28 November 2008

The Synoptic Gospel

Earlier this year I helped a friend polish the synopsis of his first novel for a literary agent. That got me thinking about synopses, a singular literary genre with a very small audience but a great deal of potential value locked up inside. Of course, the full manuscript still has to deliver, but a good synopsis really is worth all the effort it requires.

I think a strong synopsis can do three important things for an author:

  • crystallize what your book's really about, which is more than a little useful when revising.
  • show an agent or editor how your novel has a plot to excite and eventually satisfy readers through the requisite mix of surprises, emotional tugs, and logical connections.
  • show those publishing pros that you understand how your plot works, leading them to think that you might just be able to do that again.
Editorial Anonymous has tackled the synoptic topic by inviting people to try synopsizing a well-known, published book for practice, and then submitting the result for feedback. EA's guidelines reminded prospective entrants:
Don't forget to include:
  • What makes it all appealing. If you've summarized everything except the reason readers will be drawn through the plot, you've failed.
  • The ending. I don't care if it's a surprise. Tell me how it fricking ends.
The world breathlessly awaits the results.

Meanwhile, for more examples to learn from, there's Miss Snark's Crapometer-synopsis thread. Evil Editor's Face-Lifts are more focused on query letters, but also offer useful advice on expressing the essence of a story. Cynthea Liu takes a more formulaic approach to synopses, seemingly based on the five-paragraph essay, but that's okay; as a genre, synopses are all about content, not form.

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