Writers are a brave lot. I mean, not me personally, of course—I can’t even go into a bathroom without making sure there’s not a monster or psychopath hiding behind the shower curtain. But collectively writers brave rejection, terrifyingly bad covers they have no control over, the possibility of scathing reviews, etc. Yet I’ve seen even tough writers wince in fear at the mention of a Synopsis (written summary of the book’s plot, usually in present tense.)
If you’re unpublished, a synopsis can be how you get your foot in the door with an editor or agent, intriguing them with the story so that they ask to read actual chapters or the whole book. If you’re already published, sometimes all a publisher needs to offer you a new contract is a synopsis, allowing you to write the actual book once the advance check has been cashed. Both of these situations, however, mean the synopsis should be good. Or at least not suck.
Why is a synopsis so daunting? Well, some of them are as short as two pages; it ain’t easy to cram 300-plus pages of action and emotion into two pages and have it make sense. (I cannot imagine what a George R.R. Martin synopsis looks like, if in fact he was ever asked to write one. His plot summaries might be longer than my actual books. Or maybe his summary is simply: “There’s a big, bloody fight for the throne of Westeros. Everyone dies.”)
I have written approximately forty romances, all of which have been synopsized at some point. Occasionally the finished manuscript even bears passing resemblance to the synopsis! So I now share my, um, “expert” “wisdom” for writing a strong romance synopsis.
Boy meets Girl. (Or possibly boy and boy meet. Or girl and girl. Or they already know each other because it’s a friends to lovers story—although, if you give one or both of them amnesia, perhaps they could remeet. ANYWAY. There’s an inciting incident. Maybe it’s the “meet cute” or maybe it’s the moment when two people will have reason to start viewing each other differently. From then on, Emotions Develop.)
In a romance novel, the emotional journey is key. So even if you’re writing a romantic suspense and your synopsis explains how the couple outwits a serial killer, don’t overlook the romance! Much feelings, many conflict. (If it’s a hot romance, you can also add Wow Sex.) Keep building those emotions and that attraction until the Dark Moment, which is when you rip out the characters’ hearts—and the readers’—because writers, in addition to being brave, are also cruel and vicious. I kid! Sort of.
Many writers are actually lovely people, but the bleaker and more hopeless that dark moment, the more rewarding the hard-earned happily ever after. To misquote Jack Sparrow, the dark moment arises, ensues, is overcome. Yay for happy endings!
So, there you have it. A good romance synopsis describes (articulately, if possible) people who have strong emotions for each other but have to overcome strong obstacles–and may or may not have crazy hot sex in the meantime.
Okay. Perhaps I’m being a little bit glib. Writing a synopsis is a tiny bit more complicated than “things go awry, stuff happens, yada yada yada, grand romantic finale.” I mean, I didn’t even describe the steps about swearing and deleting. But I believe the trick to a good synopsis is not to overcomplicate. Focus on the big picture and streamline your story down to the main characters, central theme and marketing hook. Don’t name the heroine’s five cousins and all the players on the hero’s football team; you’ll only make the editor’s head spin as she tries to keep everyone straight. Remember that writing a synopsis is a slightly different skillset than writing a book. Even if you’re a genius with dialogue, a synopsis is not the place to include large chunks of it. And you don’t want cliffhangers and “you’ll never guess what happens!” taunts. The editors need to know you can believably finish this story. Concentrate on clearly explaining the conflict and major turning points. While small details can make or break a book, they will only clutter a synopsis if you’re not careful. Make sure you explain what changed that makes the happy ending plausible and try to get someone not already familiar with your story to look at the synopsis for honest feedback. (It doesn’t matter if the pages make sense to your best friend, husband or critique partner; what you need is a synopsis that makes sense to a total stranger.)
Finally, if you’re nervous about writing a synopsis, remember that it is your friend—a helpful guide, not a prison warden. Don’t feel captive to details you realize you need to change midway through the book. Writing is a fluid process and even if you started with a good idea, you may stumble across even better ideas as you go.
So that’s my wisdom for the day (hell, probably for the week. I’m not that wise.) When writing a synopsis, focus on the broad outline, not the individual brushstrokes. And don’t forget to check under beds and behind shower curtains for monsters.