Friday, April 13, 2012

Donna’s Journal

Selling the Synopsis

As part of my role as judge in the Virginia Romance Writers Fool for Love contest, I’m required to look over the synopses of the contest entries I judge. The synopses themselves are not judged, but they’re supposed to give me an idea of how the stories go after the partials I’m given to read.

As most writers do, I hate writing synopses. I sweat over every word, every sentence, every paragraph. I work to get the tone just right, to make sure I hit the high points of the plot and show the development of the romantic relationship as it progresses through the meet to the reveal to the conflict and “black moment” to the resolution. All in two pages, or at most, five.

Even though most agents and editors swear they ignore the synopsis until they have to use it as a sales tool, a good synopsis is a work of art. It should reflect your writing style (and skill), play up all the best parts of your book and downplay any flaws. Like the back cover blurb, it should sell your story.

I say all this because too many writers see the synopsis as simply a chore to be gotten through. They may pay attention to word count and getting all the plot points in there, but little else. But imagine that the agent or editor was to read the synopsis first, like I did for my most recent contest entry.

It was competently written, but the style was only workmanlike: This happens, then that happens, then so on. The main premise of the story was a contemporary romance cliché. (I won’t tell you what for fear of giving away the entry.) There was no indication of the special nature of the hero or heroine or the setting or underlying mystery of the story. I groaned. Reading this thing was going to be a chore. (Note that if I had a choice—i.e. if I were an agent or editor—I probably wouldn’t have read it.)

But then I started reading the actual entry. What a difference! The writer’s style was immediately engaging. Her (an assumption--the writer could have been male) characters were fully dimensional and had real chemistry together. The setting was not exactly unique, but it was vividly drawn, a place I wanted to visit right away. And the central mystery of the story was laid out in such a way that I wanted to know what happened next. I don’t read contemporaries, so you know the writer did a good job of setting this up in the first few pages of her book. How could she have failed so miserably in her synopsis?

Part of the problem is that her story includes a twist on an old plot device. She’s done a great job of emphasizing “twist” in the pages of her book; she needs to do the same thing in the synopsis (and, of course, all of her queries and blurbs). Similarly, she needs to play up the strengths of her strong characters and brilliantly sketched settings in the synopsis.

Most of all she needs to focus on more original aspects of the plot, rather than the more overused element of the story, which pops out first. Sometimes a “cliché” just has to be part of your story—Unchained Memory wouldn’t be a story without my heroine’s amnesia—but you have to find a way to hook your readers so strongly that they don’t think, “This has been done before,” they think, “I want to know what happens next.”

In fact, as we all know, there are no completely original, never-been-done ideas in literature. Someone once said there are only seven plot variations in all of human drama. The trick is to present your well-used plot device as something new and different long enough to get the agent, the editor, the contest judge or the reader to actually read your first few pages. If your query or your back cover blurb or your synopsis is good enough, they’ll take a look. Then it’ll be up to you—your skill, your talent, your ability to make the reader believe and take that leap of faith with you.

Ping Pong

Intriguing theory about the Law of Attraction, Laurie, and a new sub-genre, Visionary Fiction. Haven’t read any of the books mentioned, but it sounds like the genre might have had roots in some of the New Age SF authors like Zenna Henderson (The People), Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human) and others. I’ll have to check it out.

Cheers, Donna


  1. I DO hate writing the synopsis, but I see it as another challenge set by publishers - if you can't do it and make it interesting, then there's the chance your writing in general isn't interesting either. So I try to make is short and snappy, and make sure all the details are there. If it bores me, chances are it will bore everyone else too.

  2. Oh, the dread "S" word.

    It really is a brainteaser! Trying to whittle your synopsis down to the core elements, often having to lose secondary characters and plotlines, but still convey GMC (goals/motivations/conflicts) and your shiny new, never-seen-before twist can be daunting.

    I think having critique partners take a look at my synopsis is as important as having them beta-read my work. Sometimes they can spot something that's missing or unclear because they aren't as close to the work as I am as the author.

    Donna, I loved hearing about your judging experience. I think judging is one of the best--and most overlooked--ways to educate yourself about what works and what doesn't in a story. You learn so much!


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