Wednesday, September 30, 2020

More on requesting synopses

I'm working on the submission guidelines for the optional synopsis:

Here's what I've got so far (and it's an early draft!!)

Send a 3-5 page synopsis (750-1250 words)
Word count is a guideline. If you have 700, it's ok. If you have 1300 it's ok.
600 probably isn't enough; 1500 is probably too many.

Here's what to remember: I don't check the word count first. I read the synopsis. If it doesn't tell me enough, you have too few words. If it's stuffed with events  and then and then and then, you probably have too many.

What I'm looking for:

Who are the main characters and what choices they face.
What are the stakes for those choices.
(That's mostly what the query is about too)

As the synopsis develops so should the tension.
I want to actively wonder what happens next.

And what I really want to see are the twists.
I REALLY want your plot to surprise me, hopefully more than once.

I like words that signal a twist:

But then,
Except that
I like them a lot.


For a book that turns the plot upside down more than once:

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Sacred by Dennis Lehane;  

Deep Sky by Patrick Lee (a book so immersive, the plot twist still gets me!)

What am I missing?
What's not clear?

What's outright wrong?

Torment me with your revision suggestions! 


Unknown said...

I like that you specify what you want in a synopsis - however the 3-5 page specification is irritating as it would require me to create a third version of my synopsis. Most agents ask for a 1-2 page synopsis (so I always have a 1 page version and 2 page version). You saying that you want 3-5 pages (and specifically saying that if it's only X words long it's probably too short) would send me on my hamster wheel and make me feel the need to create a longer synopsis just for the sake of it (even though I'm confident my shorter synopsis would tick your requirements).

If what you're actually saying is just 'It needs to be long enough to tell me all the main plot points' rather than you being hell-bent on 3-5 pages specifically, I'd change it to 'Up to 5 pages, or roughly 750 - 1250 words'.

Kitty said...

Can you give us examples?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Those are the clearest synopsis guidelines I have seen in my agent search. Most just say "include a synopsis". If we are lucky, they include page length. This is good. Just enough torment to get the writer sweating while getting you what you need to evaluate our book. Win. Win.

nightsmusic said...

I think your other guideline should specifically say, 'Don't hide the twists, they're part of your synopsis.' I see over and over, people getting ready to query or are actively querying who ask if they should or should they have, put the 'big shocker' into their agent materials. This isn't your book buyer who is reading page by page awaiting said shocker. This is the agent you're hoping will represent you and who needs to know the entire book in synopsis form. There can be a lot of reasons an agent passes on a book, but if the twist doesn't work, well... I just think that's a very important thing to include and needs to be mentioned.

But that's me.

Steve Forti said...

I forget who recommended it the other day, but I'm still holding out hope for the new site Synposis Kraken.

This is a good, helpful start. To dig deeper, to what level of story detail should we be going? I've heard some people talk about chapter by chapter, others request a shorter, 1-2 paragraph version. The cut I wrote is 865 words, and focuses on the core story details. Am I leaving too much out by not mentioning supporting characters and only going into the critical path plot points?

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I wonder if you want to go further by saying you want not only the twists but also the subplots.

Colin Smith said...

You're not going to like my suggestion.

Just sayin' up front... you're not going to like this.


Show, don't tell. Take a classic novel and use it to demonstrate the kind of thing you look for in a synopsis. Maybe a query too, though there are loads of examples of queries on QueryShark.

Unfortunately, that's the best I've got. Aren't you glad I'm not saying much these days? :)

John Levins said...

I really like the guidelines. The only thing I can to add is in the “what I’m looking for” section. Perhaps you also want to understand the conflict and how the characters overcome it? Otherwise this is very helpful to the querying (minnow) author!

Emma said...

I like Colin's suggestion. Show an example of a synopsis using an existing novel.

This article is also very good:

All I can say about this is that I'm happy I don't have to write a synopsis for a few months at least. I'll probably cry when the time comes to do it.

Dena Pawling said...

Is this 3-5 pages double spaced? Your word count guidelines would imply double spaced [3-5 pages single spaced seems awfully long].

I know this goes against your life goal [tormenting writers], but if I was querying you, I'd stress over the order to paste the items in the email - query, pages, synopsis OR query, synopsis, pages - so providing that instruction would be appreciated.

Beth Carpenter said...

Should the synopsis follow the story pacing closely? That is, should the 65% point of the story fall exactly at 65% of the synopsis? Or is it best to brush over some building and subplot chapters to emphasize the turning points and twists?

The Noise In Space said...

Oooooh Colin wins the award for best comment today!

I look at summaries, loglines, and the book itself as ways of viewing the same plot, just at a different distance, like a camera shot. Let's call it "plot distance." The shorter the item needs to be, the more you need to zoom in on just a few features. Loglines are extreme close-ups (nothing else in the shot except the basics), the book as a whole is a wide shot (we can see multiple characters in the setting), etc.

I think the reason that so many writers struggle with this is that this degree of "plot distance" is that it is the one we're the least familiar with. Everyone has read the back of a book, the back cover of a DVD, a tv show description on Netflix. Short, pithy, to the point. Similarly, everyone has read full novels. But the average person never encounters that middle length. I don't know how to get it in focus. How close do I get? How many characters, how detailed? I know the camera settings for close-up and wide shot, but I don't know how to focus my lens for mid-shots.

Steve Forti said...

Given the relative size, can we also start the Logline Shrimp? The Pitch Prawn?

Kaye George said...

Almost every synopsis I've turned in is either one page single-spaced, or two pages double-spaced. Once or twice someone wanted a longer synopsis, but that wasn't on first submission. A lot of authors do have to be told to tell the whole plot, including the ending, so that you can see they know how to plot. They will either have a twist or not, I would think. (Or a double or triple twist.)

Brigid said...

Steve, I'll miss you when you are in Carkoon.

Katja said...

I was thinking the exact same thing as Dena: 3-5 pages would be far too long if single-spaced. Lots of filler would have to do it... and spoil it.

Word count probably means double-spaced, though.

Unknown said...

I agree that 3-5 pages seems too long, both because it's yet another format (most agents want somewhat shorter synopses) and because some books - especially literary fiction - will dissipate their value in a long synopsis. For example, it's hard to imagine a useful three-page synopsis of Jennifer Offill's Weather, and a three-page synopsis of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto would make it look more like a thriller that it really is and miss the point (as did Hollywood, but that's another story).

I think three pages makes sense for mysteries and thrillers. You could describe a Reacher book in four sentences, or forty, but the in-between would leave out the events that define his character. But even there, it would be nice if agents could get together on a synopsis length. (Yeah, not your job. Got it. But it also means that you could miss out on a few good writers with query fatigue.)

Unknown said...

(Sorry, I don't know why Blogger keeps showing me as "Unknown." I'm logged in and all. --Brent Salish)

April Mack said...

I like "Unknown" at 9/30/20, 7:22 AM's suggestion of "up to 5 pages, or roughly 750-1250 words" to accommodate those who already have a shorter synopsis. But I don't think 3-5 is too long. It'd allow for subplots that wouldn't fit in 1-2 pages.

The only thing I'd add some others have already said: It may seem obvious, but some writers need to hear not only "don't hide the twists" but also "must include the ending."

I don't think you need to give examples, because it's on us to do our own homework. If we can use Google, we can learn how to write a synopsis.

Craig F said...

I think I would just say "a maximum of 5 pages or 1250 words".

There was a lot more relevant material in the post though. Most of what i knew about a synopsis was that you showed your writing chops in the query, not the synopsis. The synopsis is to show the plot twists through the end, to make sure aliens didn't ( or did) come out in chapter 14.

I'll candy mine up some and see how it works. I still have a very convoluted plot to explain, some of those are subtle and some not. The aliens don't come out until chapter 20.

Water under the bridge for my Queen, though, it failed muster already.

KDJames said...

In the "what I'm looking for" section, two big things are missing:

1) goal: what does the character want? If they don't want anything, we don't care.
2) conflict: who/what is stopping them from getting it?

And no, I don't think "choices" is the same as a goal. And "stakes" are motivation, not conflict.

I strongly recommend all you writers go read Deb Dixon's book, GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. Her class was one of those huge *lightbulb* moments for me, many years ago when she gave an all-day presentation to our RWA chapter. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but until you hear someone say this in clear simple language, you don't really get it. Or maybe that's just me.

A great quote from chapter one, that covers the basics of a query and a synopsis:

"Commercial fiction readers expect your characters to have goals, to be motivated, and to face conflict. They expect you to answer four simple questions.

Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why not = conflict"

She gives a ton of examples, using movies. This is one from The Wizard of Oz [brackets mine]:

"An unhappy teenager [character] wants to get home to Kansas [goal] because her aunt is sick [motivation], but first she must fight a witch to win the aid of the wizard [conflict] who has the power to send her home."

-from Dixon, Debra. GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict . BelleBooks. Kindle Edition.

Really. Go read this book. I know it's on Amazon, probably elsewhere as well.

KDJames said...

BTW, you should be able to do the same exercise for your antagonist (all your characters, really, but especially the protag/antag). This could be tighter, obviously, but off the top of my head:

"A grieving witch [character] wants her dead sister's magical shoes [goal], so she can increase her power and avenge her sister's death [motivation], but first she must convince an aggravating teenager to give up the shoes willingly before the wizard helps the girl return to the world she came from [conflict], taking the shoes with her."

Also, the overall story conflict is so much better if one character achieving their goal means the other character absolutely can't achieve theirs (credit where it's due: this is what Jenny Crusie/Bob Mayer call "conflict lock").