A synopsis ain’t a plot summary
So I spent this weekend engaged in every writer’s least favorite activity, synopsis writing. Saturday morning I sat down and asked my husband for an hour or two…and I wrote a synopsis and it was garbage and I tried again and that one was ever so slightly less garbage and so on until I finally got a decent draft and somehow it was 6 pm and all I’d had to eat or drink that day was half a cup of milky tea. (Fortunately(?) husband and child had spent this same enormous amount of time playing Lego Batman 2 so no one even noticed.)
And as I was doing this dreadful process over and over again I realized I was making ‘writing a synopsis’ way harder than it had to be. I was operating under the assumption that a synopsis is a plot summary. Because you’re summarizing the story, including the ending, right? That’s what a synopsis is, right?
So when I started writing the first thing I was worried about was my plot, and the second thing I worried about was conveying the worldbuilding because the plot was nonsensical without a basic understanding of the world in which the story unfolds. And you know what? Worrying about plot and worldbuilding first gives you a big hunk of garbage. And I kept churning out trash can filler until I realized I was doing it wrong.
The most important thing to convey in a synopsis is THE ARC OF THE PROTAGONIST.
Who is the protagonist at the beginning of the story? How do the events of the plot affect her? Who does she become at the end? If you’re writing a longer synopsis (5 pages) and have room for one or two subplots, the subplots that would probably be best to include should be the ones that have the most emotional impact on the protagonist, like a romantic entanglement or the death of a friend.
Once I put the arc of my protagonist first, the beats of the plot slid right into place. I only needed to describe the inciting incident, rising tension, climax, and resolution. That’s it. Focused through the lens of how the plot changed my character, my synopsis stopped reading like the dreaded “and then and then and then” Book Report of Super Boring Doom.
And all the worldbuilding I was worried about? I just mentioned elements (politics, alien species, magic systems) as they naturally arose, rather than worrying about trying to cram in a lot of explanations. I figure, that’s how I usually learn new words, right? Context!
Editors and agents are extremely smart people. They know what you’re showing them in the synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg. Your job is to make that iceberg tantalizing enough to make them want to see the rest of it. The easiest way to do that, imho, is the same reason anyone reads any sort of popular fiction — because they’re interested in the characters.