A Selling Synopsis

Submitting your manuscript to a literary agent or publisher involves steps that are different from writing a novel. I’ll leave aside the query letter in this post to focus on the synopsis. The length requested is usually a page. That leaves an author with a daunting question: how do I boil down hundreds of pages so succinctly?

My first piece of advice is: don’t worry about reducing the document to a page on your first try. Give yourself latitude to summarize points at a length that feels shrunk down from the book’s text. You can start by reviewing each chapter and jotting down sentences that boil down its action into a few sentences. (No dialogue: you’re way too far in the weeds if you include dialogue.) Through this process you might find you have distilled the material down to 5-10 pages.

Now take a break, preferably overnight or a few days. You want to view the new material after gaining some distance from it. Why? Because distance is what you’re aiming for in an outline. My whole book, in a page. After the respite, now read the outline as though it is its own story. You’re on a higher plane. What do you want to discard this time?

The winnowing process now can sift out items that relate to subplots or happen to minor characters. You don’t have space for all that stuff, even though it might be great material in the full-length book. If you’re having trouble deciding what is integral to the main plot, rank your major characters on a scale of one through five. Anything that happens to a character below #2 is a likely candidate for cuts. As you plow through those 5-10 pages, you’re crossing out lines that will likely bring you down to 2-3 pages. Sleeping on that overnight can provide a valuable break that allows you to approach the final step with fresh eyes.

During your next round, turn your concern to the protagonist. If you concentrate on what happens to the main character, as well as the relationships revolving around that fulcrum, you’ll find that the novel can be reduced to its true bare bones. While a synopsis should be factual in tone, you can follow the arc of the main love interest with a few deft sentences spaced apart on the page. You can outline the major twists and the hero’s/villain’s reactions to them. You may find that you can reduce a paragraph to a single sentence because all you care about is the protagonist. You do that often enough, and you’re down to a page.

Exercise: An outline is all tell, no show. So get that dictum out of your head. Telling allows you to compress text. Telling is also a sign that the author is narrating from a remote distance. Bad for novel writing, but excellent for summaries.

“I try to leave out the parts people skip.”
— Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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