The Evil Synopsis

I made up my own hashtag last week as I was working on the synopsis for the YA version of DUET: #evilsynopsis. Because I truly think they’re evil. How am I supposed to condense 77,000 words into a less than 500-word summary? It’s much harder than when the book was 44,000 words.

My point with this post is not to tell you how to write a synopsis, though. Other people with much more experience can do a better job of that. My goal is to share some lessons I’ve learned as I attempted to whittle this novel down to less than two pages. But, for those of you who want to know the basics, here are a few:

  • Follow the agent’s guidelines for length.
  • It should be in third person even if the novel’s in first.
  • Double-space unless the agent asks for single-spaced.
  • Don’t mention more than four or five characters, and avoid names if possible (i.e., “the owner” instead of the actual name).
  • As much as possible, make sure it matches the tone of the novel.
  • Make the reader care about the main character first, then get to the story.
  • Avoid a list of facts/actions.

Most of these tips were taken from a workshop I attended with author Shawntelle Madison at the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Conference. She even has a synopsis wizard available on her website:

So, back to my experience. I’m a detail person. For example, when I tell my husband about something that happened during the day, I feel compelled to include the backgrounds of the people involved, what they did yesterday that led to what they did today, how the side characters are involved, what they did, why they did it, etc. Get the picture? So you can imagine how hard it is to boil my full-length novel into a summary. Here are some hard-won lessons for me that may apply to you, too.

It’s OK to leave out some characters. I’ve been working on this synopsis off and on for about a month, and every time I came back to it, I knew there were too many characters mentioned. I kept asking myself: what does the reader really need to know in this summary? Do I need to mention the crush or should I stay focused on the main love interest? What about her old best friend moving away and her struggle to build new friendships? Ultimately I decided I didn’t have room for the old best friend or the crush, even though they feed into the main plot, and once I took them out, it freed up a lot of space. I was wasting too much time trying to explain their roles in the story. And that leads me to a second point …

It’s OK to leave out some subplots. This one drives me crazy! I have a conversation in my mind that goes something like this:

“But they have to understand that the strained relationship with her old best friend leads to her not fully trusting the new best friend and lying about still being hung up on the crush instead of admitting her addiction and–”

“NO!” interrupts other Michelle. “They don’t. Really all they need to understand is the main character, her internal and external conflicts, and the end result.”

It sounds easy when you write it out that way, but it’s SO HARD. Because when you leave out subplots, everything doesn’t fit together as smoothly. You have to fudge some of the details to make them work together, and as someone who’s very literal, I have a hard time with that. The next conversation goes something like this:

“But that’s not really why she decides to do that.”

“It doesn’t matter. That’s all we have space for. The point is to give them an overview of the story. They’ll get the details when they read the actual novel.”

Huge sigh. “Fine.”

Hopefully I’m not the only one who has these internal conversations :). This is the first time I’ve worked on the synopsis before the query, and I actually think that’s going to help me. After all, I’ve already done the hardest part–figuring out who and what can be left out.

So, I think I have this synopsis on the right track, but I’d love some opinions from people who haven’t read the novel. Any takers?

I’d also love to hear what you’ve learned about writing synopses. Do you hate it like I do, or are you a rare person who loves it?

Responses to “The Evil Synopsis”

  1. Elizabeth Fais

    I’m with you. I think it’s easier to write the novel than the synopsis. My problem is adding too much information. What works best for me is to make a pass at the synopsis, and then let it sit for awhile. When I come back to it later, it’s easier to spot the extraneous information and streamline the flow. Reading the synopsis on jacket flaps helped me hone in on what to focus on for the main story thread in a synopsis for my novel.

    • Michelle I. Mason

      Yes, that’s true about doing it over time. I worked on it some before the holidays and came back to it, only spending an hour at a time so I could look at it fresh the next day.

  2. Elizabeth Fais

    The hardest part for me was nailing the voice, since it’s in third person and my novel is in first person. The funny thing is, I’ve heard agents and editors say (at conferences) that they don’t read the synopsis at all. Or, that they read the pages first and if they are impressed, then (and only then) read the synopsis. Still…if it’s in the submission requirements, it must be done. 😉

  3. kiperoo

    I wonder if you saw any of my recent tweets about my own barf-inducing synopsis? 😉 I wrote a 1-pager on the ms I’m currently revising, and man, did it kill me.
    I decided for a (double-spaced) 1-pager because it’s definitely one of the standard desired lengths, and because this is one case where it’s definitely easier to add if space allows. The things I had to leave out! But in the end, I was happy with what I got and it was nice to have the whole ms boiled down to a page as I start my cleanup revision round.
    But, oh, the barf …

    • Michelle I. Mason

      I did see those tweets! I’m impressed you did one page double-spaced. Mine’s about a page and a half double-spaced, but there are some things I could remove if I had to–more to show the voice than the plot.

      Know any good synopsis critiquers (who haven’t already read the MS :))? No takers yet…

  4. Elizabeth Fais

    Michelle, I’d be happy to critique your synopsis. My strength is in structure, so I might be able to help there. I haven’t read your MS so I won’t be familiar with the voice, but there’s other things fresh eyes can catch. 😉


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