“The synopsis is grueling and hardly fun to write, but remember that every novelist – whether unknown or a bestseller – has to do them.” – Dean R Koontz
Dean gave me that bit of advice many years ago when I was a bookstore manager in Tustin California. They can be daunting, especially when the author realizes that these too must be attention grabbing in the same way a query letter is written.
With that in mind, they don’t need to be that terrible, especially if you have a firm grasp what your novel – whether 50,000 words long or 120,000 – is about. Someone once told me that if I could not summarize my novel within a 25-word logline, I had no clue what it was about.
First of all, a synopsis tells the main plot in detail and mentions subplots briefly. It gives the principles and main elements; it does not encompass every little twist and turn and nuance.
Do your final revisions first.
Commence writing down your novel’s logline. Take your time. The logline is actually the screenwriters’ term, but it works well for prose too. Make it succinct as possible but attention grabbing too. So, you do not want to be too Spartan in the approach:
Two marine biologists find madness and murder when they open a cursed oceanographic project off the Outer Banks. – Dead Reckoning (2013)
That logline is succinct and meant to deliver the entire package. It is what I start off the synopsis with. This first line is what you will expand upon by adding important elements and characters.
The first paragraph should lay down the story concept in one drop without getting bogged down into the details. For example, from my Artemus Dark paranormal novel, Dark Running:
In a world where magic is real, world-famous ghost hunter ARTEMUS DARK discovers that his estranged older brother, PHILIP, has died mysteriously in New Orleans. There seem to be no clues left behind to explain the sorcerer’s death save for a cryptic voicemail Philip has sent to him moments before he was killed. After Artemus arrives in New Orleans to investigate, a lovely mulatto woman named DESERET offers an invitation for him to meet her father, a powerful sorcerer named MATH VAN DYKE – once a colleague of the deceased. Artemus soon discovers that Philip was murdered in his connection in the recovery of an ancient grimoire in Malta: the fabled Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. Anyone possessing the artifact can control great powers; Artemus takes on the case when he realizes he’s been hexed to die – ripped to shreds by a faceless demon, summoned by the forces of the Tablet itself.
In this opening paragraph, I not only lay down the main plot and the names of the main characters, but I also throw in the major complication – Artemus’ hex – which is one of the dramatic elements. This paragraph succinctly covers over 100 pages of actual text of the novel. As you can see, I don’t bog it down with all the little adventures and subplots that have occurred up to the point Artemus is confronted by the fearsome demon. I also lay down the most important plot element of the story right away: Philip was murdered over a mysterious occult artifact called the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.
The synopsis, like the novel itself, will possess key elements from the beginning, middle, and end. One easy way to write an effective synopsis is to write a “bare bones” outline of every chapter. For example, you would write out a one-sentence logline of every chapter such as:
For the rock novel Electric Monkeyland:
Chapter 1: Rock and roll guitarist Jake “The String Man” Adams is found shot to death, leaving his lead singer Colin Morales in a world of trouble.
Chapter 2: At the String Man’s funeral, pushy label executive Gene Kellogg reminds Colin about the looming deadline for the recording of the band’s debut album, pressuring the singer to find a replacement for his dead colleague.
Chapter 3: Caustic and doping band manager Terri Lindsey comes by to add more pressure and inadvertently suggests that Colin sign on the String Man’s 14-year-old Apache cousin from Arizona ….
As you can see, I will make a very brief synopsis of EVERY chapter of the novel. This is easy to do once the final revisions are in place. Once the outline is complete, I can attempt a first draft of the synopsis getting bogged down in particulars and unnecessary detail.
However, let’s remember that NOT every chapter’s element needs to be in the synopsis. You will need to edit out anything that is not important. You will need to review the outline and decide your novel’s central focus.
- Write a logline to describe your novel in less than 25 words.
- Format an outline that summarizes each chapter.
- Review the outline for the MOST IMPORTANT plot elements.
- When drafting the synopsis, remember to include the Who, What, Where, Why in your first paragraph.
- Draft each synopsis paragraph succinctly and keep on topic to the main plot.
- Do not mention subplots UNLESS they are integral to the main plot.
- Adhere to basic synopsis format.
- Keep the synopsis to no more than 2 pages (1,000 -1,500 words).
It is true that your editor or agent might want to see a more detailed synopsis. That is fine; feel free to expand as necessary. My agent, Monique, liked the one-page synopsis of Dark Running, but demanded a much more detailed synopsis when she began submitting the manuscript to major houses. She worked with me on that.
But, what is BASIC SYNOPSIS FORMAT?
The traditional format I use is taken from The Writers Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats (http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Guide-Manuscript-Formats/dp/0898792932) and begins like this:
Fantasy/Paranormal approx. 95,000 words
In a world where magic is real, world-famous ghost hunter ARTEMUS DARK discovers that his estranged older brother, Philip, has died mysteriously in New Orleans. There seem to be no clues left behind to explain the sorcerer’s death save for a cryptic voicemail Philip has sent to him moments before he was killed. After Artemus arrives in New Orleans to investigate, a lovely mulatto woman named DESERET offers an invitation for him to meet her father, a powerful sorcerer named MATH VAN DYKE – once a colleague of the deceased. Artemus soon discovers that Philip was murdered in his connection in the recovery of an ancient grimoire in Malta: the fabled Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. Anyone possessing the artifact can control great powers; Artemus takes on the case when he realizes he’s been hexed to die – ripped to shreds by a faceless demon, summoned by the forces of the Tablet itself.
Not fully believing in the Tablet’s existence, Artemus escapes harrowing encounters with his demon and assorted villains using powerful black magic. As clues pile up, the investigator tries to connect the dots to the murder of his brother, but nothing seems to make sense. With the help of a voodoo psychic, Artemus discovers the only way he can be rid of his hex is to have the caster willfully destroy the “binding object” it was made with. Death stalks every shadowy corner as the ghost hunter flies to the far-flung shores of Malta, in the hopes of investigating a sex-based witch coven run by Math Van Dyke’s wife, CONSTANZA. Artemus manages to figure out how he might be able to dispel his curse, but to his horror he realizes he may not have enough time. Armed with resolve and magic, he heads for the place where he believes his brother may have secreted the Tablet; a calculation based upon the five points of the occult pentagram and the cryptic cipher in the voicemail.
When he retrieves the artifact, a final confrontation with Math Van Dyke occurs. The arch-sorcerer has been keeping close watch on Artemus, hungering for the Tablet’s recovery. When it appears that Van Dyke doesn’t know Deseret at all – that she is not his daughter – it is revealed that she’s a powerful demoness, seemingly bent to protect her identity and recover the fabled artifact herself. Yet even this is a ruse, for Artemus deduces after a harrowing battle with the demoness that it’s actually Constanza Van Dyke who has hexed her rivals to die in order to keep the fabled Tablet for herself.
Artemus escapes Math and heads out to Malta for a final confrontation with Constanza. During the struggle with the faceless demon conjured to kill him, Artemus tricks Constanza into ending his hex. This act has dire consequences for the caster, as the demon she’s conjured suddenly turns its fury upon Constanza, ending her and her ambitions. At the end, Artemus discovers something startling about his own identity and his connection with the Tablet … a revelation that will change his life forever. <END>
THAT was the Spartan one-page synopsis that I used while submitting to literary agents. It was expanded upon when editors at the major houses requested to see it. Notice how I capitalized the names of all the characters I introduce.
In closing, writing a synopsis need not be frustrating. Simply cut organize your novel and write down brief summaries and the logline. Above all, take your time! Don’t get into the amateurish rush of excitedly jotting it all down and mailing it off.
Your novel will thank you.
M Cid D’Angelo’s novels can be found at ~
A few of his short stories are published by various for print and online literary magazines. Here are a few:
“Thumbs Up” (Midway Journal): http://www.midwayjournal.com/Oct10_Fiction-ThumbsUp.html
“Don Quixote de Las Vegas” (Moronic Ox): http://www.moronicox.com/don-quixote-de-las-vegas-dangelo.html
“In the Garden” (decomP magazinE): http://www.decompmagazine.com/inthegarden.htm
“Chad and Willie Break a Leg (March, 2013 – The Legendary): http://www.downdirtyword.com/