I hate writing synopses. It’s so difficult to distill a 200-plus-word novel into two succinct pages or less without sucking the life out of it. I recently had to write a synopsis of my current novel, though, so I’m glad that I attended a breakout session on “The Dreaded Synopsis” (yes, I stole the title – it was just too perfect!) at the SCBWI WWA Conference two weekends ago. The session was presented by Joanna Volpe, an agent at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc., and some of the things she had to say came as a big surprise to me.
For starters, she said that a synopsis doesn’t have to contain a hook or a sense of voice. WHAT?! I thought that everything I wrote had to grab the reader and impress her with my voice, but according to Volpe, not so with a synopsis. The synopsis exists solely to give the agent or editor reading it a road map of the plot. Period.
The next surprise was that she recommended mentioning as few characters as possible by name. If Volpe were writing a synopsis of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, she would only name Harry and Voldemort in the synopsis. The other characters would be “friends,” “enemies,” “teachers at the boarding school for wizards” (note: not Hogwart’s), etc. This idea really knocked me for a loop, because in writing a book we’re always told to be specific and include names. But again, the synopsis only exists to give a clear picture of the plot, not to list the cast of characters or give a sense of place.
But the instruction that really threw me was not to include any subplots unless they affect the main plot in an important way. I’d always been under the impression that I needed to give a blow-by-blow of every subplot in my synopsis. In a way, knowing I didn’t have to was a relief, but it was also overwhelming: How would I know which subplot points to include and which to leave out?
As I said, I’m glad I went to Volpe’s presentation, because knowing what I didn’t need to put into my synopsis made writing it much easier. It still took me over five solid hours to synopsize my novel, but it was doable. Here are the steps I took.
1. I decided which plot was the main plot. This might seem like a no-brainer, but for me it was a challenge. I realized I wasn’t actually sure which story thread was my main plot and which was the major subplot, so I had to clarify that for myself before beginning.
2. I listed all the important plot points in my main plot. This entailed going through my manuscript and deciding which plot points were true turning points, moments that affected the direction of the story.
3. I listed the important plot points in my major subplot.
4. I decided which of my minor subplots were pivotal enough to the main plot to include. Here, I looked for places where minor subplots intersected with and affected the main plot.
5. I listed the important plot points in my minor subplots.
So now I had four different lists, one for my main plot, one for my major subplot, and one for each of two minor subplots.
6. I decided which characters were important enough to name. Having the plot-point lists made this easier. I decided to name my main character, the two love interests (spoiler!), and the antagonist.
7. I wove my four lists together to make one long list with all the plot points in chronological order. This was actually kind of fun, like putting together a puzzle.
8. I used my list as a guide to write the synopsis.
Piece of cake, right? Well, not really – as I said it took me over five hours to boil everything down to two tight pages. But honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, and I have Joanna Volpe to thank for that.
How do you feel about writing synopses? Do you have any tips for making them less painful?