The January 2012 column from the former editor of Writers' Forum
As a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.
Writing a synopsis is easy
by John Jenkins
Why is that even some successful authors find that writing a synopsis is a difficult task? Perhaps because they want to employ too much of their imagination and command of the English language. For beginners the problem seems to be one of confusion as they fail to appreciate the differences between a review, a biography and something to sell the book to a publisher or agent.
For that is the task of a synopsis. Even then you will find so-called experts disagreeing on the scope and format.
Let’s make it a simple job.
Imagine you are in a bar trying to sell your story to a publisher. He will ask: What’s it about? Who are the main characters? Is it crime, romance, fiction, non fiction etc?
Naturally you would begin something like this:
This is a romantic saga, / historical romance, /crime story set in the Middle Ages, /adventure story for boys aged 9–14, / the tale of an abandoned pony aimed at girls aged from 6–15,/ one man’s conflict with his religious beliefs and job etc.
Your first paragraph must define THE BIG IDEA. Eg: a shower of meteorites is heading for earth and will fall with huge destructive power in 20 days. Nobody knows where. American, British, Chinese and Russian space scientists join forces to change the earth’s orbit so that the meteorites will miss the planet. But a separate group of scientists in China are attempting secretly to ensure that the meteorites fall on the United States.
Locations: the story moves globally from the United Nations HQ in New York to the capitals of the world. Covering the story for Agence France Presse is a glamorous reporter who is also the secret illegitimate daughter of the British ambassador to Washington. She also works for Satint, a secret freelance espionage outfit specialising in space projects.
Next: introduce the other main characters in your book. Tell their MOTIVATION, CONFLICT and GOALS. Leave out detailed descriptions unless this information is pertinent to your story.
Next write the high points of your story in chronological order. Keep these paragraphs tight, don't give every little detail. Concentrate on ACTION, REACTION and effect.
Now, in a few tight sentences write the resolution of the story and how it is achieved. Keep this simple, but make sure you show your main characters' reactions. Don't keep the editor/agent guessing.
Finally, re-write your synopsis until each sentence is polished to perfection. Write in the present tense. Make every word count.
Here’s another sample synopsis
This is a family saga set in World War II.
Having escaped the poverty of Southern Ireland, the Kelly family become victims of a bombing raid on the Supermarine factory, at West Bromwich, where Spitfire fighters are being built. Dermot and Mary Kelly’s twin daughters, Annie and Theresa, are buried alive among the burning ruins of their home. Mary, with baby Patrick nestling into her bosom, hysterically screams for help.
Rescued by test pilots Johnnie Johnson and Mike Francome, the three families become intertwined to face the atrocities and challenges that confront them.
The story portrays the far-reaching consequences that the deep rooted-fear of 'The Faith', brings on in the vulnerable Kellys. Dermot is left to bring up three children, one of whom, Annie, is profoundly deaf from the bombing raid.
Mike feels a moral obligation to support this fated family, and with the help of a legacy left by his father, gives them shelter and support. After his own children Kate and Phoebe, Annie is his priority, and as the saga unfurls Annie's progress is to the fore, to the detriment of his marriage to Rebecca.
Johnnie's flying accident is followed by his untimely death on a motorbike. Uninsured and intestate, he leaves his widow, Janet, virtually penniless with two young children, Lucy and Tilly, to bring up. She finds work running a club for military officers and professional men. Because of Johnnie's important contribution to the production of the Spitfire, Vickers offers financial support for the children. Mike is devastated by the loss of his friend and soul-mate.
The homely and loyal Mrs Macdonald plays a vital role in the story. She is a nanny, housekeeper and unofficial aunt: always there when problems arise.
The arrival of American forces to Britain in 1942 has a lively impact on impoverished Britain. To Mike's wife, the shallow and neglected Rebecca, this is a lifeline out of her boredom. She meets Joe Slawaski, an American pilot, and their affair results in her returning to America with him at the end of the war.
After seven years on his own, Mike marries John’s widow Janet, the long-standing love of his life. Mike retires from his flying career and founds an aircraft design consultancy.
Their support of Annie continues throughout.
The story concludes with the marriage of Annie to her speech therapist and guru. This is a story which travels from poverty-stricken Ireland to war-torn West Bromwich, from post-war Paris to the lovely Stratford countryside, from the adrenalin-filled magnificence of flying the world's iconic aeroplane to a new life for the people involved.
Out of storm clouds come love and romance, sadness and laughter.
Exercise: now write a synopsis of your favourite book.
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The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers
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