Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seven Deadly Sins of Synopsis Writing

by Mary Buckham

Mary Buckham is a national speaker and mass market published author of award-winning books. She teaches online classes as well as live classes across the country. Her next book out is the highly anticipated Break Into Fiction: Plot Your Novel by Adams Media, a June 2009 release. Mary is currently working on a high-concept thriller based in the Pacific Northwest. Her website is or

St. Gregory the Great articulated the original Seven Deadly Sins--pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth--transgressions that caused the death not of the body but of the soul. Committing the Seven Deadly Synopsis Sins won't exactly doom your soul, but they might smash your chances at getting your manuscript a decent read in the hands of overworked and harried editors and agents.

I have had the pleasure of working with thousands of writers of all genres. I work with them one-on-one to review, analyze and tweak their synopses to make them the strongest selling tools possible. As a result, I've been able to see, from an editor/agent's perspective, what comes across their desks daily and why some synopses work and others don't.

All things being equal, editors and agents need, require, synopses to do two things:
1) show them that you have a cohesive plot worthy of their time and attention and
2) allow them to sell your story to editors [if in the hands of an agent] senior editors, the Marketing department, the Overseas acquisition editors, etc., etc.

Strong synopses showcase your characters, your plot and your ability to structure a story. If a synopsis sucks it makes it oh so easy for an agent or editor to pass on reading your manuscript.

The following Synopsis Sins--if eliminated--will not guarantee a sale, or even a full read, but the absence of them will make your synopsis, and thus you and your story, stand out in a crowded marketplace.

SIN 1) Too Many Proper Names to Track. You've lived with your characters for months or years in the writing of your mansucript. But to a cold reader, which is what an editor or agent is, they are simply proper names and do not give any information. Try and keep your proper names to a limit of three. Example: If I say Jim, Bill and Bob went to the grocery store--you have no image. If I say my husband, son and dog went to the store--you have a stronger image.
SIN 2) Too much detail. A synopsis is meant to show the structure--the plot of your story. Save the details for your manuscript. Anytime you are writing your synopsis and move your characters around on the page, or include fascinating bits of research or scene-specific minitia, or quoted dialogue--you are showing scene detail.
SIN 3) Making passive or past tense instead of active and present. Passive phrasing and past tense phrasing in a synopsis both have a purpose when used correctly, but when overused can 1) flatline your synopsis until it sounds like that homework report and 2) make an agent/editor wonder if whatever is being described on the page is back story or current story.
SIN 4) Not Finishing the Synopsis. Your synopsis doesn't really tell the end of your story because you want to keep the surprising twist or revalation a secret. Not a good idea.
SIN 5) Not using transitions to change POV or Time or Place. Because a synopsis is a snap shot of your whole book you lead an editor/agent through your story--or through different points of view over just a few pages. What can easily happen as you are shifting POV's, or shift in physical location or time passage--is you jar a reader out of your story. Every time you raise a question: But I thought the protagonist and villian were there instead of here, you risk losing your reader. Do this often enough and it's easy for them to put down your synopsis and your manuscript.
SIN 6) Not unfolding the synopsis as the story unfolds. Sin #6 falls closely on the heels of Sin #5--no transitions, because the lack of transitions is often covering up this all too common problem of jumping back and forth, from back story to currrent story, to the POV of a secondary character's back story, to what will happen at the end of the story, then back to the beginning. It's enough to make an editor/agent's head spin.
SIN 7) Raising questions in a synopsis in the wrong places. In our manuscripts we use questions to show internal thought. But in our synopses, because we are telling, NOT showing, we don't want to include external dialogue or internal dialogue. Both are scene detail and bog down a synopsis. Step away from the showing and summarize whatever it is you are indicating by your question. Instead of asking an editor what might happen-tell an editor what is happening.

Now what about you? Have you taken a quick look at your own synopses and found yourself guilty of any of the sins? Or if you aren't quite sure and want to get a cold read and feel comfortable posting a few sentences, feel free to do so. I'm here to answer questions, commiserate over what a pain synopsis writing is in general and perhaps offer some suggestions or tweaks that can take your own synopsis from the slush pile to stand out.


Paul Lamb said...

I can never seem to fit a synopsis in the word count specified by an agent or editor. I might be guilty of too many details therefore.

Thanks for these insights into an insufficiently discussed aspect of our work.

Lori said...

Welcome Mary. I have a manuscript written from the POV of two different characters--they alternate chapters. How do I explain this in a synopsis without going into way too much detail?


Terry Odell said...

I'll vouch for Mary's being able to 'cut to the chase'. I took her on-line synopsis course and it puts things in perspective.

Anonymous said...

This may sound kind of stupid, but I have trouble with the beginning of a synopsis. I know I can't start with "Once upon a time" but sometimes I wish I could.


Mary B :-) said...

Hello Paul ~~

Thanks for stopping by today. Word count can be a challenge and usually indicates one is trying to include more than the bare bones plot structure. An editor/agent KNOWS a short synopsis is short so they don't expect to see a lot of details, subplots, etc. What they are lookin for is whether the primary plot line is solid, has strong turning points [where the story changes direction] and comes to a strong ending. Show that and you'll be short, sweet and to the point.

Hope this helps! ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B :-) said...

Hello Lori ~~

Two POV's -- not a problem - make sure you use transitions to indication the story line is shifting. Again - don't think chapter by chapter [unless such a synopsis is specifically requested] but think in terms of the story's plot line for each of your two protagonists. Thet each should have a story goal, obstacles to that goal, turning points in their story from their POV and a resolution to their story. When "telling" this is your synopsis transtion - for example -- Meanwhile, Charater Two is XXXX, [and at end of the paragraph(s) focusing on this POV] But, Character One is also YYY. See? Transitions are wonderful tools to shift POV, jump over time passage and lead a cold reader along in your synopsis smoothly.

Thanks for a great question ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B :-) said...

Hello Terry ~~

How delightful to see you here and thank you for your kind words. For most of us we only have a chance to work with a synopsis once, maybe twice a year -- any skill that's used so infrequently can get rusty. Plus we're very, very close to our own work. So sometimes that cold read from somone who doesn't know your story can make all the difference. I get the chance to work on 1-2 maybe more synopses a week, so can many times help "see" what an author might be missing on their own.

Thanks for jumping in today!

~~ Mary B :-)

Darlene Ryan said...

Mary, I'll confess that my fear when I'm working on a synopsis is that it will sound melodramatic. Any tips for dialing down the melodrama without writing something that sounds too dull?

Mary B :-) said...

Hello there Darlene! So nice to see your smiling face!
Here's the great news. After all the work we put into our manuscripts, telling about said story in a couple of pages max, or a couple of hundred or thousand words, will sound dull. That's the nature of Telling not Showing. A police report tells, an ad shows. But the synopsis is meant to do a different job function than our wonderful prose. It's meant to summerize, clarify and streamline the plot. Get your synopsis to that point though does not mean it has to end there. Go back through a boring synopsis [bare bones] and look at each sentence. Look to see if each sentence is working hard enough to be consistent in what you're trying to convey. Writing dark then your synopsis sentences should be dark, or cozy, or light, or whatever. Even one such strong sentence per paragraph or section of your novel being described can add that sparkle and voice without sliding into melodrama. Usually when I see melodrama it's because the author is usung throw away cliches thinking they are working harder than they are. If you fear melodrama, cut the cliches and you'll be in a far, far better place.

Hope this helps and thanks for popping in! ~~ Mary B :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary, could you explain the difference between a short synopsis and a long one?

Susan E said...

My concern when writing a sysnopsis is by leaving so much out I'm misrepresenting my book. Are agents and editors experienced enough to fill in the spaces, or is there any code writers can employ to make clear their book is a smart alecky tale of betrayal?

Marilynne said...

This is truly useful. Thanks.


Mary B :-) said...

Short vs Long :-)

Great question. A short synopsis is usually considered to be a one-page, single-spaced synopsis or a two-page double-spaced synopis both of which add up to about 500 words. A long synopsis is usually considered 1 synopsis page for every 10,000 words of the novel so a 10 page synopsis for a 100,000 word manuscript is the standard length. A 12 page synopsis for the same book means it's "long" for that story. Unfortunately the terms long and short are used in a lot of different ways so if in doubt with an editor or agent ask for clarification. For example a 4 page synopsis for a 100,000 work novel is sometimes called "short" and anything over 6 pages for any novel is sometimes considered "long". Clear as mud right *grin*.

I hope this helped a little. ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B :-) said...

Susan E ~~

Your question about an editor/agent's ability to read what's left out is a good one because it's actually part of a larger question - 1) what is the true intention of a synopsis and 2) are synopses meant to replace reading our manuscripts. YES, agents and editors know how much is left out of a synopsis if for no other reason they read on average anywhere from 50-100 of these a week. They also know that auhtors who write great prose can't necessarily write a good synopsis. So they do try to give us the benefit of the doubt. That's the good news. The bad news is that too many times an editor/agent will use a synopsis to winnow out stories and save themselves tons of time reading lots of material [our manuscripts]. If in a synopsis they can quickly spot big plot issues [poor motivation, no goal, lack of turning points, lack of conflict etc] they can pass more easily on a project without reading the manuscript. They use the synopsis to look for speed bumps and problems. Why? Because they don't have the time to read every manuscript that crosses their desks. If they did they would have no time to sell the projects of their clients and do everything else asked of them. So how it works is something like this. An editor/agent will read your cover letter to determine if you are submitting a project they can buy, [that you are not selling a "dark Mystery" to a line that only publishes "Light mysteries" or such]. If your query entices/intrigues them they will pick up your manuscript and read 1-3 pages. Why? Because that's how far the average book buyer will read to make a buying decision. IF that quick read keeps their attention they will switch to your synopsis. The are not looking for details, they are looking for a solid story with no glaring issues or questions raised. IF they get to the end of your synopsis and have no reason to hesitate they will allow time in their overworkded schedules to read your manuscript. So that's what a synopsis is meant to do - encourage a total stranger to invest time in your story. If your synopsis sucks -- which most do in some way or another -- but they are still intrigued by those first pages they'll give you that benefit of the doubt and keep reading. But IF those key first pages, or your story idea, or your voice did not really grab them, AND your synopsis sucks, it'll be only to easy for them to pass on your project and find another project that'll be easier to bring to market.

I hope this helps explain the process a bit. It can be daunting but is not impossible because lots and lots of books are acquired every day.

~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B :-) said...

Marilynne ~~

I'm glad you're enjoying the information. Understanding the ups and downs of writing a synopsis can make the process of learning how to write one so much easier to accept. Great news is there is no one perfect way to write a synopsis so if you've found the craft of synopsis writing challenging after learning XXX or YYY, know that somewhere there will be a process that clicks for you and, if not making the process fun, can at least make it less painful. That said chocolate is also helpful. Lots and lots of chocolate. *grin*

Take care and thanks for posting ~~ Mary B :-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Mary, this is terrific. And so helpful. As usual. Thank you so much! (And thank you for inviting her, PDD's!)
I'm printing this whole thing out, including the great comments and questions, and keeping it forever.

xo Hank
(whose synopsis is 70 pages long.)

Mary B :-) said...

Hank ~~

So nice to see you here and a true pleasure to be invited by Darlene to blog today. Thank you Darlene and all the PDDs!
As I'm on West Coast time I'll continue to check back if anyone has any other questions, concerns or comments about writing Synopses.

All the best ~~ Mary B :-)

Pageturners said...

This is excellent - really useful. How long do publishers' readers prefer a synopsis to be?

Chris Redding said...

Waving from NJ at Mary.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I like your seven deadly sins of synopsis writing. And that St. Gregory was Great, wasn't he?

Can you tell me what you mean by a 'transition'?

James Toner

Mary B :-) said...

Hello Lucille ~~

Regarding the average length a synopsis should be really varies. The trend tends to be toward shorter and very short [the one page variety] simply for speed of reading but since many editors realize that it's hard to sell a project up the line - meaning to senior editors, Marketing departments, the accounting dept, etc - without enough information a publishing house is usually looking for a 1 page per 10k of words length synopsis. Once an author has sold and has a sales record or name recognition factor the publisher can use that information and a brief thumbnail sketch -- as short as a blurb or paragraph to sell future projects. However if the author changes editors at a Publishing house they may have to learn to submit longer synopses again until the working relationship is strong. That goes back to the original intention of a synopsis - to give the buyer [editors more than agents] the reassurance that the novel's plot is going to hold up throughout the story. Because once an author has sold to a house [sometimes two books for the house] they will be getting advances or partial advances on the acceptance of a synopsis and three chapters alone -- so that synopsis has to work without the power of a finished manuscript behind it to show all the other details and strengths of the story.

Thanks for a great question and I hope this helps!

All the best ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B:-) said...

Hello James ~~

What is meant by 'transition" is a word or phrase that can shift a reader from what was said to a different concept or idea. We use transtions all the time when we write something like - Meg was furious but then she realized her mother was truly a kind person. The "but then" is a transition to guide a reader to the fact that elements of the story are going to change. Without a transition the above example would read -- Meg was furious. She realized her mother was a truly kind person. In this second example -without a transtion a reader is stopped to figure out if Meg is mad because [another transition word] of her kind mother or in spite of or what's going on. That stopping causes a speed bump for readers - in our novels and in our synopses - and anything that yanks a reader out of our stories makes it easier for them to set it aside. Which is not what we want *grin*

I hope this makes sense.

Thanks for asking ~~ Mary B :-)

Mary B :-) said...

Hello Chris ~~

Waving right back at you from the West Coast! I'm actually going to be giving a lot of live workshops on the East Coast this Fall -- Conn., Maine, North Carolina and Chicago -- which isn't technically east but it's way east from me *grin* so if anyone is near any of those locations and might participate I'd love to place a name with a face and say hello!

Take care Chris and here' hoping I get to see you again one of these days ~~ Mary B :-)

Jane Finnis said...

Mary B, thanks very much for all this terrific information. My problem is that I find it next to impossible to stick to a pre-planned synopsis. I can write quite a plausible one, short or long, and the background, the beginning, the whodunit, and the whydunit are pretty well fixed, but the rest of it changes and develops as I write. The twists and turns of plot, the way the characters evolve...they work much better if I let them come to me as the book progresses. My publishers luckily know me by now and accept that the finished book may bear only a fair-to-middling resemblance to the original synopsis. So far (three books) everyone's happy. Do most agents/editors accept that some authors work in this seemingly haphazard way?

Anonymous said...

It's very good that we can share opinions on this topic here, because as William R. Alger told, "Public opinion is a second conscience."

Anonymous said...

You know, people are very busy, tired, and even boring now, but your ideas are so fresh and interesting that I'll surely read all of your posts!