Plot luck: a descent into synopsis hell

You’d think it would be easy, writing a synopsis. A pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Make a nice cup of coffee, line up a few chocolate digestives, then effortlessly distil your masterpiece down into one or two sides of A4, capturing its brilliance, its timelessness, the magical way it carries the reader on an unforgettable journey of the senses.

Three hours, six coffees and an entire pack of biscuits later your keyboard will no longer function, clogged up with bitter tears of rage. You will be praying for the phone to ring, for someone to knock at the door, a family crisis even. A drive to the emergency room no longer seems objectionable if it gives you an excuse to walk away from your desk – assuming you still have a desk, and not broken fragments of wood strewn across the room.

If you’re trying to get a traditional publishing deal, you need a synopsis. There is no way around it. And for most people, writing a synopsis is hellish, unless you pay someone to do it for you of course.

But why is it so hard to capture in flowing yet succinct prose the essential twists and turns of your novel? You are, after all, a writer, fashioning golden text is your chosen path – it’s what you’re supposed to be good at.

The main problem, as far as I can tell, is that you’re trying to create a summary that will showcase your novel in the best possible light, but which seems utterly determined to suck the very life out of it. Describing 80,000+ words in a handful of paragraphs requires the cold-hearted dexterity of a seasoned salesman – ruthlessness and a light touch. You have to know which button to press to capture interest, while avoiding the one so well worn that the words ‘self-destruct’ are no longer visible on it. For writers, whose fingers itch to tap away and fill page after page, that can be a problem.

While trying to perfect my synopsis last weekend I came up against one roadblock after another, forcing me to take many turns, most of which were dead ends. ‘Frustrating’ doesn’t quite capture it. Still, I struggled on, bloodied but unbowed, determined not to be beaten. Aside from which, I had actually been asked by someone to send in a synopsis, so I really had no choice – I had to come up with something.

Eventually I made it out the other end, exhausted and caffeine-wired, but clutching what I hope is a concise yet jaunty exposition of what my novel is all about. Time will tell.

So, for those of you still fumbling in the darkness, here are the five main things that I learnt from the experience. Don’t take them as gospel – I’m just trying to describe the sound of pennies dropping as I realised where I was going wrong. And if anyone has anything helpful to add, please feel free.


1. Don’t be listy. (And yes, the irony of that being first on a list is not lost on me.) What I mean by this is that while you are explaining the structure of your novel, don’t feel that you have to mirror it exactly, step by step, if in doing so you impede the flow of how your characters are changing. The last thing you want to end up with is bullet points. If you start getting too precise and chronological, characters’ emotional development seems to stop and start while you shoehorn in other aspects of the story. Life isn’t like that – things happen simultaneously, and your synopsis will benefit from getting a sense of that across. Let it flow.

2. Miss bits out. That’s right – decide which are the most important elements and can the rest. If Graham the North American Grey Squirrel is struggling to defuse a nuclear device, you don’t need to describe his mating habits and diet of conifer seeds, even if these were included at some point in the story as colour. A squirrel grappling with an explosive device is intriguing in anyone’s world; seeds you will find in all health-food shops. Bin them.

3. Don’t explain – describe. Again, this comes back to being ruthless. The first draft of my synopsis was a page too long, which was entirely down to me trying to elucidate on why people were acting the way they were. Of course, you need a bit of this in order to join the dots, but excessive explanation overcomplicates things, and kills the mood. If an explanation about an event in the novel is five lines long, make it one. Remember, the synopsis needs to be punchy – you’re not writing a business report.

4. You could, some people suggest, write the synopsis without looking at your novel, because the parts that you remember will be the most, well, memorable. This seems like very sound advice, which I wish I’d come across before going through my manuscript and writing down a four-line summary of each chapter. By that point I was becoming aware of the first disturbing signs of biscuit-based indigestion.

5. Finally, have faith in your ability. An agent or publisher isn’t going to sit there with a red pen and give you marks out of one hundred for your effort. It’s not an exam. Unless you’ve somehow insulted them in your covering letter, or your synopsis reads like it was written while you were driving, you probably won’t have blown your chances on the synopsis alone. The whole package – letter, first three chapters, synopsis and perhaps a cover blurb – is what counts, and will be judged as a whole. So don’t try to be Shakespeare; just let the tone of your novel – its soul, if you will – shine through.

I should mention, although I’m sure you know this, that a synopsis needs to be written in the present tense and, even more importantly, you must, must, must include the ending. Although they might be very much the creative type, an agent is first and foremost a businessperson – they need to see the whole product, not just the pretty packaging.

Ultimately, you are selling your book. Not only the idea of it, but the style, the structure, its marketability. On the plus side, you haven’t knocked on a random door to explain your life’s work to a befuddled stranger in his jim-jams – you are at least communicating with someone who is on your side. An agent/publisher wants your novel to be great – more than great, in fact – and a synopsis is your opportunity to pique their interest.

So on you go. Stay calm, dig deep, and do your book proud.



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