UPDATE: I fixed the title. I meant to play on “Sum of all fears”, not evils. Guess I had it confused with “Root of all evil”. I’m not sure what a “Sum of all evils” is, however (in keeping with the tone of the article), I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the Kardashians.
Readers, you’ll have to excuse me this morning if my writing bounces around a lot. My Bosnian Editor Girlfriend made me some authentic Yugoslavian coffee this morning—I dubbed it “Bosnian Motor Oil”—and now I feel like The Flash. I swear to Krishna that time is moving at about half-speed and I think I probably look like a hairy orange blur to everyone else around me (I’m wearing an orange shirt and I’m especially hairy). However, I want to do my best to focus on one topic this morning: The infamous synopsis.
I know some people absolutely hate the process of writing a synopsis; I actually quite enjoy it. For me, writing a synopsis is like fondly remembering the book I’ve just written. I get to pay tribute to the crux of my book’s story, I get to clearly outline the best attributes of my protagonist, and also paint a simple portrait of my antagonist/conflict. While I will admit that this is no easy feat, it is becoming an easier process with experience.
Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered about the synopses written by some of our greatest authors to describe some of their classics. Does anyone else agonize over this? Anybody else ever wonder how Tolstoy could have summed up War and Peace in a page? Or, for example, I’m reading 1984 right now (I know, I know…should’ve read it when I was like 17 or 18 but the opportunity never came along) and I can’t imagine Orwell writing a synopsis for what I’ve read so far. The book is so dense and “Big Picture” that it would be a challenge for me to summarize the challenges faced by Winston—how do you characterize a conflict/antagonist when the conflict is the very system itself? I know how I probably would have written that synopsis, but I would be much more interested in Orwell’s characterization of it.
Also, I can’t help but wonder what Orwell would think about pop media today. I wish I could sit down with him and enjoy Jersey Shore and Kardashians. I believe he’d probably think he painted too rosy a picture with 1984. I wonder if he would also get a kick out of us having a reality show called Big Brother or if his head would implode from the irony. I apologize to any of my readers who love reality TV but, to me, watching TLC or MTV nowadays is kind of like looking at the Ark of the Covenant. End of rant.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the synopsis thing! (Damn you, coffee!) Some people recommend that you have two versions of a synopsis—a short one-page version and a longer 3-5 page version. I say, why not—better safe than sorry—but I’ll also admit that I have yet to find a single agency that requests the longer version. I have never submitted a synopsis that wasn’t of the one-page variety. This makes sense because in this Go-Go-Go economy that finds agencies understaffed, overworked, and inundated with (let’s face it) more pyrite and coal than gold, agents need to hear your story Now-Now-Now so that, not unlike Jay-Z, they can move on to the next one. Personally, I find the short synopsis easier to write because of the limitation. If I can be a little bit graphic, the process of writing a short synopsis is kind of like deboning a chicken, whereas with the longer version, you have to decide which meat to keep, how to cook it, and which meat to throw out. If that analogy doesn’t make sense, keep in mind that I don’t cook very often. Most of my meat comes deboned.
…Then again, some agents would probably say the synopses they receive do, too. (rimshot)
So you need to do everything in your power to keep the bones of your story intact. Never forget the rules of query letter writing. You need to mention your most important character first, as well as the antagonist. You should outline a very brief description of the attributes of your character that are important to your story, but don’t dwell on things like hair or eye color. The next part is absolutely essential: Clearly describe the challenges and conflict that your protagonist will face. This is not as easy as it sounds. I know from experience that many people think they are doing this when they actually aren’t. An agent needs some idea of why a challenge is of profound importance to your main character and how that character’s arc will be influenced by said challenge/obstacle over the course of your book. This is the most important aspect of your query letter and of your synopsis, and it should be complemented by a characterization of your protagonist’s emotions, motivations, outlook, etc.
Usually, we see these sorts of qualities in a great movie trailer. Think back to every Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson movie of the past decade. The trailer begins with a shot of the protagonist sharing a happy moment with a daughter or wife—a token “loved one”. What happens next? Cue ambiguously ethnic criminal or terrorist mastermind to kidnap that loved one, followed immediately by a close-up of the emotional response on the protagonist’s face. Uh-oh! They exchange some sort of one-liners with each other:
Neeson: “I will find you. I will kill you.”
Terrorist: “Good luck.”
Neeson: “No, really. I’m serious.”
Terrorist: “Oh, I know.”
Terrorist: “I believe you.”
You would not believe how hard it was to find a picture of a villain talking on a phone.
Terrorist: “…Are you still there?”
Neeson: “Oh, yeah…Sorry, I dropped the phone…Damn thing…(fumbling, scratching noise in background)…Just charged the battery, but it’s beeping.”
Terrorist: “You shouldn’t leave it plugged into the charger overnight. It really drains the battery.”
Neeson: “Oh. Thanks. Recap: Give me back my daughter or I’ll kill you.”
And we all know what happens after that: Frantic, brief shots of Liam Neeson kicking all sorts of ass (if Liam Neeson were a country, his number one export would be the amount of ass that he kicks, resulting in the most robust economy on Earth), interspersed with explosions, death-defying leaps, some indication that things will go bad for him, etc.
Your synopsis should go just one step forward. Without giving away the plot, you will give some nuanced indication of how your story is resolved. This does not mean spoiling the ending, only giving an agent some indication that there is a resolution. I’m leading into another extremely contentious point among the agents with whom I have discussed synopses: Should you just give away the ending? Some agents say “Absolutely” and some say “Of course NOT”. Since they couldn’t give me a clear answer, I can’t give you one. All I can say is that Writers’ Digest tells you DO reveal the ending while I prefer to lay out all the ingredients to the ending and give the agent some idea of how it will taste, but I don’t actually send them the finished cake. I want them to have some idea that Liam Neeson probably gets his daughter back, but I don’t want them to know exactly how many gravelly-voiced Persians, Saudi Arabians, Chechens, Serbians, Armenians, Somalians, etc. he had to punch in the face to get her back.
Taken is a racist, racist movie. Fun, but racist.
A few closing points: Your synopsis does not need dialogue. Remember that over-the-top, confusing dialogue exchange I wrote earlier in this article? Yeah—nothing like that has any place in your synopsis. Also, you should write in the third-person, even if your novel is in the first-person, unless you’ve written a memoir, in which case your synopsis should read like a novel synopsis but it’s okay to go FP, based on what I’ve read from the experts. And, of course, only highlight the most pivotal plot points in your synopsis. “Pivotal” means anything that propels the plot forward: Twists and turns welcome. “Pivotal” means anything that increases the stakes or forces your character to adapt to new challenges. “Pivotal” means “Not only does Liam Neeson discover that a ragtag team of European/Middle Eastern stereotypes have kidnapped his daughter, he also discovers she is also a robot sent from the future.”
Man, that series just writes itself: Taken 2: Retaken, Taken 3: Retaken…AGAIN, and you could even do a prequel Taken Aback or a comedic reboot, Look Who’s Taken. I can’t wait to see more movies set in this rich and colorful cinematic universe. My only requirement: Liam Neeson must star in all of them.