Storyville: Writing a Compelling Novel Synopsis
Yes, this is a huge pain in the ass. Writing a synopsis—in various lengths—can be very difficult, but it’s essential to nail down in order to communicate with agents, editors, and publishers. Here are some tips on how to make your synopsis really stand out, and what I think are the essential elements for your proposal.
Start with comps, and then work your way up. What’s a comp? It’s short for “comparison”, and it’s a quick way to describe your novel to that agent you just ran into at that writing conference. Most people say it should be 2-3 books, all published within the last five years, and all similar in length, genre, author, and publisher. But that can be a bit limiting. I do recommend you mention at least one book, but I also like to toss in films and television show. Why? Not every agent or publisher has heard of Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger, but they’ve probably heard of Shutter Island and Breaking Bad. Here are some examples from my three novels.
1. Transubstantiate—Lost meets The Truman Show, with a splash of Lord of the Flies.
2. Disintegration—Darkly Dreaming Dexter meets Falling Down, with a dose of Kiss Me, Judas.
3. Breaker—A blend of To Kill a Mockingbird (Boo Radley), Of Mice and Men (Lennie), The Green Mile (John Coffey), and Leon: The Professional (both Leon and Mathilda.)
As you can see my mix is pretty eclectic, but in some cases, I felt the comp was perfect, and I just couldn’t focus solely on books.
Once you have your comp done, you need to know what your elevator pitch is. This is taking your comp and adding it to your basic plot. This is very handy to have and should take less than a minute to say. It has to be a mix of hype, comps, and plot, using your voice. Maybe something like this:
Disintegration is Dexter meets Falling Down, with a dose of surreal neo-noir, like Will Christopher Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas, which was a huge influence on my voice and style. A man sees his wife and kids killed in a car accident, and it sends him spiraling out of control, down a rabbit hole that might be his undoing. He takes assignments, envelopes slipped under his door in the dead of night—minor tasks at first, but quickly leading to the assassination of the worst people in Chicago: thieves, pedophiles, rapists, and murderers. Somewhere along the way, our unnamed protagonist discovers that all is not what it seems. And that leads him to a series of sordid hangouts—underground sex clubs, drug dealer cribs, and mob boss mansions. Where is his bottom, where does he draw the line, and what happens when he discovers the truth?
You want to paint a picture, but in your own words. You want to also try to use your writer voice when talking about it—sounding like the book you wrote. You want to compare it to things that are familiar (books, tv shows, and films). Most importantly, you want to get the agent or publisher excited about what you wrote—with enough familiar elements to allow them access, but enough innovation and originality to show them this is fresh and different.
As you are building toward your synopsis, you may have to write the copy for your dust jacket. This is a little bit different, in that it speaks in marketing terms, but it should align with your synopsis. Here is my official copy from Disintegration:
In a brilliantly stylish breakthrough thriller for fans of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Will Christopher Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas, here is the compelling tale of a man who has lost it all—and is now navigating a crooked, harrowing path to redemption.
Once a suburban husband and father, now the man has lost all sense of time. He retains only a few keepsakes of his former life: a handmade dining room table, an armoire and dresser from the bedroom, and a tape of the last message his wife ever left on their answering machine. These are memories of a man who no longer exists. Booze and an affair with a beautiful woman provide little relief, with the only meaning left in his life coming from his assignments. An envelope slipped under the door of his apartment with the name and address of an unpunished evildoer. The unspoken directive to kill. And every time he does, he marks the occasion with a memento: a tattoo. He has a lot of tattoos.
But into this unchanging existence seep unsettling questions. How much of what he feels and sees can he trust? How much is a lie designed to control him? He will risk his own life—and the lives of everyone around him—to find out.
You’ll notice that the comp has shifted a little bit, adding in American Psycho. BTW I didn’t call myself brilliant, LOL, that was the publisher, but you can see how this is a slightly different tone than the comps and pitch, and also a bit more promotional than the synopsis.
Okay, time for the synopsis. Let’s break down the key elements.
Hook: Start with the narrative hook, and the inciting incident, and grab us.
Plot—It’s important that you walk us through the main elements in your story. And depending on whether you are writing a one-page synopsis or two-page synopsis, you must only include the crucial elements.
Chapters—One of the best ways to get started is to go through every chapter (whether you have 25 or 125) and write down one or two lines summing it up. This will take you a long way toward achieving your goal here.
Tone—It’s crucial that your synopsis has the same tone as your book. Not that you have to write it in a cliché noir voice, or technical science fiction diatribe—but, yes, it should be close to what you wrote, tapping into your voice, and your strengths.
Conflicts: It’s essential to show the internal and external conflicts of your protagonist, so the reader can decide if this interests them. The external is easy—asteroid crashing to the earth, plague sweeping across the country, deadly creature wreaking havoc. The internal is much harder—what does your protagonist want, what do they need, what is driving them, and what is their motivation?
Genre—Keep in mind what genre you are writing. If this is horror, then lean that way—focus on the sensory details, setting, and atmosphere. Work that around your plot and summation. If this is fantasy or science fiction be sure to use your world-building skills to show us the new world order you have created, tapping into the originality, weirdness, and culture. If this is literary fiction then sell us on the insights, the internal emotions, with less focus on the plot, action, and setting. Get us hooked on the power of your story, whatever the genre, and you’ll get the attention of the agent, editor, or publisher.
Character—Don’t let the plot kill the depth of character. You need to sell your protagonist as somebody we can root for (or against) with layers, emotion, and urgency. If you have more than one POV, then you need to do that for ALL of your characters. Also, you will want to make sure that the villain or antihero is part of this narrative. And then any other colorful characters that might stand out. For those that have read Perdido Street Station, think of not just Isaac, Lin, and Yagharek—but also The Weaver, Motley, and the Slake Moths.
Familiarity—You must have a book that is accessible. So, we want it to be familiar, but not cliché, expected, common, or filled with tropes. Show us how your horror story might scare or unsettle us, show us how your mystery will keep us guessing, show us how the magical realism will be filled with wonder. Help us to grab hold, and then take us somewhere new (see my next point).
Originality—BUT, you also have to stand out. You don’t want a regurgitation of Lost or Dexter or The Green Mile. You want you to show us how you are starting someplace that is familiar and accessible, but then run this story off the rails. The road less travelled and all that, right? Show us how you will innovate with the structure (a mix of first and third person, two POVs—Breaker), a new kind of monster (an energy vampire, that feeds on misery—“Transmogrify”), and convention (blending humor and everyday life with classic demon possession authority—Come Closer by Sara Gran). Make original choices in your novel—a female protagonist where we might expect a man; set in a place that is not known for that genre; use cultures and myths from lesser known countries. You see what I mean here—every choice you make is important. If it feels like you’ve seen it all before, you have.
Ending: Don’t get cute and feel like you can’t talk about the ending. Spoil it, let that ending unfurl, the chaos and horror and uncertainty sprawling across the page, seeping out into the world. Don’t hold back—agents and publishers want to know if you can stick the landing, if they can live with it, if it’s original, and plausible.
It’s a process, what you’re doing here. Start small, build from the heart and core of your story, and then slowly push out. Comp to pitch to dust jacket to synopsis. If you take your time, and make sure that all of these elements align, you’ll have a compelling bit of writing that will sell your book to an agent, editor, or publisher. Leave it all on the page—blood, sweat, and tears—and don’t pull your punches. The opposite of love is not hate—it’s apathy. Make us care, and if we trust you, that you’ll deliver what you promise—we’ll follow you to the end of the earth.
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