The Fiction Doctor Cindy Davis
WRITING THE SYNOPSISWhat is a synopsis?
1) It's a narrative summary of your book--with feeling.
2) It's written in present tense.
3) It's written in third person.
4) It's written in the same writing style as your book. If your book is "chatty," then your synopsis should be, too. If your book is serious, literary, filled with dialect, or any other style, so must your synopsis be.
5) The synopsis introduces your main characters and their main conflicts, all woven together in the narrative.
The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. It has to be developed and sweated over and polished with the same attention you devoted to the novel itself. Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the editor on the manuscript. If they don't see anything they like in the synopsis, they won't even glance at your chapter samples.
The synopsis is your sales pitch. Think of it as the jacket blurb for your novel (the synopsis is often used in writing this, and by the publisher's art and advertising departments, if the novel is purchased), and write it as though you're trying to entice a casual bookstore browser to buy the novel and read it. Which isn't too far from actuality.
HOW DO I WRITE A SYNOPSIS?Rather than being daunted by the enormity of such a task, break it down into steps.
The first step: Sit down to that final reading with a pen and paper beside you. As you finish reading each chapter, write down a one- or two-paragraph summary of what happened where, and to which character, in that chapter.
Do you notice any themes running through your chapters as you're reading? Basically it's a topic, certain language, thread of action, or color scheme that keeps popping up from beginning to end. Take note of them. You may just discover your one-line story summary that agents and editors like so much, if you didn't know what it was before. Or even if you thought you knew what it was, before (surprise, says the Muse, you were wrong).
What you will have when you are done examining your chapters is a chapter-by-chapter novel outline. This is pretty dry reading, and since chapter-by-chapter outlines seem to have fallen out of favor with editors and agents, this will likely remain one of your most valuable writing tools, and that's about it. Don't throw this away when you've done your synopsis, either. You may know the story intimately now, but you do forget details over time. You may revise the novel in the future, and this outline will help. Reading an outline is easier than leafing through or rereading an entire novel.
What you are doing with your chapter-by-chapter outline is distilling the story down into smaller and more manageable packages, step by step.
Next step, from the chapter-by-chapter outline, pinpoint the most important plot points. These will be the highlights of your synopsis in that outline. Notice I said the most important points. We're talking about only those events and motivations that moved the story forward in a major way. We're talking about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players. Right now, we are striving for bare bones.
Let's See Some Enthusiasm!Now, envision one or two things while you rework that synopsis: imagine you're writing a jacket blurb for the novel, one that will pique the casual browser's curiosity and make him or her want to buy the book to see what happens. Read a few jacket blurbs, to get a feel for them.
You've just seen a terrific movie. You're describing it to your friend. You're not saying, "The good guy chased the bad guy and shot him and that was the end." That doesn't sound very enthusiastic. No, say things like, "The good guy is wounded, but he knows if he doesn't stop the evil Dr. Death, the whole world is in danger, so he staggers after Dr. Death, falls, somehow gets to his feet again, and at last zaps him with the Good Guy Death-ray to save the world."
That's how your synopsis will sound, when you're done: enthusiastic, enticing. A description that makes the reader want to pick up the manuscript and find out how this happens!
How can you make your synopsis unique, exciting? Start with the main character and his or her crisis. Include snippets of dialogue or quote briefly from the novel itself. Don't neglect to reveal the character's emotions and motivations, those points that explain why a character does something, but keep it brief. If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis with a brief paragraph. This includes any background information that is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Build excitement as you near the conclusion of the story summary by using shorter sentences and paragraphs. The synopsis is a sample of your writing; it is a taste of what reading the actual novel will be like, so give it your all.
Don't forget that one- or two-sentence story line, or the theme of the story that you discovered. It should go in your synopsis, or in your cover letter. Editors and agents like having this distillation; not only will it pique their interest, but it's something they can use when presenting the novel to the buying board. It's also something you can use, the next time someone politely asks you, "What's your novel about?"
Shalts and Shalt NotsNow for the "thou shall and shalt nots."
First—acceptable length. Usually, allow one synopsis page for every twenty-five pages of manuscript, but even that could be longer than most editors and agents want to see. Most editors and agents prefer short synopses from two to ten pages.
Always keep in mind that the synopsis must remain interesting, and supply the necessary information, then cut, cut, cut. Keep making passes deciding what you can refine or do without completely. This is the hardest part. Don't know what to cut? Lose the adjectives and adverbs; keep the motivation and "flavor" of the story.
You have to tell the entire story. Don't send the first three chapters and then start the synopsis at chapter four. Don't leave out the ending, hoping to entice the editor or agent to request the full manuscript in order to find out what happens. What they will do is decide you're an amateur.
No matter what tense your novel was written in, the synopsis is always written in present tense (Jerry goes to the bullfight as opposed to Jerry went to the bullfight.) Format: readable font, usually Times or Times New Roman, single-space your synopsis.
The first time you use a character's name in the synopsis, type it in CAPITAL letters. Do this only the first time. Avoid confusion by referring to a character the same way throughout (not "Dr. Evans" the first time, "Jerry" the next, and "the doctor" another time). It's also advisable to identify which character(s) is the point of view character by typing "(POV)" after the first instance of the character's name.
Try beginning with a paragraph describing your character. Not the physical attributes but the most compelling characteristics. Second paragraph, do the same with the antagonist or the character who plays off your main character. Third and subsequent paragraphs, describe what happens in the story—give a play by play of the plot's highlights, the events that propel the story and characters forward. Then close with a wrap up—yes, tell the end—of the story.
- Does the opening paragraph have a hook to keep the reader reading?
- Are your main characters' conflicts clearly defined?
- Are your characters sympathetic?
- Can the reader relate to them and worry about them?
- Have you avoided all grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes?
- Have you hit on the major scenes, the major plot points of your book?
- Did you resolve all important conflicts?
- Did you use present tense?
- FictionWriters.com: Writing a Novel Synopsis
- How to Write a Synopsis by Marg Gilks
- Workshop: Writing the Novel Synopsis by Sheila Kelly
CHARACTERSStrong, determined characters are what readers remember. Rhett Butler, Nancy Drew, Tiny Tim. These characters possess qualities that keep you awake, make you think, bring back memories. They seem alive.
Strong characters talk and act within their personality—this is predictably—until pushed beyond their limits. Pushing characters beyond the norm, showing what they're really made of, is what makes good fiction. How many times have you been surprised when the character did something totally unexpected? Even if you didn't agree with what they did, wasn't it compelling? Didn't it make you want to read on? Did you talk to your friends about them?
How does your main character think of herself? How does that compare to the way her lover sees her? If she thinks of herself as a go-getter, someone who's confident and secure, he might see someone willing to kill for a promotion.
Do any of us see ourselves as weak or impatient? It's easy to see it in others though, isn't it?
Has anyone ever told you exactly what they think of you? After you got over the mad and thought about what they said, how did that opinion differ from one you've had about yourself all these years?
Keeping that in mind: what does your character think about other characters? Not the way they look, but the way they are as people. In later stages of the story, does he view these persons in the same way? The same with setting. As we discussed earlier, if something happens to the character on a particular street, won't her perspective of that street be affected forever? These evaluations deepen your character, but also allow the reader to form mental impressions of characters, events, or settings.
Here is a bit of character self-evaluation: Laura beamed her million-dollar smile at Jim. She knew some in Hollywood laughed at her now and again because of her down home "awe shucks" wide-eyed approach to life. She wasn't about to change to fit in. If anyone from her hometown remembered her it certainly wasn't as the successful actress she was now. As a kid she'd been scrawny with buckteeth that looked even bigger because of the too-tight French braids her mother wove daily into her blonde hair.
See how Laura's opinion contrasts with the antagonist's view of her: Sean found himself eyeball to breasts with the most gorgeous woman he'd ever laid eyes on. The blonde haired goddess towered over him by a good six inches making her almost six feet tall. A virtual Amazon. Her silk blouse was the exact shade of green as her eyes. Her expression was one of mild amusement.
A stereotypical character is one that's been etched in the reader's mind. A dirty homeless person. A well-dressed businessman. A serious, shushing librarian. Try taking your characters beyond this accepted image; give them traits that are unique to them as people and unexpected by the reader. A prim and proper homeless person. A businessman with wrinkled slacks. A librarian who tells jokes in a voice an octave above a whisper.
Settings can also be stereotypical. A thunderstorm instills suspense. A crowded subway fosters insecurity. A field of clover inspires happiness. But can you go further? Use that setting, and the image it produces for the reader. Example: if a person is mugged on Park Avenue, won't she react in some way to that same street every time she passes after that? Or mightn't she avoid that area completely?
If, in that field of clover, Joe is attacked by a wolf, won't fields of clover produce an entirely new image for him after that? Or maybe he carries a gun whenever he's out walking.
In the above examples, the characters' frames of mind are forever changed. And will keep changing as the story unfolds. Every situation alters the character's disposition and humor. Here's an example of a character's mood: The oversized wall clock behind the nurse's station read eight-thirty. Clara kicked the blood spattered white shoes from her aching feet. She should have been out of here an hour ago. Her shift ended at seven-thirty but as usual disaster struck at the stroke of seven and here she was preparing to trudge home late and microwave another lonely TV dinner.
See how it changes just a few pages later: "Rather humbling really." Clara tilted her head thoughtfully. Here was the opportunity for an entirely new life she had been begging for just hours before. Was she ready for it? Yes, most definitely.
HERE ARE SOME POINTS TO HELP YOUR OWN SELF EDITINGShow vs. Tell is a difficult concept to understand. It takes practice and perseverance to master the nuances, to know when to tell and when to show. How do you know if you're telling rather than showing your story? If you describe what's going on in a scene, you are probably telling. When you tell rather than show, you are essentially telling the reader how to feel, because it's your version of the story. Showing a scene instead, brings the reader in and lets them experience things right up front in their own way.
Why is there so much emphasis on showing instead of telling?
The question is, how to do this? One way is to use metaphors and analogies to compare the way things look, smell, sound or taste to that specific character. Rather than tell that the ocean breeze smelled like salt, show how the smell reminded the character of a romantic date he'd had. Or how it tickled his nostrils. Or how the scene affects this character emotionally. Let the sounds of your setting's everyday life permeate the scenes. The way a character reacts or thinks about sounds or events around him deepens the scene, develops the character. Shows the reader.
- to put more emphasis on the character's reaction to it than a description of it
- to immerse the reader in images, senses and dialogue rather than explanations of action
- to present images in ways readers may not have seen them before
Always be thinking how the character views each scene. Rather than saying "Debbie sat on the bed," show it creaking under her weight or show its legs scratching across the bare wood floor. The creak or scratch should portray how she sat. If she's angry and throws herself there, the bed will be more likely to bang against the wall. Conversely, if she's calm, she'll probably drop on the bed and it won't make any noise, but might puff up the scent of fabric softener from the quilt. Instead of a long paragraph telling how she was born in Boston, show it in how she says she "always loved the way the moonlight glistened off Boston Harbor" or that she "went to all the Bruins games."
- All this man's movements had been deliberate and slow, which seemed to go with his long and extremely lank form. This sentence is okay, but as I said above, it's the opinion of the author. You, the reader are being told what to think about the man. This could read instead: He removed the container from the fire and placed it by the bedroll, his thin arms and legs feeling as if they moved on rusty hinges. This sentence is now from the perspective of the character. It lets the reader assume things about him. Maybe he's been on the road a long time and is tired. Maybe he's old. We learn more about him as the story unfolds.
- However, that day, Sonja decided to turn down the flame and put her romantic ideas on the back burner. This is a different type of telling—it's underwriting. There's not enough here to get a good picture of the character. Let's embellish it, to make the character clearer, more interesting. Sonja sighed and pushed back the chair. Seemed like heroes only came along in fiction stories. Never in real life. She shut down the computer. Maybe it would be better not to write any more, it only made her sad. Then again, the way that biker's thigh muscles rippled...
- The city suffered significant damage in the blast. We have all watched news programs. We've all seen videos of this type of event. We have a preformed picture of what it's like. So, this sentence works, to an extent. But what if a bigger picture is shown? Try: Among the ruins, the reflection of the sun on the pieces of broken glass on the road was so strong it was difficult to hold your head up as you walked. The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank and were covered with great, black swarms of flies. The relief squads clearing the ruins seemed to have been joined by reinforcements, since some men whose clothes, though bleached with frequent washing, were not as yet soiled with sweat and grime.
Is your narrative overloaded with pronouns?
Try reworking sentences to eliminate them.
'Living in Newport Beach was another goal she had already achieved. She loved the beach and always wanted to live there. She lived right on the peninsula where all the action took place.'
- Could say:
'Living on the beach was just another dream Maria had achieved. The parties, the expensive shops, the high profile people; she loved them all, right down to the bicycle cops wearing shorts that exposed well muscled calves and taut thighs...'
This step takes work, but the end result is much tighter, succinct prose.
Author intrusion is where the author’s voice is heard above that of the character.
- Example: ‘She knew Raymond wouldn’t give in to her merely on the basis of their friendship.’ This observation is obviously from the characters’ point of view, it’s being told in her voice. Therefore it’s not necessary to say ‘she knew’. Simply say ‘Raymond wouldn’t give in to her merely on the basis of their friendship.’
- OR, instead of ‘John noticed three men standing on the opposite sidewalk,’ just say ‘Three men stood on the opposite sidewalk.’
Overwriting is something I see frequently. It's:
- Where the author tries too hard to explain, to make sure the reader knows exactly what he means. What can it matter if they have a slightly different perception of your character? Or whether they see the scenery or the layout of a room in a different way? Unless a murder has been committed in that room, what does it matter if the reader ‘sees’ the bookshelf on the left or right? Or if he perceives the paisley drape print as six inches tall instead of three? Does your description of someone’s physical appearance, the setting, clothing, or weather come in the middle of an action scene? If so, it probably slows the story, distracts the reader.
- Showing a scene, then going on to tell about it is overwriting. It shows the reader that you don't trust your talent. Example: The wind whistled through the treetops and twisted the branches into arthritic fingers. The weather was terrible. Would say the same in a more succinct way if you left out the last sentence. The rest shows the weather being bad. It gives the reader something visual.
Do you give a play by play description of each character?
Delete it—well, most of it anyway. Dressing oneself, driving, smoking, eating, and bathing are all static activities; places where nothing but introspection usually happens. Take out these scenes. Unless her clothing or the way she bathes is needed to forward your plot. Leave only what delineates the character.
- What he’s wearing?
- What brand of makeup she has on?
- A detailed narrative of how she got dressed that morning?
- Does he always wear black?
- Does she insist on having her nails freshly painted?
- Does she stutter?
Do you try to provide too much of the character’s background?
- Is it really important to tell us she came from Boston and had a sad childhood? Only if it’s directly pertinent to the story. In most cases it’s not. If you want to deepen the character and provide reasons for certain behaviors, dribble the information here and there. Or, use physical references in the narrative itself. Don’t say ‘she came from Boston’, say ‘she always loved the way the moonlight glistened off Boston Harbor.’
Consistent point of view.
I won’t go into detail about point of view, there’s too much to say, but as you read through your novel, watch for things that aren’t quite right. That aren’t exactly things your character could actually see or hear. And don’t be cagey about it. If the character’s seeing or hearing something doesn’t happen easily, write it so it does.
Substitute action verbs and physical movements for the adverbs and adjectives.
‘George finally got up the courage to carefully walk to Ron’s office.’
- Could read:
‘George took a breath and let it out, then tiptoed to Ron’s office.’
Taking a breath is a time-worn way of bolstering one’s courage. A little trite but it gets my meaning across here. Also instead of ‘carefully walking’, note that he ‘tiptoed’. This brings the action closer to the reader, makes the character’s emotions more succinct.
Passive voice slows the action, takes it a bit out of focus.
What is passive voice? Verbs that contain ‘had’ ‘were’ had been’ ‘would have’, etc. The fix? Take them out and replace with an action verb.
‘The plane she was on was going four or five hundred miles an hour.’
- Could read:
‘Her plane scorched through the clouds at five hundred miles an hour.’
- Another example:
“The boy had gone to the store after he’d gone to school.”
- Could say:
‘The boy bicycled to the store after sneaking out of school.’
Does the dialogue in your ms sound like the character, or does it sound like you?
- Could you remove the tag lines and identify who said what?
- How would an uneducated boy say good-bye compared to a Yale graduate?
- How would your great grandmother ask you to help with chores compared to how a seven year old child would ask?
Last Updated: 26 July 2013
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©2003-2013 Cindy Davis