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HOW I EAT, ER - WRITE A SYNOPSIS

By Victoria J. Coe

 

Writing a synopsis is a lot like eating a Reese's peanut butter cup. In fact, the only difference I can see is there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's.

Maybe nibbling along the outside works for you, or perhaps you're more comfortable diving right into the middle. Some ways just feel right. But if your favorite method has begun to lose its flavor, why not spice it up by trying something new?

Before digging in, I'd like to squash a bit of misinformation. You may have heard that a synopsis is a tantalizing morsel designed to leave the reader salivating for the rest of your story. Not so! Your synopsis is where you tear off the wrapper and highlight your main ingredients, right down to the last tasty crumb.

When an editor or agent reads your synopsis, they want to get a sense for who your main character is and where you're going with the premise. Your synopsis, along with your query letter and sample chapters, will help them determine whether your story might be a good fit for them. You don't need to include a lot of detail, just what is necessary to understand the protagonist's motivation and the plot.

The first thing I do when writing a synopsis is sum up the whole story in one paragraph.

Here's an example of this type of summary using Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as an example:

Charlie wants to visit Mr. Willy Wonka's top secret candy factory. After he and four other lucky children win a tour of the factory, misfortune befalls the selfish, misbehaving four, while amiable Charlie earns Mr. Wonka's trust and inherits the factory.

This short paragraph not only tells the premise and the plot, but it also shines a light on the theme. Like the unmistakable aroma of chocolate, this story's theme, "good guys finish first," wafts right through the page and stimulates the senses, but doesn't overwhelm the reader. Try this with your own summary. If the theme isn't clear, revise or tweak until it is.

If there is a subplot, next is the place to spell it out. One or two sentences should do it. For example, "Throughout the story, there is a subplot in which _______."

Top Tips for a Sensational Synopsis

  • Tell, don't show!

  • Use Omniscient POV

  • Write in present tense

  • Keep it short and sweet

 

Skip a line, and dive right in to the plot outline. Think of your story in three major sections:

The beginning, climax and ending will take up most of the synopsis, with less weight given to the middle:

Here's an example of the rest of the synopsis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At 450 words, this synopsis will take up only 2-3 pages. Yet the plot, theme and essence of the main character all come through like the unbeatable combination of peanut butter and chocolate wrapped up neatly in a bright orange wrapper.

Sweet Charlie Bucket loves chocolate. But his family is so poor that he gets it only once a year, on his birthday. Walking past Wonka's Chocolate Factory each day is torture.

Charlie's grandfather tells him that Mr. Willy Wonka is so concerned about guarding his secrets that he has closed off the factory. No one has been seen going in or out for years.

An announcement appears in the newspaper: Five lucky children who find golden tickets inside Wonka bars will win a personal tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie is very excited -- his birthday is next week.

After the first two tickets are discovered, Charlie opens his birthday chocolate with great anticipation, but his hopes fall when there is no golden ticket inside.

Soon the third and fourth tickets are found. Then Charlie's Grandpa Joe shows him a Wonka bar he has kept hidden. The two open it gleefully, but inside is chocolate, nothing more.

One day Charlie finds a dollar in the snow and buys two chocolate bars. He is shocked to find the last golden ticket!

The next day, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the other winners arrive at the factory, where they are delighted and amazed to meet the wildly eccentric Willy Wonka.

While Charlie and his grandfather marvel at the wonders of Wonka's factory, one by one the other children meet with misfortune when they fail to heed their host's admonitions:

After each mishap, Mr. Wonka tells the dwindling group that the others will all come out in the wash.

When at last only Charlie is left, Mr. Wonka tells him that he's giving him the whole factory. Wonka explains that he's been looking for his successor -- a good, sensible, loving child to entrust with his precious candy-making secrets. Thrilled, Charlie and Grandpa Joe burst through the roof of the factory with Mr. Wonka in the great, glass elevator. They fly to the Buckets' cottage and collect the rest of the family before returning to live at the Wonka Factory.

Sounds easy? It is! Now roll up your sleeves, grab a napkin and dig in!

 

Looks Count

Shape your synopsis into a fitting format

Single space your name and contact information in the upper left hand corner of the first page

Center your title, all in capital letters

Skip a line, then center the word "synopsis," in bold, capital letters

Skip two lines, then double space your synopsis.

Insert a header on subsequent pages, listing "your last name/Manuscript Title, Synopsis" on the top left and listing the page number on the top right.

The fewer pages, the better.

 

A Synopsis or an Outline?

 

A synopsis is a content-driven summary of a story's plot. Most often a synopsis, along with a query letter and sample chapters, is part of a fiction book proposal.

Usually part of a non-fiction book proposal, an outline is structure-driven. As most non-fiction books are not actually written until after the proposal has been accepted, the outline describes the type of material to be covered chapter by chapter. Therefore, the outline is generally not a summary of already-written chapters, but a plan for what the author intends to include.

Sometimes, a publisher's guidelines for fiction request a chapter by chapter outline. This type of outline is really a blend of a synopsis and an outline. A writer might think of an outline of fiction as an expanded synopsis, including each and every chapter in summary.

 

When she's not eating chocolate, Victoria J. Coe writes articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as "how-to" non-fiction for young adults. 

by Victoria J. Coe

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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