Writing Your Novel Synopsis – 4 Choices

I’ve spent the past few days researching what needs to be included in any good novel synopsis. I’ve read, printed, re-read and highlighted at least six or seven different articles advocating similar but just slightly different formulas for the perfect one. I have arrived at the following conclusion about these articles:

Though helpful to a degree, they’re mostly useless.

I know – you probably clicked on this blog thinking that you were going to get some great, secret advice on how to write your own novel synopsis. Unfortunately, what I know about the synopsis situation is less than what the cast of the Jersey Shore knows. About anything.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you and you can’t help me. If you’ll give me just a second, I think we can come to a quaint little quid pro quo.

I’ll start first. Here’s your quid: 4 Choices to Make When Writing Your Novel Synopsis

1. Detail versus Emotion: if you’ve ever checked out the synopsis of your favorite movie on imdb.com, you’ve probably noticed that the vast majority of them were faithfully recorded by some time-rich fan. Every minute action on screen is logged in painstaking detail, in order to give you the unofficial novel version of the movie, only boring. When you’re writing your synopsis, stick to the high points – the major plot beats – and describe them with emotive words. In other words, imagine you’re trying to convince a friend to go see a particular movie; you don’t give them every detail – just the ones you know will stoke their interest.

2. Cute versus Professional: Chuck Sambucchino, whose excellent blog Guide to Literary Agents is on my blogroll and is a must-read, occasionally posts articles on query letters and synopses that won agents over. Take a minute and go read some of the offerings. Notice what you find? Though there are one or two that take a “cute” approach – some sort of gimmick to hook the reader – most are straightforward and powerful descriptions of the book in vivid language that make you want to rush to the store and buy that book. Stick to the professional mode – in sports parlance, act like you’ve been there before – and save the cute stuff for inane blog posts.

3. Anonymous versus Characters: when you write, don’t forget to mention the major characters. I’d start with the main character, but that’s just me being pragmatic. In my particular book there are only 5-6 characters that really advance the story, so I make sure to include some reference to them in my synopsis. Since most synopses are written in third-person omniscient (as well as present tense), it doesn’t make much sense to put a name to a character. Unless, of course, by naming that character you ruin an important plot element. Use your head – and put a name with a face. Well, not really…but you get the drift.

4. Short versus Brief: most synopses will be right at a page long, so you are restricted with what you can say. But brevity doesn’t mean you have to be short – if you choose the right words, you can pack a lot into just one page, which you hopefully learned while writing your novel. If not, may I suggest you go back and re-edit? Like, right now? I’ll wait…

…and welcome back.

Cutting out those 20,000 words didn’t hurt so bad, did it? Now you’re ready to condense even further and crank out a first rate synopsis.
Which brings me to the pro quo part of our arrangement.

I have below three different synopses, all for my recently completed novel. I kind of like all three, but I’m willing to let democracy rule. If you would read through all three, then vote in the poll below for your favorite. Not only will you help me know what makes my book sound enticing, you’ll also take a world of stress off my shoulders as I prepare to submit to agents.

Number One:

When Bence Little’s wife and daugher are murdered at the hands of his wife’s lover, Bence is shattered. The former special agent finds himself without a purpose, a family or hope. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the last place that felt like home: Athens, GA. There, in the town known for its eclectic mix of austere academics and debauched antics, Bence rediscovers his old haunt, Nowhere Bar, and his old friend, Cozy, and begins to put his life back together. Through a series of events that has him save a rape victim, track down a drunken college kid, blackmail an old rival, and travel Florida to solve a strange series of break-ins in a ritzy private neighborhood, Bence learns that by solving the problems of others, he solves his own.

Inspired by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and G.K. Chesterton, Bulldawg isn’t just a detective story; it’s a detective’s story.

Number Two:

Derailed by the murder of his wife and daughter, ex-GBI agent Bence Little finds himself without a purpose, a family or hope. With nowhere to go, he returns to the last place that felt like home: Athens, GA. There, in a town known for its mix of austerity and debauchery, Bence returns to his home-away-from-home: the Nowhere Bar, owned by Bence’s mentor, Cozy. Chance brings in a young fraternity boy with a missing car,  and Bence agrees to investigate, stumbling upon a fraternity at the center of a narcotics trafficking scheme. He also comes under the watchful eye of Det. Blake Lawrence, an Athens cop who doesn’t trust Bence’s motives. After Bence fights to rescue a rape victim named Jennifer from the corrupt fraternity, he ends up the defendant in a civil lawsuit and a target for revenge. When the lawyer suing Bence ends up blackmailed and dead, Bence finds himself in jail—and at a moral crossroads. Once he’s released, a benevolent stranger arrives with a chance at redemption on the Florida coast. Bence jumps at it, knowing he must solve a series of high-profile break-ins and his own life.

Number Three:

A masterfully concocted, intelligent and lucid thriller that marries the gusto of an international murder mystery with a collection of fascinating esoteria culled from 2,000 years of Western history. A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. The victim is a high-ranking agent of this ancient society who, in the moments before his death, manages to leave gruesome clues at the scene that only his granddaughter, noted cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon, a famed symbologist, can untangle. The duo become both suspects and detectives searching for not only Neveu’s grandfather’s murderer but also the stunning secret of the ages he was charged to protect. Mere steps ahead of the authorities and the deadly competition, the mystery leads Neveu and Langdon on a breathless flight through France, England, and history itself. The author has created a page-turning thriller that also provides an amazing interpretation of Western history. The hero and heroine embark on a lofty and intriguing exploration of some of Western culture’s greatest mysteries–from the nature of the Mona Lisa’s smile to the secret of the Holy Grail. Though some will quibble with the veracity of the conjectures, therein lies the fun. An enthralling read that provides rich food for thought. Now a major motion picture staring Tom Hanks! (with thanks to my friend Ashton Adams, who pulled this joke on me first).

And now for the poll:

Have We Lost the Power of Imagination?

What do you see?

If I asked you right now, in 750 words or less, to describe what you see in the picture above, what would you write? How would you string together words to give meaning to what your eyes perceive?

Would you give me a simple discription?

Would you conjure up a discription that included some elements of motive or intpretation?

What do you see?

I ask because of late I’ve become concerned that our nation has become powerless in the area of imagination. Sure, we may be living in a golden age of media – Avatar, LOST, Inception – that challenges and pushes our little dream factories to new heights, but when it comes to just the good old fashioned idea of being able to look at an image and create story or meaning or nuance or depth from within ourselves, I think we’ve reached a critical nadir.

We have outsourced our dreams to men and women with multi-million dollar budgets. We’ve become the consumers of ideas rather than the creators. We think and learn and live in empiric, evidentiary ways, using our brain’s imagination only as a source for problem-solving.

We do not use our imaginations as ways to bring richness to our lives.

That’s what makes a show like LOST so intriguing – Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse demanded that viewers bring their own interpretive lens to the show, in effect, asking the viewer to supply as much of the show’s drama and meaning as they did. And it worked – for a while. But after last night’s finale (and I loved it, was so emotionally stunned by the last 15 minutes that my wife and I stayed up waaaaaay late to talk and cry) what has been the biggest criticism of the last episode?

That all of the questions weren’t answered. That things were left unsaid. That the show’s writers never told us the significance of Walt or Aaron, or why the Man-in-Black didn’t have a damn name.

In short, the criticism has been that the show sucked because it left things to the viewer’s imagination. Because it challenged instead of placated. Because it left unsaid what couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be fully explained. It’s too messy, too artsy, too vauge. They should’ve just solved all the mysteries in one fell swoop so we can go on with our lives.

Instead, the show will resonate for days. I’m not trying to overblow the cultural significance of the show itself – the total ratings were modest, at best – but the fact that the producers didn’t try to give all the answers will bother people for a while. Because they don’t like the untidyness of it. Because they don’t like having their lives interrupted by nagging questions, even if the questions are ultimately just about a piece of art. They won’t be able to shake this finale because it appealed to their dormant imagination, and now that unused piece of them is awake, and hungry, and looking for food.

And cramming in bills and sports stats and internet porn won’t satisfy the beast. Only something imaginative will.

Which brings me back to the picture above: what do you see?

How you answer will tell you all you need to know about your imagination. And your life.

I hope you see plenty.