How To Park a Buick in a Wheaties Box
Boiling a complete novel down to three pages is no more difficult than, say, packing ten pounds of rice into a shot glass. Of all the writers I’ve talked to about it, only two say they actually enjoy writing synopses. They’re mutants, I tell ya.
The majority of writers simply loathe them. When you get down to it, they’re harder for most of us than writing the novel itself.
Why are they even necessary? Can’t an editor tell by reading the first few pages of the manuscript if they’re interested enough to read on?
Some can. Some editors hate synopses as much as writers do. But editors are busy people, and many of them like to get an idea of plot--whether it’s serviceable or not--before they invest the time it takes to read an entire manuscript. Sometimes, the synopsis is your only chance to make an impression.
So how do we, as writers, make that first impression a good one? How do we make that synopsis sizzle, and entice the editor to dive into Chapter One?
Here’s the first half of the synopsis I recently sent to my agent:
When a routine teenage runaway case turns into a complex murder and kidnapping, it’s up to private investigator Nicholas Colt to navigate a terrifying labyrinth of conspiracy and betrayal. With no real evidence to offer the police, Colt must rely on instinct and sheer will to bring a ruthless killer to justice...
He’s having a damn good day. Before the brain-baking north Florida sun rises, Colt catches and filets a few bass for breakfast. Later, he snags a thousand dollar retainer from Leitha Ryan--legal guardian for Brittney, her fifteen-year-old sister. Brittney, it seems, has run away from home. Colt figures to wrap the case tomorrow, in a few hours tops. He does a little research, and spends the rest of the afternoon and evening in bed with his girlfriend, Juliet. He’s weeks behind on his car payment, his home phone has been disconnected, and Juliet constantly gripes about his living quarters--a 1964 Airstream Safari travel trailer. He’s forty-five, and living paycheck-to-precarious paycheck; but, all-in-all, life is good. Not bad for a Tuesday, anyway.
Rule #34 in Nicholas Colt’s Philosophy of Life: If you have a good Tuesday, Wednesday is going to be a bitch.
When a runaway girl has a forbidden boyfriend, she’s usually easy to locate. Find the boyfriend, find the girl. Colt strikes out there, but learns Brittney is working as a “lingerie model.” With a little help from a sawed-off shotgun, he convinces the pimp to do the right thing. Brittney reluctantly leaves with Colt, but says she can’t go home. Someone is trying to kill her, she says. Likely story. But, if Colt forces her back home with Leitha, he knows she’ll only run away again. He takes Brittney to his campsite, teaches her how to fish, and works on getting to the root cause of why she ran away in the first place. Brittney doesn’t budge. In fact, she says it was all a lie. No one is trying to kill her. She wants to go home. Now.
While waiting to hand Brittney over to Leitha, Wednesday turns to Thursday and grows significantly worse. Colt’s Airstream is shot at. He unsuccessfully gives chase and, when he comes back, Brittney has disappeared. Maybe she went home. Hitchhiked, or something. When Colt goes there, he finds Leitha brutally tortured and murdered. Colt is horrified, sorrowful, and pissed off. Whoever killed Leitha must have kidnapped Brittney. Is Brittney dead, too? Colt is determined to find out.
Does this make you want to read the book?
First of all, synopses are always written in present tense. No exception. I started with a short hook, the protagonist’s main story problem. The second graf reveals a little bit about the hero’s ordinary world--the setting, his financial and marital status, age, etc., and his attitude toward the case he’s accepted--that it’s going to be a cakewalk, an easy and much needed thousand dollars.
In the third graf, I hint that the protag’s ordinary world is about to change--for the worse.
From there, I start telling the actual story. That’s right, telling. The old rule “show don’t tell” doesn’t really apply to synopses. You should make the language as colorful as possible, and try to maintain a smidgeon of “voice,” but you simply don’t have space for much description and nuance. You have to squeeze a hundred or more pages of story onto one page. Tell, don’t show.
Unlike jacket blurbs--those teasers designed to compel a purchase--synopses are the entire novel in miniature. Editors want to know how the beginning, middle, and ending are handled. The synopsis is, in essence, a tiny version of the whole book, the Reader’s Digest Super Duper Ultra Condensed five-minute version. It’s like chugging a can of Boost when you don’t have time for a seven course dinner.
Here’s what we all know: Boost sucks. Most synopses suck. Try to make yours the exception.
Synopses are necessary tools for selling your novels. Might as well get used to the idea of writing them. With a little practice, maybe they’ll more closely resemble a tasty appetizer--making an editor hungry for more.