This is the third in a series on pitching your novel, my take on the topic–for many more answers, follow the blog chain led by Joshua Palmatier, editor and author! In the meantime, read on. . .
Personally, I think the synopsis is harder than either the elevator pitch or query we’ve already discussed. When you have to boil down a plot to a single sentence, or a paragraph or two, you have to be ruthless–slashing, slimming, selecting exactly the right verb, phrase or plot element to reveal the entire plot. Yes, that’s the ENTIRE plot. One of the mistakes many new authors make is to leave off the ending of their book, thinking this will make the agent or editor so curious that they feel compelled to request the complete manuscript.
In fact, it’s more likely to convince them of one of three things: 1. the book isn’t finished at all. 2. you don’t actually know how to finish the book, so the ending is lame, and that’s why you haven’t included it. 3. you have not learned how to be a professional. In any of these cases, they have plenty of other choices for books to request, and its highly likely they’re going to choose one of those. If you haven’t finished the book–go finish, I’ll wait.
All done? Good. So is your ending lame? Ask some honest friends who read or write in the same genre to read it over and be blunt. If your ending rocks, providing a satisfying conclusion to what’s gone before, then make it the capstone of your gorgeous synopsis.
Back to my first point, that a synopsis is hard. Because you usually have some lee-way in the length of the synopsis, it’s easy to want to include too much, or get off-track to make sure your darlings are in there. (agents and editors often have a preferred length of synopsis and will say so in their guidelines) Yes, you want to showcase some of what makes your style and your world stand out, but don’t overdo that. Focus on delivering the key events and choices of the plot in a streamlined, active fashion. Regardless of how the book is written the synopsis should be third person, present tense.
The best advice I’ve gotten about this is to imagine you’re telling the story of a great movie you just saw to a friend of yours. You’d focus on the central character(s), showing their action and decisions, and the conflicts they face, then the big climax! You’d probably talk a bit about the setting–what stands out in this milieu? What is critical for the reader to know in order to understand that climax?
Part of the trouble that fantasy novels, in particular, have is multiple point of view characters. How do you take a big, fat epic and strangle it into only five pages or so? My recent approach has been to craft an initial paragraph that addresses the concept of the work, usually informed by the world-building and the principal conflict. It’s sort of an executive summary of why I wrote the book, and what I hope will excite the reader.
Here’s one I wrote for a work in progress entitled THE FOREST OF BONE:
Kormos rose from the sea, a volcano that swallowed the gods. A thousand years later, the children of the gods preserve their little kingdoms, playing with magic, pretending at their own godhood to the fleshborn and the mages alike, unaware that one of their number plans to raise the bones of vengeance and drown their world.
This paragraph addresses the backdrop of the world, and shows the stakes–we’ll be dealing with gods, magic, and the death of worlds. The synopsis then flows into the plot, introducing the principal characters and showing where they are at the start of the narrative (this book has 3 POV’s), each confronting their own problems. As the plot develops, I show connections among these narratives and they begin to braid together in the synopsis. This book is about 190,000 words long, and the synopsis is 6 pages.
For my first true epic fantasy novel, DRAKEMASTER, I have five POV’s. It’s a historical fantasy, set in a time and place many people would not be familiar with, so the synopsis is a bit unusual. It begins with an introduction to the medieval Chinese technology at the heart of the novel, then a character briefing: a short paragraph for each of those POV’s, showing who they are and what each one faces. I actually drafted five different synopses originally, one from the perspective of each character. For the submission synopsis, I pulled paragraphs from each of these to reveal the overall plot as informed by my distinct protagonists. Did it work? Well, it got me an agent–and hopefully I’ll soon know if we’ve landed the contract!