Friday, November 13, 2009

AUTHOR JOE MOORE: I'd Rather Have a Root Canal.

by joe moore

The dreaded synopsis. It’s the nasty part of writing fiction that everyone hates. After all, if someone wants to know what your book is about, just read it. Right? The synopsis is right up there with getting a root canal. It’s painful and taxing. But it’s also a fact of life that you’re going to have to produce one sooner or later. Especially if you’re a first-time author. Most writers feel that creating a synopsis is harder than actually writing the book. I agree.

Clare touched on it with her July post. Here’s another look at the task we love to hate.

So what is a synopsis?

It’s taking your book’s 80,000 to 120,000 words and condensing them down to a few pages—a brief description of what your book is about. Imagine draining 99.9% of a human body away and still convey the person’s looks, thoughts and personality. A daunting task at best.

How do you get the job done? First, start by accepting the fact that you have to do it. In order to successfully market your new book, you must be able to tell the story in just a few paragraphs or pages. Barring any unusual submission requirements for a particular agent or publisher, a formal synopsis usually runs a page or two. A great time to write your synopsis is as you do your final read-through before declaring mission accomplished—that the book is done. As you finish reading each chapter, write a paragraph or two describing what happened in that chapter—what was the essence of the chapter as it relates to character, motivation and plot. Keep it short such as: Bob and Mary met for the first time. She thought he was a bore. He thought she was self-centered. They had no choice but to work together.

Also be aware of any emotional threads running through the chapter; love, hate, revenge, etc. and make note of them. But always keep it short.

Once you’ve finished the read-through of your manuscript and making subsequent notes for your synopsis, you will have created a chapter-by-chapter outline. (Don’t you wish you had had it before you began writing your book?) So what you’ve done is condense your manuscript into a manageable overview that hits on all the important points dealing with character development and plot. And it contains the emotional threads that make up the human aspect of your story.

Next step: read your chapter-by-chapter outline and determine the most important elements in your story. If you’ve correctly noted what each chapter contains regarding character, plot, and emotions (motivations), it shouldn’t take too many reads to determine the items that were critical in moving the story forward. Again, keep this new set of notes short and simple.

Even after you’ve completed this task, your fledgling synopsis is probably too long and a bit disjointed. So what you have to do next is blend all the key points together into a short narrative. Here’s one way to do it. Imagine that it’s your job to write the cover blurb that goes on the back of your book. You need it to contain enough information that anyone reading it will become interested in reading the whole book. Begin with your main character and the crisis that she faces. Explain why your character behaves as she does. Touch on the main elements that moved the story forward by referring to your chapter-by-chapter list of events. Always make clear what’s at stake—reveal the “story question”. Remember that you have to tell the whole story in the synopsis. Unlike a real cover blurb where there are no spoilers, the synopsis is going to an agent or editor. You must tell them how the story ends. This is no time to be coy. Tell it all.

A synopsis is a selling tool. It must tell your story in a very short amount of words and still get across the essence of the tale. But even more important, it must show that you can write—it is an example of your skill and craftsmanship. It confirms that you know what your story is about and can express emotion. That you understand plot and character development and human motivation.

What a synopsis is not is the classic elevator pitch or the TV Guide one-sentence description. Instead, it’s the distilled, condensed soul of your book in a few paragraphs.

So, you writers out there—do you enjoy writing a synopsis? Any additional tips on getting through the task without slitting your wrists? Once you’ve been published, does your publisher still require a synopsis before they issue a contract on your next book? If so, do you stick to the synopsis or does the end product differ from the original?

* * *

Joe Moore and his writing partner, Lynn Sholes are the authors of The Grail Conspiracy, The Last Secret, The Hades Project, and The 731 Legacy.   

Joe is a former marketing and communications executive and two-time EMMY® winner with 25 years experience in the television postproduction industry. He has written articles for national and international trade magazines covering the field of professional sound recording and video. As a freelance writer, he reviewed fiction for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Florida Times Union, and the Tampa Tribune.

Joe serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Co-President. He writes full time from his home in South Florida.

The dentist pic is compliments of The Kill Zone and Joe Moore.


  1. I know I'm not alone in finding synopsis-writing a pain (aha... an unintended pun! -- I love your picture!). But by stripping away all the excess it's actually a good way to see if the story is well constructed. I like Joe's comment that a synopsis is "the distilled, condensed soul of your book in a few paragraphs". Well said. Thanks for a good article.

  2. I'd still rather have someone else write it. Course, I'm very grateful that I don't have to write one for Dead Witness any longer. I'm working on Broken But Not Dead. Unless I can talk my editor into writing it for me.

  3. Synopsis...AAAAGGGGHHHH!!!

    Ah, now I feel better. I have Joylene read and critique the novel and then write the synopsis. Works great!

    Seriously, getting input from another writer who has read the novel is a huge help. Synopsis writing requires removal that's difficult for the author.

    Great article.


  4. Gimme the root canal. It's over in an hour and a half and they give you novocaine to numb the pain.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys. I hope as you write more of them, you'll start to feel that composing a synopsis is actually less painful than a root canal. Of course, it's still harder than giving yourself a haircut while wearing a blindfold. :-)

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  7. Hi Keith. Let me add that you're a darn good synopsis writer. It is easier to write one for somebody else. I guess that's becuz I have nothing to prove?

    I feel your pain, Vicki. That's why I'm willing to pay.

    Thanks for sharing this helpful post, Joe. You've clarified it in terms even I can follow.

    I had to delete a comment becuz it was advertising. Go figure. My first comment spam.

  8. Great post - pass the novocaine please. Dunno if I could do it - was tough enough doing the back of the book stuff. Maybe I'll confer with the ghost of Papa Hemingway. Going to visit his former home tomorrow. He was the master of short - sweet & to the point.
    Thanks Joe & Joylene.

  9. Please take pics. That's the only way I'm ever going to see the place. Key West? Or are you in Europe?

  10. Key West. I gotta send you a mega advice askin' email soon. Are you up for it? Promise I won't ask you to read any YA.

  11. Hi Joylene,
    Just wanted to tell you that you have an awesome site. I totally enjoyed looking through various articals you have posted. Very informative & well put together.
    A root canal... lol sounds like a painful piece of joy in life.
    Take care.

  12. Hi Dalton. Thanks for stopping by. You have a great blog, yourself. Keep up the good work.

  13. Writing alone is already a challenge for most of us so that makes writing a synopsis or any summary a herculean task.
    It takes a lot of time and effort.
    Summarizing is one of the HOTS or Higher Order Thinking Skills. Being able to do it is also rewarding.
    Love your posts!

  14. Kewl acronym, John. Hopes it's okay if I borrow it sometime. And thanks for stopping by. Happy Studies.

  15. I don't know why it seems like it's easier to write the book than the synopsis sometimes. Your comments are great to keep us focused on making it brief.

    Thanks for a great article, Joe.

  16. Hi Dianne. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment for Joe. Anytime somebody tries to make the synopsis process easier, they're heroes in my books. Our success depends on these skills.

    And why is it easier to write the book? Maybe somebody needs to address that question too.


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