From Pillow Talk to an Editor's Desk: Writing the Compelling Synopsis
by Michael Rosenthal
When Pam first showed me her draft synopsis for The Bookseller's Daughter, my heart sank.
It wasn't that I had any problem with the story, which had been the topic of much of our pillow talk for the past year. On the contrary, I loved every twist and turn of the plot. But I couldn't believe that an agent or editor would want to see the painstakingly sequential account that Pam had rendered, every beloved plot turn stripped of the connective tissue that gave the story meaning and value.
It reminded me of how our son would tell a story when he was very small -- "... and then this happened and then that happened..." - the kind of story that only a delighted mom and dad could find charming.
What lay at the root of Pam's difficulty (and, I suspect, of the difficulty many writers encounter when attempting to produce a synopsis) was a semantic confusion. A synopsis is not the same thing as a plot summary. It is a different kind of creature altogether.
A synopsis (from syn - together and opsis - sight) is a general overview. You might imagine it as an aerial view, in which details are lost or blurred, but the broad contours stand out more clearly. The OED helpfully adds "an outline; a set of paragraphs arranged to exhibit all the parts and divisions in one view."
The emphasis on the visual here has immediate implications with regard to form. A synopsis should not be a continual flow of prose, paragraph after paragraph filling the page. Rather paragraphs should be short, distinct and separated by white space. I believe that three to five sentences is optimal; more than that and it gets baggy, fewer and it reads as breathless.
Each paragraph should have a unified thrust, rather than being an arbitrary slicing-up of the narrative. That is, each should represent a distinct move in the progress of the plot: a significant new state of affairs. Preferably, each paragraph should concern one set of characters, even if that involves reassembling plot moves that are intertwined in the actual book.
It doesn't matter if every move and sub-move in the plot is covered. What matters is that every essential move is made clear and even dramatized. This means that you have to analyze your book, to determine which moves are the essential ones - never a bad idea in any case.
Here is one brief example:
On the nine-day coach trip, Marie-Laure develops headaches and blurred vision. Arriving in Paris, she's afraid to meet the Marquise, but her fear recedes when she learns of Joseph's arrest. Her headaches and blurred vision are symptoms of toxemia; she's consigned to bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. The Marquise and her companion, the actress Mademoiselle Beauvoisin, are very kind. Although at first Marie-Laure is shocked by their relationship, she's won over by their generosity to her, their sisterly regard for Joseph, and their love for each other.
Joseph's legal prospects aren't good. No one will confirm his alibi: no bookseller will admit in court to having received illegal books from him. Marie-Laure suggests the booksellers might still have receipts he signed; du Plessix petitions the court to subpoena these records.
The baby comes early, a healthy girl Marie-Laure names Sophie. When the court refuses to grant Monsieur du Plessix's subpoena, Marie-Laure decides to take matters into her own hands. Telling the Marquise and Mademoiselle Beauvoisin she needs to visit her brother, she takes Sophie back to her home city in the south, planning to sneak into a bookseller's office and steal the receipt with Joseph's signature on it.
On the way to Paris, Marie-Laure falls ill of complications of pregnancy. On her arrival she's greeted by the Marquise and (surprisingly) Mademoiselle Beauvoisin. For (as at the chateau) Joseph has been performing a charade, providing cover for the liaison between the actress and the Marquise. Shocked at first, Marie-Laure is won over by the two women's intelligence, devotion, and sisterly regard for Joseph. She gives birth under their care.
But Joseph isn't there to welcome her or celebrate his daughter's arrival. He's in the Bastille, framed for the murder of a particularly loathsome nobleman, whom he was known to detest. His alibi is his book smuggling, but of course none of the booksellers will admit to trading in forbidden literature. In order to prove where Joseph was during the murder, Marie-Laure journeys to Montpellier, resolving to steal the relevant receipts from Alain's files.
You will notice that, while I cut quite a bit, I also added something: the idea of Joseph enacting a charade with Marquise and Mlle. Beauvoisin. I did this not merely to dramatize the paragraph, but also to recall an earlier charade that Joseph enacted with Marie-Laure in the first half of the book (and the first page of the synopsis). I was thereby able to emphasize a key motif threading through the book, the idea of charade.
Remember that your synopsis is a promotional exercise. No matter how well clearly you present your book's story, the synopsis falls short if it fails to make clear what makes your book unique and worthy of attention.
In the case of The Bookseller's Daughter , that was easy. The book's unique feature, conveyed even in its title, is the emphasis on reading, the fact that the courtship of the hero and heroine is played out through their mutual love of books. Since most readers, and certainly most editors, are booklovers, I highlighted this feature in the earliest paragraphs of the synopsis. Another attraction of the book was the way it played with the idea of playacting. This particularly informs the erotic sections, whose unique sizzle derives from the fetish of charades. Hence, the re-emphasis of the charade motif.
A final point about synopses emerges from this discussion and from our experience. To do a synopsis in the manner I have been suggesting is also to force yourself to analyze the narrative structure and consistency of your own work. If, despite your best efforts, the synopsis refuses to come into focus, perhaps it's time for another draft of your book, rather than another draft of your synopsis.