Fiction writing tips: How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.

1. Don’t make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.

2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related to your main characters that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or expertise or a deformity). If a secondary character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with only one leg, you should mention that.

4. Don’t go into detail about setting. If you wrote a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you could simply say, “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”

5. Don’t go into detail about your main character. A few quick strokes are all you need. For example you might say, “Bridget Jones, a ditzy, rather boozy twenty-something . . .”

You don’t have to give away your final plot twist, although you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance, and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly, though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, so you should spill the beans whether you like it or not.

How concise should the synopsis be? Try to keep it to one page, single-spaced, that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end—the problem, the struggle, and the resolution. Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have one ready to send.

I suggest that the first thing to do is write a “logline” for your story. This is a short and informative summary of a story used by screenwriters that encapsulates the story in 20 to 30 words. It has three crucial components:

• Character

• Want

• Obstacle

An interesting character who wants something badly but is having trouble getting it.

The logline must answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

If you can’t boil down your story to a logline, then you can’t write an effective one-paragraph summary for a query letter and the first paragraph of a synopsis.

After that, beginning with the second paragraph of your synopsis, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your main characters, what they do, and what happens to them. To do that, answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Why does this character want what he/she wants?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

The following movie loglines will help you write one for your novel:

THE GODFATHER: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

PULP FICTION: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

FOREST GUMP: Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

THE MATRIX: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

CASABLANCA: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

REAR WINDOW: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

APOCALYPSE NOW During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

THE LION KING Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble.

All of these loglines are under 30 words. Most are under 25 words.

MORE GUIDELINES for a synopsis

• If you submit your synopsis on paper, format it using single-spaced lines; 12-point Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible.

• Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

• Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

• Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says: “Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, they skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then they’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is rejected.”

That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your email query, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in summary form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing tip: the passive voice of verbs

VERBS have two “voices”: the active voice and the passive voice. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passivefiction-reveals-truths verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

Don’t confuse voice with tense. Tense concerns the time of the action; voice pertains to the way a verb functions relative to the subject of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er, and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er nor a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example:

The ball was thrown by Johnny.

The subject of this sentence is the noun ball. Something is being done to the subject of the sentence, so it is written in the passive voice. To change the sentence to the active voice, write:

Johnny threw the ball.

Examples of the active and passive voices:

Jewelry is often stolen by burglars. [passive]

Burglars often steal jewelry. [active]

Passive forms often use the verb was:

Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly. [passive]

Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. [active]

In the examples above, the subject of the sentence—burglars and Joseph Priestly—are not the doers of the action.

Exceptions

You don’t have to change every passive construction to an active one. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Romans were defeated are perfectly acceptable.

Also, the passive voice is useful when the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant:

The lock was broken sometime after four o’clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown]

In 1899, a peace conference was held at The Hague. [This sentence comes from an essay by E.B. White. In this case, the doers of the action—the holders of the conference—are unimportant to White’s point.]

In every other case, do as Stephen King flatly says in his book On Writing: “You should avoid the passive voice” (emphasis his), noting that it is one of his pet peeves. You will find the same advice in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction.

Don’t be passive-aggressive. Use the active voice.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction writing tips: Description of the setting

Landscape photoALWAYS keep in mind that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot. The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot. Action may be the most important element of fiction, but no novel is fully realized without some description. Here’s an excellent example from Gaylord Dold’s mystery novel Samedi’s Knapsack:

“Roberts walked down the ramp and stood on the hot tarmac, breathing diesel fumes. He was sweating heavily and his shirt was soaked through to the skin. The sky was like a fiery kiln of clay glaze, smelling of sulfur and charcoal smoke. He looked at the low airport complex, sets of concrete buildings with tin roofs, a long hedge of cactus separating the runways from miles of confused, jumbled slums. In the west, high brown mountains rose into crabbed valleys and wrinkled ridges, then a slash of green. All around him the Haitian passengers were lugging their packages and bundles toward a tin customs shed located at the far end of a concrete building with several broken windows and an air conditioner leaking water.”

Note all the sensory details that Dold used.

You should include only the most significant details in a passage of description, as Dold has done. You don’t want an exhaustive catalog of images. That will turn your reader into a clerk taking inventory. Readers won’t do that job for long. Instead of mentioning every item in a room—or every detail of a character and his clothing—choose perhaps three or four vivid and specific details that make the room or that person unique. Remember that the reader and the writer are involved in a creative partnership. The writer uses a broad brush, and the reader fills in the blanks. As a writer, you must trust the reader to do so.

What do I mean by “the most significant details”? Let’s say that you and your spouse go to have dinner at the home of new friends. If you had to write about this experience and describe their home, what would you choose to mention? That they had a couch and a recliner and a big flat-screen TV in the living room? You could do that, although such things aren’t very interesting or revealing. But what if you saw a big glass display case in the living room that was filled with World War II weapons and memorabilia, or beautifully bound copies of the complete works of Shakespeare on a bookshelf, or a liquor cabinet crammed with every alcoholic beverage known to mankind, or a scatter of NASCAR magazines on the coffee table, or a wall filled with arty black-and-white photos of nude women? Things like that are much more informative, aren’t they? That’s what I mean by significant—and that’s what you want to include in description.

When you’re writing description, remember that you want your readers to inhabit your point-of-view character, so you must do that yourself in order to write vivid description. To do that you need to get out of your own brain and see everything through the eyes of your viewpoint character.

Tip #1: Do this exercise: Drive around urban, suburban, and rural areas and stop at places you’ve never seen before. Note what catches your attention first, then what other things stand out. Also notice any obvious smells and sounds.

Tip #2: Placing your viewpoint character in the midst of some activity allows you to integrate description into the action so it is less invasive and more an organic part of the whole. One of the best ways to work in the description of a setting is to move your main character through it. That’s why the Mississippi River was such an effective device in Huckleberry Finn.

Tip #3: Don’t forget about the weather. In some stories the weather is so integral to the story that it goes beyond a mood-setting device to being like another character. Think of the movie Blade Runner, where it’s always dark and rainy.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: Scene framing

Novelists should settle their readers quickly into each scene. To accomplish that, use scene framing. To frame a scene, you should:

• Identify the setting and give the reader a sense of where we are.

• Let the reader know how much time has passed since the previous scene.

• Indicate who your point-of-view character is and describe his/her frame of mind.

• Mention everyone who is present so that a character doesn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere or so that character’s dialogue doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.

• Subtly place any props your characters need, so when they reach for a briefcase or gun or chair, readers will already have that object in their vision of the setting.

For variety, offer these required elements in a different order each time you write a scene. You can make a quick check to see if you have included all the elements of scene framing by asking Who? What? Where? When?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.