Whaddaya do when your story is non-linear? Told in multiple narratives? Just not synopsis-friendly?

Image of an erupting volcano with caption: Make your synopsis flow like molten rock - quick, unstoppable, and causing anyone who reads it to spontaneously combust.

Right. Hopefully you’ve got some sort of plan for your outline, next we’re gonna throw you a few extra tips for getting down and dirty with the synopsis deed. ‘Cause one size does not fit all – not when you’re writing a novel, not when you’re looking for an agent, and certainly not when you’re writing a synopsis.

And… that’s actually a good thing.

Your synopsis should be an accurate reflection of your book, and while you might choose to follow a template or a use general structural guide, it’s going to be unique. Which means you’re going to come up against some unique problems, like:

  • What do I do when my story is told from more than one point of view?
  • What if my narrative goes backwards or arse-sideways or covers three different timelines?
  • How do I make it sound interesting instead of a series of and then, and then, and thens?

Don’t forget you can bring any super-specific probs to the forum and we’ll try to answer them one-by-one, but in the meantime here are some general tips and tricks for dealing with the tricky bits:

Make it flow like lava:

If you’re getting bogged down in fitting ALL THE IMPORTANT THINGS into your synopsis, stop freaking out and concentrate on making it floooooow. That might mean making some executive decisions about the order of things, or skipping over certain elements, or condensing something that you’d really like to give more attention. There comes a time when something’s gotta give, and an agent isn’t expecting you to include every single tiny detail. Remember that a synopsis is a guide, after all – it’s not meant to contain EVERY moment of your story – whats far more important is that it’s easy to follow.

If you find yourself waffling, ask: “What can I cut?” If a description is overly complicated, reduce the detail. If you mentioning too many names and it’s starting to get confusing, leave some out. If you need to ignore an entire subplot in order to properly explain how the protagonist gets from A to B, then go for it.

STAY IN THE FLOW. Don’t be tempted to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the reader, like: “…but we soon discover that Protag has been keeping secrets of her own…” or start explaining the critical literary themes of your novel to the agent mid-synopsis. Stick to the storyline, and make sure every transition is smooth.

And, if your story jumps around from timeline to timeline or flip flops from one character POV to another, it’s FINE to employ a little artistic license to give it more of a linear structure. The aim of your synopsis is to show that you’ve written a complete book with all the beginningy, middley and endy bits. No agent is going to be cross-referencing every damn sentence against the full manuscript to make sure you were telling the literal truth about where a particular scene occurred. They just wanna know you can tell a story.

Focus on character:

Hands down our favourite way to get around the sticky issue of non-traditional structure is to put all your chips on character and build the synopsis around your fictional babies.

The late great Carole Blake, author of From Pitch to Publication, literary agent extraordinaire, and co-founder of the Blake Friedmann agency, said that a synopsis should answer three central questions:

#1: Whose story is it?

#2: What do they want and what stops them getting it?

#3: How do they get it?

This is really useful advice to keep in mind when you’re writing your synopsis – and it’s interesting to note that the central focus here is character. Not the blow-by-blow details of the action or the exact description of each location or the minutiae of your subplots. Start with your protagonist and check that every paragraph of your synop adds a little more information to each of those three points: whowhat, and how? It really doesn’t matter whether your book follows a traditional 3-act story arc or is completely non-linear – by using these three magical questions, you can structure your synopsis around the emotional depth and nuance of your story, a’like so:

#1: Think about how your central character changes and develops throughout the story. Where do they start, and where do they end up? Why are you telling the story through their POV?

#2: Think about the aims, desires and goals of your character/s and how they might alter throughout the book. What hurdles do they need to overcome? What struggles do they face? What are the stakes?

#3: Think about what your character learns, sacrifices, loses and gains along the way. What do they have to do to reach the finish line? How does it transform them? Do they succeed? Or does their initial goal change into something else by the end of the story?

Give us an insight into your character’s journey, and we’ll want to read the whole damn book to find out more.

Simplify your structure:

You’ve probably already discovered that no matter how straightforward your story is, trying to lay it out in a coherent summary is A LOT harder than it looks. And if your novel is one of those multiple-narrative, flashback-filled non-linear jobs, then you may well be considering face-smashing the keyboard right now.

Don’t do that.

Instead, set yourself free from trying to replicate the exact structure of your book in synopsis form and get creative with the truth. You can totally cheat at this point and turn a complex plot into a simple one. 

Story starts at the end and turns in a loop? Flips back and forward between several time periods? Ignores the rules of time and space completely? Follows five different protags in individual, interweaving threads?

Repeat after us: SIMPLIFY THAT SHIT.

It’s perfectly fine to write your synopsis in a linear way, even though your book may do the complete opposite. Remember: an agent is looking at your synopsis to get a grip on the overall story, not the mysterious ways in which you tell it. Go back to Carole Blake’s advice and focus on the journey your character takes from start to finish: who are they, what do they want, what stands in their way? Another way to get around non-linear issues is to build your synopsis around this simple pattern, suggested by publishing genius Janet Friedman:

INCIDENT + REACTION + DECISION

Work out what the main ‘incidents’ of your book are – moments that advance the story and provoke a ‘reaction’ from your character – and then show the ‘decision’ or change in direction that follows. One, two, three. Your story should be made up from lots of these little equations: huge, life-changing ones, and tiny, subtle, nuanced ones. It doesn’t really matter what kind of structure you’re following when you use this technique because the cause and effect take care of themselves.

It’s also fine to open your synopsis with a brief note mentioning that the story is told in a more complicated way. Some guidelines even suggest beginning with a ‘hook’ which BRIEFLY reiterates the overall premise of your book and includes any pertinent info that will help the agent to understand the synop, such as multiple POVs or non-linear structure.

If your story has distinct multiple threads or perspectives, there’s no reason why you can’t split your synopsis into the appropriate number of sections and focus on one at a time rather than trying to interweave them. For example, if you have three POVs to cover, treat it a bit like an essay:

  • Intro paragraph establishing the situation and the circumstances of each different character
  • Paragraph about character #1’s story
  • Paragraph about character #2’s story
  • Paragraph about character #3’s story
  • Conclusion paragraph (or two) to show how all the stories come together at the end

Or, if you prefer the Three Act Structure or Plot Point approach, tackle each narrative point in turn and see how each character’s arc feeds into the story, making sure to be clear on how the different story strands balance and complement one other.

And breathe. SOOOO MUCH INFORMATION TO TAKE IN!

WE KNOW.

WE’RE GONNA STOP NOW.

AND YOU’RE GONNA GET BACK TO WRITING YOUR SYNOPSIS?

AREN’T YOU?

WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?

WHO KNOWS?

Gif of Steve Carell in Anchorman yelling LOUD NOISES

TIME FOR A CUP OF TEA! 

And then… give your synopsis another go, streamlining, simplifying, prettifying and perfectifying (shhh that’s a real word).

If you need some extra help, don’t forget about the super helpful writing forum at your disposal. Give feedback, receive feedback, pass the synopsis love around.

Next up – the sacred list of synopsis dos and don’ts…

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