‘And, could you just write us a little synopsis?’ says the editor you’re hoping to impress.
‘Sure,’ you say, breaking into a cold sweat, ‘by when?’
‘Oh, soon as…’ she says and you know you’re heading for a week of sleepless nights, and deleted sentences as you suddenly remember that you simply must include that trip to the Moon, or that Wicked Stepmother or the fact that the whole thing takes place in Berlin.
At college, we were told a synopsis should only be a page long, at the most a page and half and that it must include an emotional plot as well as a mechanical plot. We duly shrank our manuscripts into a few pithy paragraphs. We universally agonized. But on the whole, we had actually written the stories, we had something to base our synopses on. The synopsis was a flag to hang out to attract the attention of the passing Agent/Editor.
Now, as a nearly published writer, I find myself in a totally different position. The synopsis has become a taster, conveying the plot, characters, and tone of the work and it is written before the manuscript. It’s a probable summation of what will happen in the book, but it simply can’t be the actual thing, and it seems, its nature depends on who it is for.
My first experience of this was in June. I wrote an overnight one page synopsis of a story I’d pitched to a delightful editor the day before. She was enthusiastic, I was enthusiastic. I even wrote three chapters. “Great,’ said everyone at the publishing house, they got the characters and the tone, but “what actually happens?’ So I wrote it again, but longer this time, with more of the mechanical details. Again, I got the response “but what actually happens?’ In the end, the story found its home, but only when my synopsis had reached the stupendous size of 3,500 words.
As synopses go, it was pretty epic.
So, when the next lovely editor asks me for: “just a page on those two ideas”, what do I do? I go home and write something long, and detailed, and slightly tedious that tells everyone at her end, exactly what is going to happen in the story. It might be that she’d be perfectly happy with a few paragraphs, but I’m not taking any chances.
However, I don’t think either editor, nor my agent, would be attracted by these wordy tales in the first instance. They’re simply too heavy, like books without dialogue. In order to pique the interest of someone in the publishing industry, who let’s face it is reading dozens of manuscripts and thousands of synopses, short and pithy has to be best. And tone and character are probably more interesting than bald mechanics.
I like to think of a synopsis as a piece of cake.
The very best are small, multi layered, and slightly sweet, but not sickly. Held together by a little perfectly structured sponge, they contain sharp zesty mouthfuls, light puffs of cream and only a hint of raspberry jam.
But this cake will have something about it. That fresh red strawberry, or that warm curl of chocolate, placed, just so, that makes a person want to own it.