Novel synopses. Hate them.
This morning I’ve been working on a detailed chapter outline for a new book I’m trying to sell, so I’ve been drinking a glass of fresh squeezed hatred for breakfast.
A synopsis has to prove that you’ve figured out your plot from front to back, with all the major parts in the middle. It proves you’ve got your story logic in place, that your major characters experience complete arcs, and that the ending proceeds naturally from that which came before. What’s annoying about this is that you might not have figured all this stuff out yet, so you either have to fake it, or, even worse, figure it out.
But the really unfair thing about a synopsis is that the form makes it very difficult to engage your best tools, like snappy dialog, pacing, and surprise. The lushness or muscularity of your prose can’t be employed in its natural environs. Yet the writing in a synopsis still has to be good. It has to suggest that you’re the kind of writer who can do dialog and pacing and lushness and muscularity. It’s kind of like trying to make an audience laugh by summarizing jokes rather than telling them.
After the cut you’ll find a portion of my synopsis for NORSE CODE. I’m not providing it as an example to follow. Due to various circumstances, it was written after I sold the book, so I can’t point to it as something that contributed to making a sale. But hopefully it’s enough to demonstrate what I was shooting for. If you’ve got links to good synopsis examples online, please do link to them in comments.
Obligatory warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Norse Code – Synopsis
Greg van Eekhout
It’s snowing in Los Angeles. Wolves are trying to eat the Moon, and the dead are rising from the underworld to meet the gods in battle. Ragnarok has dawned, the long-ago prophesied destruction of the entire universe, and all that stands in its way are a ne’er-do-well Norse god and a rookie Valkyrie.
The gods have known for thousands of years that the nine realms of the World Tree will end at Ragnarok. Some, like Odin and Thor, are determined to fight a futile battle until the very end. But others know they’re destined to survive Ragnarok and inherit a new world, built upon the ashes of the old. These gods have grown tired of waiting and have entered into a conspiracy to end the world today, starting in 21st-century Los Angeles.
Hermod, a lesser god and perpetual screw-up, has spent the last few thousand years just trying to stay out of the way. But when he encounters a she-giant nursing a litter of wolf cubs in Venice Beach, California, he remembers the ancient Ragnarok prophecy about the Moon being devoured by wolves. To his extreme irritation, he knows it’s up to him to prevent Ragnarok.
He forms an alliance with Mist, a Valkyrie who only a short time ago was studying for a business degree at UCLA. Mist now works for NorseCODE, a genomics corporation secretly recruiting fighters to battle on the side of the gods at Ragnarok. Through DNA analysis, Norse Code tracks down human descendants of the god’s chieftain, Odin, and arranges for them to die in combat, thereby earning them a place in the warrior’s paradise of Valhalla.
When Mist’s first mission results in her recruit going to the dismal underworld of Helheim, Mist determines to travel to the land of the dead and rescue him. Hermod is the only god to ever enter the underworld and return alive, and Mist agrees to assist him in stopping Ragnarok in return for him guiding her to the land of the dead. Their tentative partnership is fraught with conflicting goals and a burgeoning mutual attraction.
After completing the dangerous journey to Helheim, Hermod and Mist are captured by a mob of zombies under the command of Hermod’s dead brother Baldr. They’re brought before Hel, the queen of the underworld, who aims to keep them as prizes. Hel shows Mist another prize: the severed but still-conscious head of Adrian Hoover, her lost NorseCODE recruit. Horrified, Mist now fully pledges to bring down the Ragnarok conspiracy.
Hermod and Mist make a harrowing escape from Hel’s palace and her monstrous guard dog. Washed away in a flood caused by the awakening of the Midgard Serpent, a great sea monster, Hermod and Mist end up at the bottom of the universe, among the roots of the World Tree. Located here is Mimir’s well, where Odin sacrificed his eye in exchange for wisdom. Hermod dives into the strange world at the bottom of the deepest well in creation to retrieve Odin’s eye.
The synopsis goes on for several more pages, but I’m going to end it here. I’m old-fashioned in my leeriness of revealing too much before the book is released.