Synopsis! What is it good for? Tips on communicating your story
Posted on July 5, 2012
by Elizabeth Mazer
Picture this: yours truly—a lovely and charming Assistant Editor for Harlequin series—meets an author at a conference. She pitches an intriguing-sounding story to me, and I give her my business card, asking for the first three chapters and the synopsis. Then I see it—the fear. The panic. The burning question in her eyes as she visibly wonders— what does this editor mean by that?
It’s a fair question. While any synopsis will give you the information on a story’s plot and characters, the sky pretty much is the limit when it comes to exactly how they’re presented. I’ve seen synopses ranging from one paragraph to thirty pages; some so vague that I can’t even identify the hero and others so detailed that I could practically write out a grocery list for all the meals the characters have. What’s the right way to go? That’s what I’m here to explain!
For starters, let’s talk about why a synopsis is important. (And trust me, it’s really, really important.)
Please don’t hate me for saying this, but even after you’ve finished writing your book, it’s going to be awhile before that manuscript into which you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears gets read by an agent or editor. Why? Because the agents and editors need to make sure it’s the kind of story they’re looking for before they sit down and plow through hundreds of pages of text.
As I mentioned, I work for Harlequin series, where all of our stories are romances. So if you’ve got a great story about a woman at an ad agency who goes to meet her new, very important client and discovers that it’s her high school sweetheart who inexplicably dumped her right before prom, that could be a terrific fit for some of our lines. But if they work out their issues, uncover the truth about his actions way back when, and come to a new understanding—and then decide to be just friends? Um…no. That really wouldn’t work for us. The sweet, satisfying happily-ever-after element to a romance is an essential part of our stories. As wonderful as your manuscript might be, if it lacks that element, then the story is not for us. And the sooner I find that issue out, the sooner I can reply to you and let you know.
On the other hand, if your story ends with the hero taking the heroine dancing to make up for the prom that wasn’t, telling her how happy he is to have laid the past to rest and then dropping to one knee and pulling out a ring box…well, that sounds perfect! And the sooner I see that, the sooner I can request the complete manuscript and start giving your story in-depth consideration.
So now that we know how important a synopsis can be, how can you craft your synopsis to make the best possible impression? On this point, I’ve got to admit, the rules aren’t hard-and-fast. Some publishing houses and literary agencies have very different guidelines. (And let me just say that it’s always a good idea to check online to see if their website lists any requirements.) But there are still some good rules you can follow to make your synopsis the best it can be.
If you’re pitching to an editor/agent who requests a synopsis, here are three questions to ask:
How long should the synopsis be? Our standard answer, as noted on www.harlequin.com is two pages, single-spaced—so it would be smart to have that ready to go. But while the content of your synopsis should fit on those two pages, it’s fine to double-space for ease of reading, in which case the synopsis should run 3-5 pages.
Chapter-by-chapter or narrative? I believe most editors/agents prefer the synopsis in paragraph style, outlining the plot as a narrative, but sometimes, you’ll get asked for a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The narrative style works better for me, but I understand the appeal of the chapter-by-chapter style—it gives a good feel for pacing.
Just synopsis, or more? Sometimes, editors/agents like a bit more info alongside the synopsis. That “more” could be a two-line summary covering the key story elements. It could be a list of already published books that tackle similar themes, with the idea that fans of those books would like yours, too. It could be your (brief) bio, giving your experience and credentials. With Harlequin, we don’t require this information, but if you’re courting an agent, you’ll want to ask them if there’s anything like this they need you to include.
After that, here are three things to remember as you pull together and polish your synopsis:
Stay focused. Keep the backstory minimal! Center your synopsis on the “current day” events the characters face—their goals, motivations, and conflicts as they overcome obstacles to be together. And please, keep the tone consistent. A light, funny story should have a light, funny synopsis.
Include the ending. I’m sure it’s tempting to leave the synopsis open-ended to try to pique our interest into requesting more to see how things conclude, but that’s really not the way to go. As I mentioned before, we really need to know all the plot—including the ending—to make sure the story fits our requirements.
Relax! It’s always going to be scary to send your proposal to an editor or agent, but please, try to remember that we’re not as frightening as we seem! We don’t require you to be letter-perfect. I promise, I have never once refused to read a synopsis that ran long, or failed to include the ending. We’re book people—we’re here because we want to read your stories. More than that, we want to love your stories! Help us see what a terrific tale you’ve got with a clear, concise synopsis, and we can work things out from there.
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