Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Synopsis

So, an agent loved your query letter and has requested a partial manuscript. Congratulations!

As an intern, my primary job is to read through the massive pile of partials sent to the agency and give my recommendation on whether we should pass on the manuscript or request a full. Today I wanted to talk about a piece of the partial that so many authors underestimate, but which is incredibly important to those who read it: the synopsis.

When we only see the first three chapters of a story, our understanding of the story is very limited. We can see if the introduction leaves us wanting more or if the author's writing style is something we care for, but we don't get to see the twists and turns of the story, the development of the plot or characters, or--most importantly--how the story ends. The synopsis fills in those gaps, explaining to us how the story progresses and eventually concludes. Your story may be brilliant, the best ever written--but if your synopsis doesn't explain that story to us, we may pass on the submission and never know what we missed out on.

I've seen a lot of mistakes with synopses recently, and wanted to share a few of them with all the authors out there who are preparing their partials so they don't fall into the same traps.

A synopsis is NOT a blurb: I've seen a few synopses which are nothing more than a paragraph that very briefly describes the major conflict of the story, similar to what you would read on the back cover of a book. This is not enough. This kind of description is appropriate for the query letter, which the agent has already read. We know, basically, the gist of your story, but now we want to know how the plot progresses in a bit more detail.

A synopsis is NOT a chapter-by-chapter summary: On the other hand, don't go overboard. I had a synopsis that was nothing more than a summary of each chapter of the book. While the author did include all the information we needed to see, we also got a whole lot more. We've received synopses that were actually longer than the partial. This is not good. The synopsis should explain the important bits of your story, but shouldn't tell us about every minor character, side-plot, or trivial detail. If we want to know that, we'll request a full manuscript.

A synopsis is NOT a trailer: Please, please, please tell us the ending. I read a synopsis for a mystery novel that explained the entire book up until the point where the mystery was solved. It's really hard to evaluate a story without knowing how it ends. Having an author say that the plot leads to a "satisfying ending" or "an unexpected twist" doesn't really tell us anything. As much as I hate people giving away the endings of books before I read them, in order for us to do our jobs we have to have the ending spoiled.

A synopsis IS important: Please be sure to include one. If the story is a sequel, also include information about the previous book(s). Formatting should be the same as the partial--use the same font style and size, double-space, and number the pages. There is no strict page limit for synopses since it depends on the book, but the best ones I have read were around five pages (double-spaced). Synopses over ten pages tend to be way too much, while two-page synopses usually just aren't enough. We should be able to read your synopsis and understand the entire plot without feeling like we've just read the entire book squished into ten pages.

In short, take care when writing your synopsis. We interns read a lot of stories on a daily basis, and the synopsis plays a large role in our decision of whether or not to recommend requesting a full manuscript of any particular story. As lovers of books, we want to want your story--so write us a synopsis that will have us begging for a full. Good luck!



Debbie Kaufman said...

Thanks for the explication, Lindsey. I really struggled through my first synopsis, especially after seeing how many ways different authors recommend doing them. In the end, I started with a "blurb," did a brief summary on the hero/heroine and their motivations/journey, and concluded with a story summary of main plot points including the villain's actions and motivations. I did reveal who did it, why, and how they were caught, but was still left with feeling unsure it was the "right way." I think the fact that there is no one format can leave new authors confused.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

I agree, Debbie. The "dreaded synopsis" is a bugaboo. I've decided authors should swamp with each other when it comes time to write them! LOL It seems easier to write something when we haven't been bogged down in the details of the plot.