Readers like to know what they’re getting into before they start a book. They want to know if it’s a series, what genre, and what they can expect, overall, before they start reading (unless they trust you and your stories already, in which case they might just want to read without any foreknowledge).
This is why we have synopses–at the back of books, next to the book cover on Goodreads, on our websites; anywhere a book is mentioned, there is usually a short blurb hinting at what is inside.
But how do you successfully write one?
Focus on the Story You’re Telling: Again, like in writing a query letter, focus is crucial. In a query letters, your synopsis may actually actually tell the entire story in summary form, but in most blurbs, you just want to hint at the story.
Here are some examples:
Princess Leia is smuggling secret plans for the Empire’s new battle station across the galaxy when she gets caught by her arch-nemisis, Darth Vader. She recruits a small, defenseless droid to carry on her mission and make contact with Obi-Wan Kenobi, a mysterious mystic who once worked alongside her father.
If she can escape the Empire…and if the droid can navigate the planet below them–and if General Obi-Wan joins her cause–the rebellion might be able to survive the lethal cruelty of Darth Vader and the Empire that thoughtlessly, carelessly backs his every command.
This version of the story obviously makes it sound like we’re going to follow Princess Leia, primarily…which isn’t what Star Wars does. So here’s another take on the story.
It was just another normal, hazy, hot day in Mos Eisley when Han Solo was approached by an old man and a hotshot young kid, asking to be taken to Alderaan with no questions asked. But Han and his tall, shaggy Wookiee friend, Chewbacca, need the money, so they agree to take the job–even if it is a little boring.
But when the reach the Alderaan system to find the planet gone and a battle station the size of a moon in its place–one with a rebel princess and the Empire’s most dangerous leader aboard–their job starts getting interesting and a little bit dangerous.
This time, the synopsis sets readers up to expect Han Solo and Chewbacca to be the main characters. And, again, it’s not what they get from the movie. Either one of these synopses would frustrate viewers, because if they read this beforehand, they’d wonder why the movie takes so long to get to the “real story.” “What’s with this kid, Luke? Why are we bothering with him? He has nothing to do with what we read?”
And ultimately, what they read–the synopsis–represents what they paid to read. They decided to invest their time and money based on what you indicated would happen in the synopsis. If it doesn’t deliver, they’ll be upset.
Don’t Give Too Much Away: It’s like a game between you and the readers. You have all the cards, and which ones you play in the synopsis changes what they’ll know going into the story, and what they’ll expect the story to be about. You know everything that is to come, but the reader doesn’t, and you have to play your cards right, giving out information at the right time, or the reading experience can be spoiled.
When Luke first lays eyes on R2-D2, he has no idea that the little droid would lead him to his destiny and his family–the sister he’s been separated from at birth and the father who ruthlessly rules the galaxy from behind a mask. The dome-topped robot just looks like a lonely little lump of metal. One that quickly runs away from his uncle’s moisture farm, leading Luke on a merry chase that will lead to the past he doesn’t know he possesses…and a future he can only imagine.
This synopsis isn’t bad, but it gives too much away. We learn about Luke’s sister and his father in one fell blow, which ruins the tension of many scenes in the movies (not to mention making certain kisses unlikely). Sometimes, knowing too much of the story can ruin that first experience, where you’re guessing what comes next, eagerly turning pages and hoping that the worst doesn’t happen.
Make Promises You Can Actually Keep. Whatever you say in the synopsis is going to promise a certain kind of story. If you try to keep all your cards close to your chest, they will probably come up with their own idea of what the story is about…and it won’t be the right one.
Luke lives on the sandiest, hottest planet in the galaxy…and the furthest one from the center of the universe. Every day, he slaves away on his uncle’s moisture farm, longing to fly away into the stars like his father before him. But his uncle would do anything to keep him away from the dangers that lurk in the rest of the galaxy…dangers that once lured his father away from the very same place, over thirty years ago.
By keeping so much back–giving no information about the Empire, Princess Leia, the rebellion, etc.–I’ve actually written a synopsis that makes it sound like the entire story will be focused on Luke and his uncle. Based on this synopsis, readers should expect a struggle of whether Luke will ever get away, and a story of discovery as Luke finds out why his uncle tries so hard to keep him here. Is Uncle Owen a villain, tapping into Luke’s force powers and using them for himself? Is he trying to protect Luke from some gang or military group that would kill him or try to use him, just as his father was killed?
None of this represents the actual story, though, and once Uncle Owen gets killed, the reader might very likely pitch the book across the room and never touch it again. The synopsis promised family dynamics and secrets, not fantasy and science fiction battles. Leaving the planet should’ve been the climax…if the synopsis was to be believed.
Ultimately, you want a synopsis that represents your story, o that readers who would actually enjoy it can read it, armed with the right expectations…and the rest can stay away. 🙂
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by rezdora70, Creative Commons