Writers who have never written a synopsis for a query or a book promo do not realize how difficult it is to write one. It’s fair to say that if you don’t find it difficult, then it’s likely that you don’t know how to write a good one. Some rare individuals are naturals at writing excellent ones. I applaud those who can do it well.
The two skills for writing a great novel and for writing a great synopsis do not necessarily go hand in hand. As I said last time, the author is close to the work and may find it difficult to zoom out in order to see the overall aspects of his or her work. That’s the skill you must develop to be able to write a good synopsis.
Last time, I left you with an exercise. This time I’ll attempt to give you some guidance and provide some possible answers to that exercise. Before we actually do that, here are some pointers on how to proceed.
I mentioned last time that the query synopsis (what you’d send to an agent or editor) is markedly different from the cover synopsis (sales copy, as it’s sometimes called). Here’s an excellent recent article by Jane Friedman on what a query synopsis should contain.
In what follows, Jane Friedman uses “synopsis” to mean the query synopsis, not the sales copy for the book’s promotion. She gives the following points to include in a query synopsis:
“First, you need to tell the story of what characters we’ll care about, which includes the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for her.
“Second, we need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.
“Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.”
She also says:
“Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy—the kind of material that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.”
If you think that these points are what you should NOT write in your cover synopsis, then you’re wrong. Writing out this kind of synopsis will help you to focus on the core of your novel, so I recommend writing one even if you are not writing a query.
Here are some other articles you can peruse for potentially useful advice.
These are by no means the only excellent articles out there, but these are more general than some, which may focus on a particular genre. As I’ve pointed out in other posts here, when you read advice on writing that mentions “hero/heroine” and “villain” remember that not all novels have a main character that falls into these categories, especially some literary ones: The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Tom Sawyer.
If you read the Fabula Argentea pieces I suggested as exercises, you’ll see that only a couple of those have characters that fit into the hero/villain categories. And some novels have multiple, prominent good guys and bad guys, so you may find it difficult to focus on one or two. Also, don’t confuse the lack of a specific hero and villain with a lack of conflict. Interesting stories have conflict, which is not always manifest as another character opposing the main character.
With these points in mind, let’s delve into those Fabula Argentea stories.
(1) First up is “Saviours” by Andrew Atkinson.
The premise of the piece is simple: Two religious “pamphlet pushers” out to share their faith in Jesus unknowingly try their soul-saving skills on the Devil.
While that’s a great tagline for the story, and one that could work well if it were for a novel where that’s the inciting incident in their adventure, it reveals too much in the short story and almost ruins it for the reader.
We need something more vague, yet still enticing. I came up with four that work:
There are some people you shouldn’t attempt to share your faith with.
It can be dangerous sharing your faith with certain individuals.
Not everyone can be saved.
Be careful who you attempt to share your faith with.
How do you choose one? Which of these (if any) catch your attention? When it comes to a synopsis you’ve written, maybe ask the opinion of a friend who has not read the story or novel whether the synopsis catches his/her attention. If the friend seems confused, then it’s back to the drawing board. A good sales copy should intrigue, not confuse.
(2) Let’s try “A Health Plan for Wiseguys” by Michael Canfield next.
This one is a more traditional type of story and therefore easier to do a synopsis for. We also have a provocative title. The premise is that the mob underlings want health and retirement benefits to protect their families and they want their leader, Rick, to approach the boss about it. Rick says that their boss will laugh them out of the room, then he’ll call the BIG GUYS in New York and things will crash down on them. They suggestively threaten the safety of Rick’s wife if Rick doesn’t do what they ask.
Because this is a longer story, we can get by with a longer synopsis.
Mob underlings think they should have health and retirement benefits for their families, and they “persuade” their leader, Rick, to negotiate with their boss. The boss, however, gets wind of something in the works and thinks it’s a possible coup.
We could make this a little longer, but then we risk going too far. The purpose of this exercise is to learn to be concise yet to learn how to craft something that will intrigue the reader. I put quotes around “persuade” ion my synopsis to be more suggestive.
(3) “Regarding Your Ex-Wife” by Timothy O’Leary. Again, this is a short piece, so we want to go for a one-sentence synopsis if possible. Accompanied by the title, I think this one does that:
What would a guy whose employees gave him a coffee cup inscribed with “World’s Shittiest Boss” have to do to upgrade himself to “World’s Shittiest Human Being”?
(4) “The Beggar’s Tale” by David Wright
Although this is moderate length story, nothing says that we have to write a synopsis that parallels its length. A novel synopses for a print book needs to fit comfortably on a back cover and therefore needs to be under 300 words. Even if a longer one will fit or you’re just writing it for an e-book, keep it short. A long one, no matter how good, may go unread and therefore will defeat its purpose.
I thought about this and came up with one sentence for this story: Chaucer omitted the tale of one interloper in the group in his “Canterbury Tales.” But that’s a bit bland, so I spiced it up.
A surprising and unwelcome interloper in the group in “The Canterbury Tales” tells his story to the astonishment of the rest.
(5) “On J.M.S. Madeline’s Ecce Panis Angelorum” by Brandon Barrett.
Because this is not a plotted story, this delightful piece is a tough one to do justice to in any sort of synopsis. To ferret one out, let’s look at the main idea of the piece. It’s a review on a fictitious cookbook (a set of cookbooks actually) and it’s a satire on healthy eating. Since the piece contains so much tongue-in-cheek humor, I thought that perhaps quoting from it might be a good way to do a decent synopsis because the piece itself is speaking. Simply describing this piece won’t do it justice.
In this satirical piece the fictitious reviewer of a fictitious cookbook by J.M.S. Madeline quotes it: “Do we cook because we need to eat food,” wonders Madeline on the first page, “or maybe, just maybe, do we eat food because we need to cook?”
(6) “Crabby Converse” by Susan McDonough-Wachtman
If we look at what it’s about, this one is not difficult.
An elderly widow living alone faces having to move into a nursing home and learns from an unusual source that having someone around to help you along is not always a bad thing.
(7) “Wax” by Elaine Lies
Again, this is not a plotted piece. Literary pieces such as this are often the hardest ones to write a synopsis for. Look at what the basic story is about and try to distill it down. This one is about a life ending (a very common story theme), but instead of dwelling on the impending death itself, this story explores what that life meant and accomplished. In this case, it may be better to focus on the emotions of the piece.
Each life touches and interacts with many others over the course of its time on earth. Sometimes, it’s only in retrospect that we appreciate that life’s legacy.
Couple this with the title and we hopefully intrigue a reader to want know what the story is about.
Now, I said that I was going to give my synopses of two stories from the previous issue (#12) of the magazine, but I’m going to leave those up to you. However, I’ll give some guidance on “The Black Hole” by Joshua Chaplinsky.
As I thought about this piece, I wondered if perhaps I could use the same concept that I used for “Wax” because it’s also an unplotted story. In contrast to “Wax,” however, this piece is not about lives touched but about the lives that were ignored and the regrets that came from having done so. Through the piece is specifically about alcoholism and the toll it takes on the lives of others, it’s also about ignoring the responsibilities to those around you and the regrets that can arise from having done so. So, put that into a good synopsis.
The key to writing a good synopsis is to distill the story, whatever its length, into a few sentences. I also said that I often struggle with this task as well. These short stories presented small or medium challenges. Novels, because of their complexity, are far more daunting.
Challenge yourself by attempting to write some for novels that you’ve read recently. Then compare your results with the ones that came with those novels. Keep in mind that for commercially published books, the publishers (rarely the authors), write the cover copy. This doesn’t mean that all such synopses are perfect or even the best. If you plan to self-publish, you need to practice this skill.
When time permits, I’ll attempt one more post on this topic.