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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How to Write a Killer Synopsis - Part 1

A writer friend was recently faced with the terrifying task of writing a synopsis of his novel to submit to a potential agent. Part of the reason why writing a synopsis is often so daunting for writers is because there is no singular standard for a synopsis; no set amount of pages; no consensus on style; no set word count to page length ratio. No, you just have to wing it, or follow whatever guidelines are provided by the person who requested the synopsis.

But the real challenge of writing a synopsis is trying to shrink everything you're attempting to do in your novel - all of the brilliant themes, character backstory, and complicated plot twists - into just a page or two of entertaining dramatic summary.

Before I jump in and start trying to tell you how to write your synopsis, let me briefly run down my qualifications. You may or may not be aware, but the person who is likely to read your synopsis first, the first hurdle to get an agent's attention, is going to be the assistant. For six years, that person was me. For four years I opened the query letters on an agent's desk in the New York publishing industry (both fiction and nonfiction), and for two years I did the same on a motion picture literary agent's desk in Hollywood (directors and screenwriters). So I know what worked for me, and subsequently what worked for the agents.


When I began working on this post I did some cursory google searching to see what other guidance was out there, and I came across this article by Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc which I think makes an excellent suggestion right up front. Before you begin writing your synopsis write a single sentence that describes your book. In reference to a screenplay, this is called a "logline."

This idea should not scare you. Yes, you have an enormous book with lots of themes, a big complex plot, and kitchen sink full of characters. However, you should still be able to boil it down to one singular idea. Sometimes that idea will be plot oriented, and sometimes that idea might be theme oriented.

Try this exercise: think up a story that you are very familiar with and try to describe it in one sentence.
A young hobbit joins up with his friends to make a difficult journey to destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of the dark lord who pursues him.

A young hobbit learns the meaning of true fellowship as he and a band of friends make a dangerous journey to save their home from the clutches of a dark lord.

A dark lord is gathering power, threatening the whole of Middle Earth, and it is up to one small hobbit and his fellowship of friends to carry the key to the dark lord's power, a ring, to its destruction.
As you can see, there are many different ways to approach this challenge, but at this point you may be asking yourself, why waste the time?

Because knowing what your book is about in one concise sentence will help you write your synopsis the same way that a thesis statement helps you write an essay. As you write you can refer to that logline to ensure that everything you are including in the synopsis is in support of that one main idea. Have too many plot points and ideas and are unsure of what can be considered extraneous? You simply need to ask yourself, is what I'm writing supporting the logline? Is this detail necessary to tell the story I promised in that one sentence?

So take some time to think about it, and write that single sentence that captures everything you're trying to do with your novel. A complete synopsis won't be that far behind.

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