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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tips to Trim a Synopsis

These tips originally appeared as individual blog posts. I'm posting them all here for convenience. If I write more tips on trimming a synopsis, I'll include them here, too.

Why do I need to trim a synopsis?

While I haven’t talked to every editor and agent on the planet, the majority of the ones I’ve spoken to prefer a 2-3 page synopsis.

However, every editor is different. One editor will want a one-page synopsis, another will want an extensive chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

In my experience, it’s usually better to opt for the shorter synopsis when submitting a proposal. If they want a longer one, they usually specifically mention that they do.

Another reason to have a short synopsis handy: Writing contests often have you submit a short, 1-2 page synopsis with your entry.

Here’s a little tip: when querying a novel, it doesn’t hurt to slip a one-page synopsis in with your one-page query letter. And it doesn’t cost any more in postage.

Also, when submitting a partial manuscript or a proposal (only at the editor’s request, of course), most standard proposals consist of a 2-3 page synopsis, not a chapter-by-chapter.

Sometimes you can include both a 2-page synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter synopsis in with the proposal, to give the editor his/her pick of whichever length they prefer. However, I put the chapter-by-chapter synopsis at the very end of the proposal, so that the editor/agent can choose not to read it if they don’t care to.

Tip#1 to cut a synopsis—formatting

Check your formatting. Make sure all your margins are 1 inch. Make your header ½ inch from the top.

Make your header only one line with the manuscript title, the word “synopsis,” and your last name (e-mail address optional) on the left side, and then the page number (optional) on the right side. It’ll look something like this:

BRILLIANT NOVEL/Synopsis/Tang 1

You don’t have to put the word “Synopsis” at the top of the actual text. Just start the synopsis text.

Tip#2 to cut a synopsis—repetition

Eliminate any repetition. If you mention something once—say the hero left the heroine five years ago—don’t mention it again. For example:

After a five year absence, Ronald McDonald returns to Birdy’s life . . .

A paragraph later:

A different man than he was five years ago, Ronald is still in love with Birdy . . .

Don’t mention the five years again. Cut it: Now more spiritually mature, Ronald is still in love with Birdy . . .

(Thanks to Dineen Miller for the idea of this example)

Tip#3 to cut a synopsis—eliminate subplots

Cut out any mention of the subplot. Be ruthless. Even if the subplot gives a bit of depth to the hero because it tells the reader about his life as a drug runner in Brazil, if it doesn’t directly impact the main plotline of saving the heroine’s ranch, don’t include it.

Some subplots do influence the main plot near the end of the book. Here you have a couple choices:

1) Pare down the mention of the subplot to the absolute minimum needed for the ending to make sense. Maybe a sentence in the beginning of the synopsis, and then a sentence at the end when it impacts the main plot.

2) Eliminate mention of the subplot completely and insert something near the end to make the ending make sense.

Don’t do more than that for subplots if you can absolutely help it.

Tip#4 to cut a synopsis—relevance

Cut absolutely anything that does not have direct impact on the main storyline. Be ruthless.

Don’t leave things in because they pertain to a subplot.

Don’t go off for too long (more than a few sentences) on a red herring.

Don’t include character backstory that doesn’t absolutely need to be there in order to explain the main plot.

Don’t describe characters’ physical features unless it’s a vital element to the story (such as the hero mistakes a red-head for the heroine).

Tip#5 to cut a synopsis—action

Don’t describe the characters’ every action unless that action directly influences the main plot:

She kicks the villain’s kneecap and runs outside. She tries to start the car, but it won’t turn over. The villain comes closer. Finally the car starts and she guns out of the driveway.

Versus

She escapes.

Be especially wary of verbosity in the ending of the synopsis:

He grabs her to force her to look at him. He tells her he loves her and can’t live without her. He’d held back while he thought she still loved his brother, but he’s done with the safe path. He can’t hold it in any longer and risks telling her how he feels. She tells him she loves him, too, and they share a passionate kiss. He asks her to marry him, and she answers yes. In the epilogue, they are married from his yacht before sailing off to Bermuda for their honeymoon.

Versus

They confess their love to each other and marry.

The editor or agent does not need a blow-by-blow version of your emotional or climactic scenes, because they are not expecting and don’t need to be emotionally moved by the synopsis. That’s what the manuscript is for.

They just need the facts about what happens. Try to rein in your tendency to “show,” and “tell” the bare actions instead.

Tip#6 to cut a synopsis—character names

Don’t mention a character by name unless they appear more than twice in the synopsis AND each appearance is vital to the plot. Mentioning too many names can be not only confusing, it can lengthen your synopsis. Refer to the minor character as “her neighbor” or “his old flame.”

Tip#7 to cut a synopsis—get rid of a short line

When you're down to only a few lines to go until your target page number, look for any paragraphs that end with a partial line, such as the example below:

Sports-crazy Lex Sakai isn’t too worried about
shouldering the unofficial family title “Oldest Single
Female Cousin” when her cousin Mariko marries in
a few months. Her control-freak grandma nags her
about her lack of man, but it’s easy to ignore—until
Grandma bellows at her in the middle of a
restaurant that Lex can’t get a guy because she
needs breast implants. Bristling at the challenge,
Lex insists there’s nothing wrong with
her—Grandma says to prove it. If Lex can’t find a
boyfriend by Mariko’s wedding in June, her ruthless
Grandma will cut off funding to the girls’ volleyball
team that Lex coaches. And pay for breast
implants. (14 lines)


Cut words here and there in the paragraph until that last line disappears.

Sports-crazy Lex Sakai isn’t worried about
shouldering the unofficial family title “Oldest Single
Female Cousin” when her cousin Mariko marries in
four months. Her control-freak grandma nags her
about her lack of man, but it’s easy to ignore—until
Grandma bellows in the middle of a restaurant that
Lex can’t get a guy because she needs breast
implants. Bristling at the challenge, Lex insists
there’s nothing wrong with her—Grandma says to
prove it. If Lex can’t find a boyfriend by Mariko’s
wedding, her ruthless Grandma will cut off funding
to the girls’ volleyball team that Lex coaches. And
pay for breast implants. (13 lines)


Tip#8 to cut a synopsis—cut modifiers

Adjectives and adverbs are usually the easiest to cull from a synopsis. Sometimes you don't even need to change the noun or verb. Other times, a stronger noun or verb is needed.

She determines to win without interference from her meddling friends.
vs.
She determines to win without interference from her friends.

He is physically attracted to her.
vs.
He is attracted to her.
or
He lusts after her.

Tip#9 to cut a synopsis—change nouns and verbs

This is similar to tip #8. Sometimes you can substitute a different noun or verb that's a little shorter than what you have. Because the format is typically left justified, even one less letter in the sentence can be enough to eliminate a line (see tip #7 about getting rid of short lines).

He sneaks up to the house.
vs.
He creeps to the house.

He needs to stay out of her way.
vs.
He needs to avoid her.

She leaves her job.
vs.
She quits.

Tip#10 to cut a synopsis—eliminate extraneous nouns and verbs

There are some places where certain types of nouns and verbs can be eliminated entirely. Things like "He realizes", "She understands that," "He hears her say," "She sees him."

He follows her. He sees her enter the hotel.
vs.
He follows her. She enters the hotel.

He reads the family Bible. He discovers that Sally is his cousin.
vs.
He reads the family Bible. Sally is his cousin.

His reaction opens her eyes. She realizes she's always been in love with him.
vs.
His reaction opens her eyes. She's always been in love with him.

However, be aware that sometimes, these verbs can't be eliminated, so don't beat yourself up if you can't do it:

They fight. She realizes she's always been in love with him.
vs.
They fight. She's always been in love with him. (doesn't make sense)

Tip#11 to cut a synopsis—eliminate dialogue

Do you have any lines of dialogue in your synopsis? Even if they’re key lines, cut them and tell what’s going on instead. You can usually trim by telling instead of showing. For example:

Luke hangs on the overhanging metal strut, armless and vulnerable. Darth Vader reaches out to him and says, “Luke, I am your father.” “No! That’s not true!” Luke denies, then falls down the duct to what he believes will be his death.

Vs.

Luke hangs vulnerable on the metal strut. Darth Vader insists he’s Luke’s father, which Luke denies. Luke drops down the duct.

Be careful about the climax of the story—that’s usually the place where writers are tempted to include key dialogue lines which the story pivots upon. However, in trimming a synopsis, it’s better to cut those dramatic lines in favor of “just the facts” and a shorter synopsis.

Tip#12 to cut a synopsis—eliminate conversations

In Tip #11, I mentioned to cut dialogue in a synopsis. However, sometimes there are conversations in a synopsis that are just like dialogue, only without the quotation marks.

These conversations can be cut or condensed just like dialogue.

For example:

Duke tells Shelley he loves her. She denies it, saying she’s not worthy of love. He doesn’t understand and asks her why. She explains how her father was never there for her, how his job was more important to him than she was. Duke asserts she’s beloved by her Heavenly Father, and that his love for her mirror’s God’s love for her.

versus

Duke tells Shelley he loves her, easing her feelings of unworthiness by explaining the boundless love God has for her.

Camy here: Look for these conversations in your manuscript and see if you can cut and condense. You don’t need to tell entire dialogues for a synopsis.

8 comments:

  1. This is a great list, Camy! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks! This helped a lot. Tip #10 was was specifically good. I tend to use too many nouns and verbs. Going to cut on that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks so much for the tips! I've been agonizing over my synopsis for ages, trying to figure out what's wrong with it. You've really helped me out.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, guys! I'm glad these tips helped you!
    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you!! You have THE best articles. :)

    ReplyDelete
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