Synopsis: The Negative Image

© 1998 by Deborah M. Hale

As you read that title, did you think to yourself, "Synopses? No wonder they have a negative image. I'd rather have root canal or clean my bathroom than write one!"

That's not exactly the kind of negative image I plan to discuss, but let's consider it for a minute. I haven't heard many romance writers jumping up and down enthusing about how much they enjoy distilling their unique characters and intriguing plot down to a few pitiful pages. In some ways the process sounds similar to dehydrating food. You're left with a neat portable little package, but only after you suck all the juice out of it -- leaving behind a desiccated concentrate.

Fortunately it doesn't have to be that way. I have read synopses with so much heat and sparkle I could hardly wait to get my hands on a copy of the book. Imagine what editors think when they read those kinds of synopses? For an author who is not yet published or who is in the early stages of a career, synopses are a necessary evil, but not a make-or-break proposition. All an editor has to get out of it is a general idea of where the story is going. That combined with the writing skill demonstrated in the opening chapters will help her decide whether to invest a little time in reading the full manuscript.

For writers who have passed the first hurdle of those early sales, synopsis writing skill may mean the difference between career momentum and premature stall-out. The reason? Editors buying on proposal are investing the publisher's money (and a bit of their own professional reputation) on the basis of those few pages. That's why published authors' synopses may be longer than those recommended for unpublished writers. Once a book is sold, elements from the synopsis may be used for jacket or cover copy. The art department, sales or publicity department may read the synopsis to get a quick idea of your story. Beginning to see why it can be worth your while to study, practice and master synopsis technique?

Okay, so what's this negative image business? It's a way I like to visualize the synopsis -- much better than the dehydrated food metaphor. Think of it this way: A synopsis is to the finished novel what a photographic negative is to a developed picture. Still with me, or scratching your head?

Imagine a photographic negative. Like a larger developed picture, all the same people are in the shot, the location is the same, their relative positions are identical. A negative is smaller, though, with less detail visible. The image is spatially reversed as in a mirror and the colours are opposite -- lights are dark and darks are light. It's similar with a synopsis. Your characters, setting and plot remain the same, but are shown in less detail. Also, some of the fundamental techniques of novel writing are reversed. Such as...

  • Tell, don't show. Goes against the grain, doesn't it? But it's a must for synopsis writing. You don't have time to show the whole story unfolding. Tell it. In My Lord Protector, I have an entire chapter that shows the hero and heroine leaving London for his country estate. I have a scene with lots of action when they leave, one in the carriage, where the dialogue gives some crucial backstory on the hero, then one when they arrive at Abbot's Leigh. In my synopsis, I cover this whole chapter in a single sentence: "As spring greens the English countryside, they decamp for his estate in Surrey."

  • Cut the dialogue. Some purists completely reject dialogue in a synopsis. I like to include a few snippets for colour, but I'm very sparing about how much I use and how I use it. For instance, I used this line of dialogue as my opening hook for the synopsis of A Gentleman of Substance: "I promise never to love you." My personal guidelines for synopsis dialogue -- Is it short? Is it key to the story? Will it get the point across more efficiently and powerfully than a narrative passage?

  • Dump that backstory. How many times have you been warned against using a backstory dump, particularly in the early part of the book? In the synopsis, a concise backstory dump (no more than a paragraph on each of the hero and heroine) can alert the editor or agent to your characters' deepest motivation and the internal conflict that will drive the story. If your character's background is a deep, dark secret that gets revealed in a key scene later in the book, it may be sufficient to merely hint at the event early in the synopsis, then explore it in depth later.

No wonder novelists, even some of the best, dread synopsis writing. To do it well, we're forced to operate contrary to some of the fundamentals of our craft. Fortunately, other techniques for good fiction writing do translate into crafting the synopsis.

  • The Hook. The best synopses I've read don't jump right into the story - chapter one, page one. They open with a single paragraph overview designed to grab the reader's attention and briefly encapsulate the book's central conflict. To master this technique, read lots of back cover blurbs and translate your characters and plot into that format. Another good source is the twenty-five to thirty-word descriptions of movie plots on rental video boxes.

  • The Relationship. One of the most consistent failings I've seen in synopses is the tendency to relate in detail every twist and turn of the plot, while relegating the developing relationship between the hero and heroine to a desultory sentence or two. I'll let you in on a big secret. Editors don't care where your characters go, who they meet or what they do except as it relates to the development of the relationship. Don't forget that. Tattoo it on your arm if you have to. Embroider it on a sampler and hang it by your word processor. Any event that does not somehow impact on the developing relationship probably has no business in your synopsis. Also, don't leave it up to the reader's imagination what non-physical attributes compel the hero and heroine to care for one another. Does she admire his uncompromising integrity or his compulsion to stick up for the underdog? Is he drawn by her exuberance or her quiet strength of character? Spell it out.

  • Style and Voice. Some writers hold that a synopsis doesn't have to be pretty -- all it has to do is give an editor the gist of the story as concisely as possible. That may be true, but if you were an editor with two synopses to choose from, which would you award the contract? The no-frills, dry-as-dust one, or the one that scintillated with the writer's unique voice and hummed with a tone appropriate to your line? It's worth the investment of your time and talent to infuse your synopsis with the magic of style.

Now a few final words of caution. I've talked about what to include in your winning synopsis. Here are three things you'd do well to avoid:

  • Don't be cryptic. When squeezing so much information into so few pages, there's a great temptation to 'depersonalize' your prose, like this: "As secrets are revealed, barriers fall and love begins to bloom." Excuse me? Time out! What secrets are we talking about here? What barriers? Love between whom? Don't make the editor play guessing games. If you do, chances are she'll cast your proposal aside in favour of a writer who's savvy enough to spell it out.

  • Nix the secondary characters. No matter how colorful, quirky or sublime your secondary characters, resist the temptation to elaborate on them in your synopsis. If they are absolutely crucial to a key part of your story and you cannot avoid mentioning them, try not to refer to them by name. Instead, stick to their function in terms of the hero or heroine: Erin's mischievous nephew, Sam's law partner, Rachel's meddling next door neighbour.

  • Cup-and-a-half of Flavor. An almost irresistible temptation, when condensing longer passages for the synopsis, is to cram too much information into each sentence. For example: "With her beloved father dead and her sea captain sweetheart on an extended voyage to the South Seas, Julianna Ramsay weds the reclusive Sir Edmund Fitzhugh to escape the machinations of her sinister stepbrother, not realizing that Sir Edmund is Crispin's uncle." Wading through several pages of sentences like that can be exhausting. Shorter sentences pack your prose with more power, and the uninterrupted narrative of the synopsis needs all the power it can get.

In conclusion: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way you master the important skill of synopsis writing -- practice, practice, practice. One problem with learning to write a strong synopsis is the dearth of good examples. Good books get published. You can buy them, read them, study them. Even the most stellar synopsis may garner less than half-a-dozen readers. If a member of your critique group is a good synopsis writer, study her technique and try translating it to your story.

One good practice exercise is writing synopses of varying lengths. Different contests, different editors, different functions call for synopses of different depth. Start with 25 words. This is good to use for a quick verbal pitch. Agents sometimes ask clients to submit 100 word blurbs for each completed manuscript, which they then use to pitch projects to editors over the phone. Those 100 words can be incorporated into a query letter. One and two page synopses are popular with contests and some category proposals. After that a five page and a full ten page synopsis can round out your arsenal. It's a valuable exercise to look at a variety of lengths to see what can be pared away or added at each level.

No matter what length of synopsis you write, concentrate on your hero and heroine, their conflict, their budding relationship and how they achieve a happy ending, and your synopses will help build you a positive image in the romance industry.


Cover art copyright by Harlequin Enterprises Limited and are trademarks of the publisher.
All text within this site is Deborah Hale. Reprinting without permission is prohibited.


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