Writing a synopsis is a lot like eating a Reese's peanut butter cup. In fact, the only difference I can see is there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's.
Maybe nibbling along the outside works for you, or perhaps you're more comfortable diving right into the middle. Some ways just feel right. But if your favorite method has begun to lose its flavor, why not spice it up by trying something new?
Before digging in, I'd like to squash a bit of misinformation. You may have heard that a synopsis is a tantalizing morsel designed to leave the reader salivating for the rest of your story. Not so! Your synopsis is where you tear off the wrapper and highlight your main ingredients, right down to the last tasty crumb.
When editors or agents read your synopsis, they want to get a sense for who your main character is and where you're going with the premise. Your synopsis, along with your query letter and sample chapters, will help them determine whether your story might be a good fit for them. You don't need to include a lot of detail, just what is necessary to understand the protagonist's motivation and the plot.
The first thing I do when writing a synopsis is sum up the whole story in one paragraph.
• Begin by telling the entire plot in one sentence.
• Next, explain the main character's motivation in one or two sentences.
• Then summarize the "middle" of the story and climax in one or two sentences.
• Finally, tell how the main character grows or what he learns as a result of his experiences.
Of course, if you can combine any of these points, by all means do!
Here's an example using CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY:
Charlie wants to visit Mr. Willy Wonka's top secret candy factory. After he and four other lucky children win a tour of the factory, misfortune befalls the selfish, misbehaving four, while amiable Charlie earns Mr. Wonka's trust and inherits the factory.
This short paragraph not only tells the premise and plot, but also shines a light on the theme. Like the unmistakable aroma of chocolate, this story's theme, "good guys finish first," wafts through the page and stimulates the senses, but doesn't overwhelm the reader. Try this with your own summary. If the theme isn't clear, revise or tweak until it is.
If there is a subplot, next is the place to spell it out. One or two sentences should do it. For example, "Throughout the story, there is a subplot in which _______."
Skip a line, and dive right in to the plot outline. Think of your story in three major sections:
• Beginning - Main character's motivation is established and basic plot is set up
• Middle - Main character faces obstacles, which build to a climax
• End - Climax is resolved.
The beginning, climax and ending will take up most of the synopsis, with less weight given to the middle:
Reveal your beginning in two or three paragraphs, leaving off with your plot clearly set.
For the middle, lead with an introductory sentence, then encapsulate your major plot points as bullets, leading up to the climax. Take two or three paragraphs to describe the climax and twists.
Finally, tell how the story is resolved in one or two paragraphs.
Here's an example of the rest of the synopsis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At 450 words, this synopsis will take up only 2-3 pages. Yet the plot, theme and essence of the main character all come through like the unbeatable combination of peanut butter and chocolate wrapped up neatly in a bright orange wrapper.
Sweet Charlie Bucket loves chocolate. But his family is so poor that he gets it only once a year, on his birthday. Walking past Wonka's Chocolate Factory each day is torture.
Charlie's grandfather tells him that Mr. Willy Wonka is so concerned about guarding his secrets that he has closed off the factory. No one has been seen going in or out for years.
An announcement appears in the newspaper: Five lucky children who find golden tickets inside Wonka bars will win a personal tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie is very excited -- his birthday is next week.
After the first two tickets are discovered, Charlie opens his birthday chocolate with great anticipation, but his hopes fall when there is no golden ticket inside.
Soon the third and fourth tickets are found. Then Charlie's Grandpa Joe shows him a Wonka bar he has kept hidden. The two open it gleefully, but inside is chocolate, nothing more.
One day Charlie finds a dollar in the snow and buys two chocolate bars. He is shocked to find the last golden ticket!
The next day, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the other winners arrive at the factory, where they are delighted and amazed to meet the wildly eccentric Willy Wonka.
While Charlie and his grandfather marvel at the wonders of Wonka's factory, one by one the other children meet with misfortune when they fail to heed their host's admonitions:
Gluttonous Augustus Gloop drinks from the chocolate river and falls in
Gum-chewing Violet Beauregard chews an experimental stick of gum and turns into a gigantic blueberry
Spoiled Veruca Salt grabs a squirrel and ends up in a chute for bad nuts
Television-obsessed Mike Teavee is shrunk when he tries to become the first human to travel over television waves
After each mishap, Mr. Wonka tells the dwindling group that the others will all come out in the wash.
When at last only Charlie is left, Mr. Wonka tells him that he's giving him the whole factory. Wonka explains that he's been looking for his successor -- a good, sensible, loving child to entrust with his precious candy-making secrets. Thrilled, Charlie and Grandpa Joe burst through the roof of the factory with Mr. Wonka in the great, glass elevator. They fly to the Buckets' cottage and collect the rest of the family before returning to live at the Wonka Factory.
Sounds easy? It is! Now roll up your sleeves, grab a napkin and dig in!
A SYNOPSIS OR OUTLINE?
A synopsis is a content-driven summary of a story's plot. Most often a synopsis, along with a query letter and sample chapters, is part of a fiction book proposal.
Usually part of a non-fiction book proposal, an outline is structure-driven. As most non-fiction books are not actually written until after the proposal has been accepted, the outline describes the type of material to be covered chapter by chapter. Therefore, the outline is generally not a summary of already-written chapters, but a plan for what the author intends to include.
Sometimes, a publisher's guidelines for fiction request a chapter by chapter outline. This type of outline is really a blend of a synopsis and an outline. A writer might think of an outline of fiction as an expanded synopsis, including each and every chapter in summary.
TOP TIPS FOR A SENSATIONAL SYNOPSIS:
• Tell, don't show!
• Use Omniscient POV
• Write in present tense
• Keep it short and sweet
LOOKS COUNT! FORMAT PROPERLY
• Shape your synopsis into a fitting format
• Single space your name and contact information in the upper left hand corner of the first page
• Center your title, all in capital letters
• Skip a line, then center the word "synopsis," in bold, capital letters
• Skip two lines, then double space your synopsis.
• Insert a header on subsequent pages, listing "your last name/Manuscript Title, Synopsis" on the top left and listing the page number on the top right.
• The fewer pages, the better.
Victoria J. Coe is the author of the 2017 Global Read Aloud & One School One Book selection FENWAY AND HATTIE, the first title in a middle grade series from Penguin Young Readers. She teaches creative writing in Cambridge, MA.
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