Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

The Beastly Synopsis

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Oh, the synopsis. The beastly synopsis. And it seems like everyone wants something different. One page or two?
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Just like the dreaded query letter, there are many resources out there with explicit guidelines on how to write it (I put the links at the end), so I won’t rehash it here. I’m going to give you my two cents, based on my own experiences, research, and reading many through #WriteMentor, for whatever it’s worth.

The query letter is all business. The synopsis is similarly not glamorous. It’s one and only job is to show the entire story arc, boiled down to its essence, so an agent or editor sees characters and the plot and, very important, what makes your story unique. Just tell the story, and show us through the action and plot why we should care about your characters and why the story needs to be told.

For me, like the query, it’s always been a painful, yet incredibly useful exercise. Writing the synopsis forces me to find and succinctly show the very heart and soul of my story. Sometimes having to boil your story down to a synopsis reveals plot holes or contrived plot devices. It forces you to lay out what’s at stake and how your MC’s choices are driving the story (or not…eek).

The synopsis is really just a summary of who and what changes in the book, from beginning to end.  It’s job: to show the characters and their actions that drive the plot forward in reaction to the antagonist’s actions, and how it impacts them physically and emotionally and changes their central relationships.

The biggest thing is to focus on your main character’s AGENCY. Show the reader how their choices (both good and bad) in response to the antagonist are propelling the plot forward all the way to the inevitable end. Every line in the synopsis should be causally connected and building on the last, showing the plot thickening due to the character’s choices. And it must show the entire narrative arc, including the ending.

We want to connect to your characters, to care about them, and this is done in part through building a strong sense of internal and external conflict. If we can’t feel the tension in the synopsis, what does that say about the book? Here’s a great bit of advice from Jane Friedman, who knows the art of everything writing a thousand times better than me:

“Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Feelings/Emotion) = Decision (Story Advancement)”

Do this over and over again for each obstacle the main character faces.

You can read the rest of her advice on synopsis writing here.

You don’t need to name every character or detail every subplot, especially if you have multiple POVs or complex things going on, or it becomes confusing, convoluted, and incoherent. Show us the main character’s choices in response to the obstacles being thrown out there by the antagonist, the consequences of those choices (physical, emotional, relational), which lead to the next choice they have to make. Show us how the choices change the relationships between important characters, as this is at the heart of tension, and internal and external conflict. Show us the evolution of the important relationships as the plot progresses.

Each sentence should show the internal and external  plot thickening due to the character’s choices and agency.

A few more tips:

  • Use active voice, third person, and present tense.
  • Be succinct. Less is more.
  • Don’t offer your interpretations as an author, saying things like “the story begins with…” or “then we learn.” Just show us the story.

Just like the query letter, have members of your writing tribe tear apart your synopsis. Their fresh eyes will see things yours don’t. Have people unfamiliar with your story read it as well, to see if you synopsis makes sense and flows with no context. And critique others’ synopses, as this will help you learn what works and doesn’t, and hopefully apply it to your own.

Here’s a few more resources:

Learn How to Write a Synopsis Like a Pro

How to Write a Synopsis

How to Write a 1 Page Synopsis

The Anatomy of a Short Synopsis

On my end, All the Walls of Belfast is now on Good Reads! Check it out, and if you’re interested, add it to your “Want to Read” list. Cover reveal with teaser trailer coming SOON!

Next week, the topic will be those critical first pages. Happy writing!

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