things you want to avoid doing right off the bat when you sit down to write a synopsis:
1 – Do NOT write over 500 words. Don’t do it – just don’t. As a writer, you have the ability to be concise. And the synopsis is a true test of that skill. The reader (likely an agent or publisher) doesn’t need every detail – they just want the overarching plot and major character evolution. It takes patience and many drafts, but you can drill down your content by using the 1/3 rule. Write your first draft including everything you think is pertinent to the main plot. Then cut the word count down by a third. Then do it again – removing less important details and duplicate pieces of information. Keep going until you hit less than 500 words.
2 – Do NOT tease the reader. The point of the synopsis is to take the reader through the story from start to finish. It’s not a tool meant to leave the reading hanging, nor is it a tool to get someone to buy your book (in other words, it’s not a pitch!). If you’ve concluded your synopsis and the reader is left wondering how the story ends or how the character arc comes to a close, the synopsis has been completed incorrectly. This is the one instance on the author journey where you essentially give away the goods.
3 – Do NOT include the sub-plot. Unless the supporting characters are essential to the main plot, they need to stay off the page. As a rule of thumb, it’s best that the synopsis only focusses on the protagonist and antagonist (and if the story has no way around it – one secondary character is okay if it drives the plot forward).
It’s easy to fall into the above traps if you don’t know what you’re doing. But you can streamline the process if you stick to the basic necessities.
So, here’s what you should do instead:
1 – DO focus on the main character’s transformation.That’s right – we’re talking about the hero’s journey here. Think about your protagonist’s external goal. What do they want? What drives the story forward? While these questions are imperative to answer, be sure to also consider the complex emotions and inner turmoil they navigate as well. It’s all part of their arc.
2 – DO include your main character’s obstacles. It’s not enough to just identify what your protagonist wants. You have to also include what gets in their way. Their obstacles could be external or internal. No matter what, just include the details that drive the plot further. Obstacles transform a protagonist and complete the character arc.
3 – DO address the antagonist. Who is the character that blocks the path? What do they do that trips up your main protagonist? Again, it’s not just about what they may physically do to move the story forward. Much of a character’s growth takes place internally. Include the inner demons they face if it’s essential to the plot.
Now take a deep breath.
Because I know – it’s a lot. I understand that because I’ve been there. I’ve done the wrong things and then had to step back and rewrite over and over and over again.
And if there’s one thing I stand by, it’s this simple quote: “Writing about your writing is harder than actually writing.”
Good luck on your journey!