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Essential Submissions Tips: How to Write a Synopsis | IFW

The entire submissions process can be challenging but writing a synopsis that encompasses the work you’ve written can be one of the most intimidating steps while also being one of the most important. One essential skill for submissions is learning how to write a synopsis. You have to hone the ability to speak clearly and engagingly about your work. You have to help someone see the heart and purpose of the work you are offering. You have to do it in a clear and engaging way. And you have to do it in very few words. The first step to doing this well is understanding exactly what things the synopsis must contain. So, what’s an editor or agent looking for in your synopsis?

Meet the Character

Character is at the core of every story so it is an important part of learning how to write a synopsis. But you won’t want to include every character. You’ll need to focus on the character (or couple of characters) who drive the action of the story. If the editor or agent can’t tell who is driving the story action from your brief synopsis, that is a huge problem. How To Write a SynopsisIf you include characters but don’t make it plain how they are the driving force of your story, the editor or agent is likely to worry that your story is going to be slight. So meeting the character is all about revealing something strong and specific about the character mixed with something active. For example: When ten-year-old Oliver Green moves with his family to Moon Harbor, he is sure he will die of boredom in this sleepy town, but he soon discovers Moon Harbor has a secret, one the town will do anything to keep hidden. Notice how we get a sense of both the situation and the character here. Character without situation doesn’t allow us a strong enough impression. We now know Oliver’s name, his age, and his attitude about a recent move, but we also immediately find out this story is about change. All strong stories are about change, so including that in the synopsis makes the story stronger.

Get Them Busy

Purposeful action in a synopsis is as important as a quick, clear revelation of character. In the example about Oliver, we get two hints at action in the verbs “moves” and “discovers.” But we’ll need more if we’re going to convince an editor that this story will have the kind of action that a young readers wants. And young readers very much want action. So maybe something like this comes next in the synopsis: Oliver hears howls in the night and finds deep scratches on trees. His father dismisses his discoveries saying Oliver needs to get used to living in the country. But when Oliver spots a group of running figures outside his room on a full moon, and one of the figures turns to peer at him through glowing eyes, he knows exactly what’s happened. His family has moved to a town full of werewolves. What is Oliver going to do to keep himself and his family safe? This further bit of synopsis lets us know that Oliver isn’t one of those kids who skip doing the most logical step: telling an adult. He tells, but he’s not taken seriously. Young readers can relate to that. This piece of the synopsis helps us recognize the stakes. Something must always be at stake or the main character won’t be forced into action. Here the stakes couldn’t be higher. His family has moved to a town of werewolves, and his father, the person he would normally trust to protect them, isn’t taking the threat seriously. So it’s going to be up to Oliver. This sense of the high stakes at play help make the action feel more important and more interesting. And it’s done with very few words. That’s going to be essential to writing any synopsis. Notice how this synopsis sample uses clear, strong verbs (moves, discovers, hears, dismisses, spots, turns) and quick, clear visuals (scratches on trees, howls in the night, full moon, running figures, glowing eyes). These kinds of strong sentences with quick, clear details help give the synopsis interest and energy. Notice also that we already have conflict in the synopsis. We have the conflict between Oliver and his father, and potential future conflict when Oliver sees the werewolves and one of them sees him. Conflict is the energy that fuels plot, so make sure your synopsis displays what your character will be going head-to-head within the story. Conflict doesn’t have to have some big single villain. Conflicts can include inner conflicts, conflicts with family, and conflicts with nature. The need is to have something that is in the way of the character’s success, and to identify that in the synopsis.

Put Them in the World

One thing that is often overlooked in synopsis is setting. Editors and agents like to know where this story will be set. In this brief sample synopsis, we learn the setting for this story will be rural. It’s going to be a fictional town named Moon Harbor. We learn the town is sleepy and we have trees for scratching and the father’s suggestion that Oliver get used to living in the country. All of these together help us to understand that the setting will be rural. Also it’s “Moon Harbor” so we can expect not just forest, but also water. We don’t yet know if that water will be important, but it’s more information given in the quickest possible terms. Information in a synopsis needs to do as many jobs as possible as quickly as possible. Juggling the elements of synopsis can be tough. You want to pack in as much as possible, but you absolutely must not add confusion. For instance, in the actual book we’re almost certainly going to quickly learn why Oliver and his family have moved to Moon Harbor, but if that would require a lengthy explanation, the synopsis could not hold that kind of weight. Also, at this synopsis point, we don’t need to know why they moved there. The events of the story will happen there. That’s what is important. There will also be many things about Oliver and his family that cannot make it into the synopsis but will be important in the book. For instance, maybe Oliver’s father is recently divorced, and Oliver and his dad are struggling to find their place in this new normal. That would be important if I were writing a full-page synopsis or if I were writing a chapter-by-chapter synopsis since it will affect the conflict the two experience. But in a single paragraph synopsis, it’s just too hard to explain in the short amount of space I have. Instead, I hint as some issues simply by having his father dismiss Oliver’s concerns. The dismissal is normal enough that readers won’t say, “Hey, how come he didn’t pay more attention to that” while still revealing conflict between them that will affect how the action of the story unfolds.

Judging Importance

Detail never goes in just for the sake of detail. It must always serve a specific purpose in the synopsis because it’s an essential element in the story. For instance, in the sample synopsis, there is no mention of when the story takes place. At this point, it doesn’t sound like that is terribly important. We haven’t heard about school yet, so maybe it’s in the summer, but we don’t know for sure. We also assume the time period is contemporary. If it weren’t, I would have needed to include that because time period is very important in historical fiction. Equally, if this were going to be set in the future, I would need to reveal something to help the reader understand that. Often that can come with the details. For example, let’s imagine this is futuristic, I might tweak the sample synopsis this way: When ten-year-old Oliver Green’s father is transferred to the outpost at Moon Harbor, Oliver is sure he will die of boredom in this sleepy town so far from the bustling city he knows, but he soon discovers Moon Harbor has a secret, one the town will do anything to keep hidden from the authorities. Oliver hears howls in the night and finds deep scratches on the harbor gates. His father dismisses his discoveries, saying Oliver needs to appreciate that opportunity to live in one of the last rural outposts on Earth. During the full moon, Oliver spots a group of running figures outside his room, and one of the figures turns to peer at him through glowing eyes. Oliver knows these are the worst kind of outlaws, werewolves. But with his father still not believing him, what can Oliver do to keep himself and his family safe? You can see that it requires some extra words to set the science fiction genre clearly into this synopsis, but as the genre would make a difference, it would be worth the words spent. Whenever you’re choosing what to put in, you’re weighing the value of the information against the word cost. And always, you’re doing it with the knowledge that nothing you add can add confusion. Confusion in your synopsis will almost always result in rejection.

How to Write a Synopsis as Diagnostic Tool

The cleaner and more orderly your plot is, the easier it will be to write your synopsis. So the very process of writing one can help you reveal flaws in your plot. If you flatly cannot construct a short, specific synopsis that introduces the main character and the purposeful story action, the problem might not be with your synopsis writing, but with the plot itself. Plot flaws in the story are one of the most frequent causes of synopsis bloat. That’s something to keep in mind as you write your synopsis. I tend to craft a synopsis at several points in my creation process, tinkering with it as I understand my story more and more. I write the first one before I begin the story. At that point, I know the synopsis will change, but it helps me get the feel for what I want from the story. Anytime I feel a little bogged down or am not sure what to do next, I’ll write another synopsis of what I’ve done so far as that often helps me spot what is causing the trouble. Every synopsis points me toward flaws in the plot, or places where I’ve wandered off course without purpose. It will also tend to reveal if my character’s behavior sounds unmotivated when boiled down to its essence in a synopsis. So synopsis is valuable even beyond its importance in submission. it’s also a great diagnostic tool for the book, pointing you to the places in need of revision.

How About You?

Consider writing a synopsis of whatever project you’re working on right now, no matter what point you’re presently at. Can you already begin to find the bones of the story? Do you know how the situation is forcing your main character to act? Do you know where your conflicts lie? Try some practice synopses. You might even try doing some imaginary ones, such as the one I wrote for Oliver’s story above. The more you learn about how to write a synopsis, the better a submissions tool this will become for you.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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