As a fiction author, you have heard it many times before: before an agent or publisher will look at your manuscript, you must send them a synopsis.
And why shouldn’t they want that? It will take hours to look at your content. Doesn’t it make sense that they want to make sure it sounds like a story worth all of that time?
The problem, though, is that you have written up a 300- or 500-word summary of your story just like a synopsis requires you to do, and then after you send it to them they don’t ask for more. They politely (and sometimes rudely) decline to consider you any further.
This, of course, sucks.
While not every story is right for every publishing professional, what if the problem isn’t even the story itself?
What if the problem is merely the way you’ve written your synopsis?
If you were to look up a novel or film on Wikipedia, you may very well find a plot summary of the story. In about as many words as your synopsis, the page will recall all of the various events that take place.
And that’s all you’re supposed to do, right? Describe the events that take place in your story?
This thinking is flawed.
The truth is, your job in providing a synopsis is not to describe the events of your story.
Your job in providing a synopsis is to get the reader of that synopsis interested in reading more.
What does this ultimately mean? Let’s look at an excerpt from the Wikipedia plot summary of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry and another character are trying to get to the end of a maze as part of a tournament:
“Working together, the two reach the cup. They agree to touch it at the same time, and doing so, discover that it is a Portkey that transports them to a graveyard.”
This excerpt is a perfectly accurate description of one of the final passages of text in the story. Harry gets to the end of a maze, and gets transported to another location.
IT IS ALSO AN EXCERPT FROM AN ENCYCLOPEDIA ARTICLE.
When people usually write synopses, they do so in the driest way possible. They report the events as if they too were part of an encyclopedia entry. But do agents and editors sit around reading encyclopedias? No. They read novels. And they want to read good ones. What if, instead of the above, Harry’s transportation to the graveyard was written like this:
“Harry and Cedric reach the cup. To tie in the tournament, they both reach out to grab it…
…and are suddenly whisked away to a graveyard.
The cup was a portkey.”
Both passages about reaching the cup and getting taken away to the graveyard are 31 words long. And yet, the second one isn’t remotely similar, right?
What I did in the second version was I added a crucial element that is found in well-written stories but rarely found in a synopsis: anticipation.
The second version, through the use of paragraph breaks and ellipses, builds up to the moment that something is about to happen but the reader has to wait until the next paragraph to find out what it is. The break in the sentence provides mystery surrounding the event that follows, and this creates a curiosity gap.
Have you ever read (or even written) a book wherein you end a chapter on a cliff hanger? A synopsis can work the same way. The most effective synopses are those that capitalize on the unexpected moments that populate the story. It capitalizes on the twists, turns, and other things that a reader wouldn’t see coming if they were to read the entire manuscript.
The mistake in most synopses is that they merely report the events of a story. But by capitalizing on the unexpected moments in a story, your synopsis will draw the reader in and make them want to read the story for real.
And then you have someone eagerly anticipating your material.