• Writer's Ways: How to Write an Engaging Synopsis

    "Hmmm... what's Starlight been writing about me?"

    How do you boil down your story to just a few lines? It’s something authors have been struggling with for since the beginning of commercial publishing. In this post, I'm going to explore some of the best tips and tricks on how to get people interested in your stories, with examples, discussions, quotes and much more!
    Lazy shipfic days...

    Why Bother with a Synopsis?
    Synopses are as important as titles. Really, the title and the synopsis work together to give readers an idea of what to expect (along with your cover art, which I’ll talk about in another post).

    The Albinocorn provided a great analogy as to what synopses really are: they’re the movie trailers to your stories. 

    A short synopsis is the 30-second TV spot, designed to hook you, make you want more and to grab your interest (I’ll go into why these are the most important shortly). 

    A long synopsis is the full theatrical trailers, designed to really make you need to see it. They give you a bigger picture (though it’s not always necessary to have both).

    Dubs Rewatcher said: “It's one of your first chances to tell a reader, “This is why you should care” and “This is why this fic is appealing."

    Skim through the FimFiction main page. You’ll know pretty quickly what interests you and what doesn’t. Part of that is tags, part is title, part is image, but the synopsis convinces the reader it’s worth clicking. 

    Today, we’re going to focus on the short synopsis, as it tends to be important in the current era of FimFiction (and professional publishing). 
    "Am I in this one?"
    The Single Mechanic of a Short Synopsis
    Mechanically, there’s a very simple difference between the short synopsis and the long synopsis. 

    You can only write 250 characters in a short synopsis.

    Short synopses are used for the “Card View” (what you see on FimFiction’s main page) and the “List View.” Short synopses show at the top of each chapter while reading a story. The short synopsis is also used for the Feature Box. 

    Even more, when you link your story’s URL into a program like Discord, the short synopsis is what will show up in the preview. 

    Your short synopsis is almost always going to be your first impression.

    "The most frustrating part is only being able to levitate so many at once..."

    What a Synopsis Has To Do
    You’ve got 250 characters (not words) to grab the reader. Mind you, that includes punctuation and spaces! So, as the bard said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” You need to pick your words and make them count.

    That being said, it’s wise to treat that 250 limit as a warning, not a goal. If you’re going all the way to the 250 character point, you can (and should) almost always condense the synopsis.

    Let’s start with a few examples to see this done well:
    Twilight gives her life to stop a changeling invasion. Repeatedly. - Hard Reset 
    Once upon a time, Silver Spoon's life made sense. Now she lives in Ponyville. - The Silver Standard 
    When one fateful search through the Everfree Forest leads Rarity to a secret library inhabited by the spirit of an ancient alicorn princess, she realises that it may be time to start believing in fairy tales. - The Enchanted Library 
    As punishment for her crimes, the Elements have cursed Sunset Shimmer to do favors for anyone who asks. Lucky her. And then there's that other Twilight Sparkle she keeps running into… - Long Road to Friendship 
    In a steampunk reimagining of the universe, Twilight Sparkle finds perhaps the one pony as lonely as she is. It's rather unfortunate that they're on the moon. - The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon 
    Rainbow Dash definitely didn't do anything wrong. Rarity is the one who's wrong. Rainbow Dash is absolutely, totally, a hundred percent sure of it. But then why did she just buy a wagon load of apology bouquets? - Spring is Dumb 
    This is a story about Rarity's hips. (All good stories are.) - In Hindsight
    MrNumbers boiled down his concept of the short synopsis to this:

    WHO does WHAT and WHY to WHOM.

    This is a logline. It’s one or two sentence that boils down the entire story into its most essential components in the least amount of words possible. 

    There are dozens of different websites online that give tips for loglines. Go ahead and search them out. Be warned that logline is considered a standard term for Hollywood though, namely for movies and TV shows. That being said, the rules apply just as well to stories!

    We’ll use his story, The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon, as an example to break this down a bit further.

    The concept: establish who (Twilight) why (loneliness) what (get to the moon) whom (for the crush there). 

    We’ll come back to those examples in a bit!


    How to Boil It Down
    One of the biggest problems people often have is figuring what’s important to the story. Let’s talk about Monochromatic's The Enchanted Library’s synopsis:
    When one fateful search through the Everfree Forest leads Rarity to a secret library inhabited by the spirit of an ancient alicorn princess, she realises that it may be time to start believing in fairy tales.
    The Enchanted Library is actually a vast AU with Equestria in a completely different state than the one we know. Celestia and Luna are legends. Holidays are different. Pinkie and Rainbow don’t live in Ponyville. Discord’s history is nothing like the one we know. The Tree of Harmony is different. The changelings play a critical role in Equestria’s history. There’s a ton! After all, the entire story is almost 350,000 words! 

    But nothing I just mentioned comes into play with the short synopsis (which, by the way, is 209 characters long). 

    Here’s what we get from the short synopsis:

    Rarity (who) finds a secret library in the Everfree (what) and starts to believe in fairy tales (why) after meeting the spirit of an ancient alicorn princess (whom).

    In fact, this actually only covers the inciting incident: what kicks the story off in the first place. Why? Well, look at the synopsis and see what interests you: 
    • Rarity searching through the Everfree?
    • Secret Library in the Everfree Forest?
    • An Ancient Alicorn Princess?
    • The Princess is a Spirit?
    • Fairy Tales are True?
    The synopsis establishes the AU, it gives a vibe of the story (mystery/fantasy), it gives us plenty of interesting plot hooks and more. At the core of the story, The Enchanted Library is about Rarity’s discovery of the spirit of the princess and how that relationship develops. 

    That’s the key. After you’re finished with your story, look at it closely. Who matters the most? Who’s your central character(s)? What are they doing? What’s their end goal? Yes, a lot of important things might be revealed along the way, but keep the focus tight on what really matters.

    "There once was a girl who did believe in fairytales..."
    Why Should I Bother With Your Story?

    Why should I bother with your story instead of someone else’s? Aragon echoed a lot of what MrNumbers said (for those who know them, I know that’s utterly shocking), but after you have your logline established, you need to establish what makes your story different and give the reader a question that can only be answered by reading the story.

    Let's cover making your story different, first.

    You can do this a few different ways. The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon establishes this brazenly with “In a steampunk reimagining of the universe.” While this can work for some stories, it should probably be used sparingly.

    On the other hand, The Enchanted Library doesn’t need to tell you what’s different. The synopsis on its own describes the differences between the world we know and the world of EL. 

    Sometimes, only one word is needed. Let’s look at Hard Reset, a FimFiction classic. 
    Twilight gives her life to stop a changeling invasion. Repeatedly. - Hard Reset
    “Twilight gives her life to stop a changeling invasion.” Follows the same logline rules we established above, right? Actually, it sounds depressing, short and a little dull.

    The word “repeatedly” changes everything. How is Twilight giving her life repeatedly? Are there clones of her? Are these different invasions? Dimensional shifts? Timeloop things? How’s she failing? Why does she keep failing? 

    See? Now you’re interested.

    As far as a questions go, let's explore Long Road to Friendship's synopsis.
    As punishment for her crimes, the Elements have cursed Sunset Shimmer to do favors for anyone who asks. Lucky her. And then there's that other Twilight Sparkle she keeps running into… - Long Road to Friendship 
    We've got two main questions. First, what favors are being asked? (especially since that could go to a pretty dark place). The second is a bit more subtle: why does that other Twilight Sparkle matter?

    Let's dig a little deeper with the Enchanted Library synopsis.
    ...she realises that it may be time to start believing in fairy tales.
    Which fairy tales does Rarity need to start believing in? What's that belief mean? What sort of consequences will that belief have? The reader can only get those answers by reading the story.

    The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon is another great example. 
    Twilight Sparkle finds perhaps the one pony as lonely as she is. It's rather unfortunate that they're on the moon.
    What's Twilight going to do once she finds her crush on the moon? To quote MrNumbers, "for a story with a steam-powered space program in it as its core premise, the space program itself isn't actually mentioned."

    Don't give away too much, either. I've seen synopses where the author essentially gave away the entire story in the synopsis. If you know what's going to happen, why bother reading the story? You need to leave the audience wanting more.

    The key? Give the audience enough information to ask the most interesting question they can ask about your story. And then don't answer it.

    "Who needs editors when you're perfect?"
    Once upon a time, Silver Spoon's life made sense. Now she lives in Ponyville. - The Silver Standard
    This one’s a bit tricker. After all, it seems to have only have some of the components we talked about. In fact, it only establishes three things: Silver Spoon’s life previously made sense. She’s in Ponyville now. Now it doesn’t make sense. 

    In fact, that first line by itself is a little dull. Yeah, you could use it, but the implications that it doesn’t anymore are sorta just… there. By focusing it on the change in location, it shows there’s something different. 

    The reader asks “Why is it different?” “What makes Ponyville so special?” “Why did she move?” “How’s she going to handle life not making sense anymore?”

    "Yes, I do excel at being adorable."

    The Comedic Twist
    This technique is a bit trickier for some. For example, people who know Aragon’s works have come to expect a certain amount of absurdity from him. He can get away with descriptions such as the following:
    This is a story about Rarity's hips. (All good stories are.) - In Hindsight 
    As the world ends, a group of teenagers covered in blood enter Sugarcube Corner. What follows is technically a love story. - Love is In Doom
    Both of them acknowledge that they’re a story. Both of them are high-concept. And frankly, without knowing Aragon, both of them make almost no sense.

    It’s a comedic twist. For example, In Hindsight is actually supposed to be an AppleDash story and a RariTwi story. Or a RariTwi story and an AppleDash story. I’ve always been a little confused about which. 

    Both stories depend on the “What the heck?” value of the synopsis to draw a reader in and they bank heavily off of the “brand name” of Aragon. As in, the reputation and style he’s established for himself. Lots of new authors can’t do that though.
    Rainbow Dash definitely didn't do anything wrong. Rarity is the one who's wrong. Rainbow Dash is absolutely, totally, a hundred percent sure of it. But then why did she just buy a wagon load of apology bouquets? - Spring is Dumb
    While this synopsis may be a bit longer than it needs to be, this one established a natural contradiction. Rainbow being absolutely certain she’s right (she says so… twice). Rainbow’s certain Rarity is wrong. But even Rainbow can’t figure out why she just bought a ton of apology bouquets.

    So the reader wants to find out a few things. “Why did Rainbow buy all those bouquets?” “What’s Rainbow right about?” “Why is Rainbow so sure she’s right?” “Why’d she need a whole wagon?” And of course, “Knowing Rainbow, what’s actually going on here and why is she so very, very wrong?”

    "'Friends' who read together, stay together." 

    A Couple Random Tricks
    1. Install Grammarly - This is a very useful program to help you find common grammar and spelling mistakes. While it doesn’t work in Google Docs, it does work on FimFiction’s page (and lots of other places) and can help you avoid some very embarrassing mistakes. Remember, you get usually get one shot at grabbing a reader’s interest!

    2. Avoid repeating yourself whenever possible (Unless it’s for very specific reasons, such as the Spring is Dumb synopsis above).
    Two months have passed since the incident with the Storm King. Tempest, still haunted by her actions, attempts to put that aside for Hearth's Warming. - Original first half of Slumber of the Storm synopsis.
    Even with Hearth's Warming Eve around the corner, Tempest Shadow is still haunted by the memories of her actions. - Final first half of Slumber of the Storm synopsis.
    In this example, the time is stated twice in the first version. “Two Months” and the mention of “Hearth’s Warming” both show the period of time. Now, “two months” could have been chosen, but “Hearth’s Warming” gives a whole new level of meaning while also providing setting and atmosphere!

    "Fact: Anything I read is cuter because I'm reading it."

    Synopses: It’s a Thing!
    In the end, there are dozens of variables to getting your story read. But as we talked about with Titles in a previous post, synopses is part two of the three pieces needed to capture a reader's attention. 

    Much of the advice here can be used for both long synopses and short synopses, though it’s not necessary to have them be two separate things. I’ve gotten into the habit of using the short synopsis for both. This may also be because I really loathe doing synopses. 

    It’s hard to sum up a 30,000 novella in 250 characters. But doing it right is definitely worth it.

    Take the time and make sure this part is right! This is what gets readers to read your story! Ask for help! Remember, #writing-help on the FimFiction Discord Server is a great resource with some very talented authors. There are writing groups you can ask for suggestions on. 

    Either way, you want to be sure to work out your synopses issues before publishing. That’s critical. The likelihood of your story being seen goes down the older it is, but that’s the same with any new book or story. 

    Take your time, iron out the kinks and make it awesome!

    See you next time!

    -Novel

    For archival purposes, you can find the IntenseDebate comments for this post (if any) archived over here