Taking Scissors to Your Synopsis

While I was promoting my debut novel, a fellow newbie author attended one of my signings and told me she was publishing her first book in a few months. I asked her what it was about, and she replied, “It’s kind of hard to explain in a few words.” Granted, I didn’t have much experience, but alarms went off in my head. Why? Because that sort of statement won’t attract anybody to your story.

Sentiments like this are understandable when you’re a new writer, and admittedly, I struggled with similar feelings at one time. After all, you’re spending hours and hours crafting your tale, with twists, turns, and complexities. If you aim to compose a longer work, you’re used to embellishing on subjects to boost your word count. It’s a bit of a culture shock to shift gears and have to condense our subject. Sometimes, too, we feel pressure to prove the value of our story and efforts to write it, so we’re inclined to babble about it to help our case.

Whatever the reason, we have to overcome it. If we take one extreme and refrain from attempting to pitch our book like the woman I met, we’ll lose a reader’s interest right away. On the other hand, we can overshare and push someone away just because they’re sick of listening to us. Most of us don’t want somebody to buy our book simply to make us shut our mouths.

How can we strike the right balance?

Even before my exchange at the signing, I appreciated a tip from Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s The Frugal Book Promoter. While discussing how to attract attention to one’s story, she advises, “When a reader (anyone really) says, ‘What’s your book about?’ you need to tell her quickly (in the time it takes to get to her floor in an elevator) why she will benefit from reading your book or…make her want to read it.” (Second edition, page 106) The quote drives home the phrase elevator pitch, doesn’t it?

The length of your verbal synopsis is only half the battle, with content being the other half. It might not take long to say, “A guy meets a girl, and they fall in love,” but how intriguing is that description? The Frugal Book Promoter helps in this regard, too. “A good pitch or logline for fiction focuses on conflict…Nonfiction authors can find conflict in their books, too.” Hollywood takes the lead in this, as most of their trailers begin like, “In a world where tragedy triumphs over victory…” set to dramatic music. Though you don’t want to share every element of conflict the plot offers, mentioning the main one and how it affects the protagonist will pique a reader’s curiosity.

One more rule of thumb to abide by is to stick to the main storyline, even if the secondary ones connect to it. Secondary plots can enrich a book, but in a synopsis, especially a verbal one, they usually detract and confuse your audience. Thus, you’re better off to restrain yourself from talking about that funny next-door neighbor and let the book introduce him/her to the reader.

As authors, we’re naturally excited about our work and want others to be, too. Like with any matter, you’ll present it in the best way if it’s near and dear to your heart. Most of us don’t have trouble with that, which is why we’re liable to ramble on whenever someone shows the slightest interest in our story. To share just the right amount, reflect on what first drove you to start the book. It’s quite a commitment to set out to compose a whole story, and there’s always that core of motivation that both initiates your writing process and keeps you going. If you isolate that and come up with a way to vocalize that aspect of the plot, you’re more likely to capture someone’s intrigue, giving them the impetuous to read it.    

Also See

Watch your Words…and Count Them While You’re at It?

Secondary Storylines-A Plot’s Friend or Foe?

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