Photos by Steven Langhorst
Shawntelle Madison, who began seriously pursuing writing in 2008, knows a thing or two about crafting a synopsis that will sell your book, having written a number of contemporary and paranormal romances, some horror and urban fantasy, including some bestsellers.
At the Guild’s November 4 workshop, attendees were treated with her guide “Crafting a Successful Synopsis.” They also received copies of sample, successful (novels that were eventually published) synopses from other authors for writers to take home, ready and study. So, for uninitiated of writers who have yet to craft their first synopsis and for seasoned writers looking for a refresher, let’s now dive in to the nitty-gritty of creating a standout synopsis.
Formatting Your Synopsis
Always check the agent and editor submission guidelines! Double-space your synopsis unless the submission guidelines specify differently. Use 12-point font in either Times New Roman or Courier. Avoid fancy fonts (they don’t impress anybody). Your synopsis should be written in the third person. Format your synopsis to include your name and contact information at the top of every page – that way if they get out of order or mixed in with any number of other authors’ synopses, the editor or agent will still know which one is yours. The length of your submitted synopsis will vary depending on the requested length (anywhere from one, two, three, five pages or more) and sometimes, you may get asked for a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your entire novel. Be ready for anything.
The Building Blocks of a Successful Synopsis
Madison recommended Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict for its description of the fundamental building blocks of conflict – goal, motivation and conflict (the GMC’s).
“Before I start writing a book, I will create a GMC chart […] and create a GMC statement – your protagonist wants/needs/has to do a particular goal because of the motivation, but must face conflict. Oftentimes, I will ask myself this question for individual scenes [too],” Madison said. Knowing these three elements, and bearing them in mind throughout the development of your synopsis, will help you determine what your book is really about. When a book or scene feels like it rambles and doesn’t go anywhere, it may be because it is lacking any or all of these three components.
Shoot for writing a synopsis in different word lengths: 25 words or less, 15 words or less, 10 words or less (your tagline). Madison led participants through an analysis of a synopsis of a story to identify the main characters, the major plot points within the synopsis, and what the GMC for each of those characters was. A synopsis is not that different from a book blurb in that it will touch on some of the major plot points and identify who the characters are, but it should be succinct and always progress your novel’s conflict. One key difference is while a book blurb hints at the conflict but doesn’t give away the ending, a synopsis should disguise nothing and give away the whole plot.
Begin your synopsis with the introduction into your story world and immediately launch into the inciting incident—the moment that kicks off the conflict for your characters. Based on the sample synopses provided by Madison, author Jeannie Lin took the approach of including her GMC statement within the introduction of her synopsis. By contrast, author Amanda Berry began her synopsis with an introduction of her characters. Madison described her own approach,
“When I am writing a story, the beginning takes forever because I am always asking myself, where does the story start? It’s too easy to give a grocery list of this happened, then this.”
Your opening sentence should include a hook that will capture the attention of a reader, agent, or editor. This is your one opportunity to stand out. Your synopsis is also the place to capture your story’s tone (e.g. dark, light, etc.) and give your audience an idea of your writing voice. A synopsis will not necessarily be in chronological order, but it should reflect your book as a whole.
|Madison discusses writing with a participant.|
Protagonists & Plots
The body of your synopsis should be a progression of your main character’s GMCs – what is their main goal and motivation during the conflict? What is the internal flaw that is standing in the way of their success, which they will need to overcome (positive ending) or not (tragedy) by the end of the story? Don’t forget about this flaw when you’re writing your synopsis or your book. In a series, there will usually be an overarching conflict, and the protagonist may not change very much, but there will still be change around them.
“To avoid writing a dry piece of toast, focus on the beginning state and the ending state of your character throughout your synopsis,” Madison said. Her questionnaire, available to participants, led attendees in a step-by-step development through the synopsis process, hitting on the major plot points. To see how this is done commercially, look at any number of film breakdowns available online, such as the ones done by book doctor, Michael Hague.
All plot points should be included in your synopsis, from the opening sentence to the resolution. Take your synopsis, chapter by chapter, through each of the major moments in your novel. What are the turning points when something changes with the protagonist’s goal, motivation, or the conflict? Remember, you want to focus on the primary characters who are propelling the plot forward. Just like in a book blurb, the secondary characters can distract and clutter the narrative. As Madison said, “Condense. Condense. Condense.”
Madison recommended “The Novel Premise,” a useful worksheet in Lynn Viehl’s Novel Notebook, which may help you summarize your material. For a refresher on plot points, check out K.M. Weiland, who has a number of infographics on her website covering timelines for each of your novel’s critical junctures (www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com).
By the end of your synopsis, all the loose threads should be wrapped up and tied in a bow. There should be no unresolved subplots. For a series where the subplot or unresolved story thread is resolved in a future book, add an additional paragraph explaining this to your editor or agent so it’s clear it’s not just been forgotten. It may also be prudent to have someone you trust review your synopsis. Another pair of eyes may pick up on something you’ve missed. Madison uses this technique with her own work, showing it to a few, trusted critique partners before it’s ever shown to someone in the publishing industry.
Writers who embark upon writing a synopsis may find the process of consolidating a 90,000-word manuscript into a few pages, or worse, a single sentence, without losing the substance of the story, to be incredibly daunting. However, this exercise – besides being necessary in pursuing an editor or agent – does help the writer clarify the fundamental elements of their story. There is no room for hiding in a synopsis. If something is broken in your conflict, it will stand out. Some professional authors will even write the synopsis first and submit it to an agent before they write a single word of the novel. A synopsis is that powerful. By learning to harness the potency of a well-written synopsis, you can improve your chances at polishing your manuscript’s finer points (don’t forget about those GMCs!) and avert any potential plot disasters.
For more on these topics, please visit Madison’s website, www.shawntellemadison.com, where she has a free GMC Wizard and a Synopsis Wizard to help you develop your story.
Shawntelle Madison is a web developer who loves to weave words as well as code. She’d never admit it, but if asked, she’d say she covets and collects source code. After losing her first summer job detasseling corn, Shawntelle performed various jobs—from fast-food clerk to grunt programmer to university webmaster. Writing eccentric characters is her most favorite job of them all. On any particular day when she’s not surgically attached to her computer, she can be found watching cheesy horror movies or the latest action-packed anime. She lives in Missouri with her husband and children.