The Crime Writers’ Association

Writing that Debut Dagger synopsis – thoughts from a marker

Especially written for those of you stuggling to write your synopsis for the CWA Debut Dagger – here’s a piece written on the subject by one of the competition readers. So worth paying attention to.

Imagine you’re me. I’ve read your first 3,000 words, and I’m impressed. The characters are interesting, the plot so far puts them under pressure, the atmosphere is vividly done, and I’ve enjoyed the way you write. Now I’m eager to move on to the synopsis and find out what happens next… and one of the most frustrating things, as a marker last year, was having to ruin a promising entry’s chances because of a poor synopsis.

  1. Your synopsis matters!

In marking, I have 20 points for each of these: quality of prose, originality of plot, execution of plot, narrative voice, plausibility, characterisation, evocative setting, and good read factor. I read the extract, the synopsis and then the extract again (and possibly the synopsis again too) before I open the scorecard, so your synopsis isn’t just a tie-breaker add-on, it’s a key part of your submission before marking begins.

The second marking point, originality of plot, is judged mainly on the synopsis, and the synopsis is also important in evaluating how well you’ve executed your plot in these first 3,000 words, and in assessing the plausibility of the plot – which means a poor synopsis can potentially lose you 60 marks. That makes it worth writing one specially to go with this extract. Please don’t just tag on your normal selling synopsis, or the precis you wrote for yourself to remind you of your characters’ names (cut down a bit for the word-count), or scribble off a few words in the half hour before you email your submission. Write a proper synopsis designed for this occasion.

  1. A clear broad-brush outline of the rest of the novel.

I’ve got this far. Don’t re-tell me anything I’ve already read; pick up your story from the end of your extract. [Other Debut Dagger markers might prefer a full synopsis including the first 3,000 words: there is no rule so it’s up to you.] Give me a clear account of who did what to whom – that is, a summary of the main plotlines of the novel. Even with 1,500 words, you may have to lose that cherished romantic sub-plot, and there’s definitely no room to tell me about that funny scene in the tearoom, or the character-exposing car chase. Please, just the broad plot. Clarity is the key; try it on somebody who hasn’t read your novel, to see if it makes sense to them. If they look puzzled, re-write it. Simplicity and clarity are more important than detail. Originality (what those 20 points are for) isn’t in the detail either, it’s in the theme behind the novel, in the clever use of a setting, in a fiendishly clever denouement. You can tell me about those in 1,500 words.

  1. Relation of your opening extract to your ending:

If you’re hesitating over what to leave out, think about that second set of 20 marks, for ‘execution of plot’. What I’m judging here is how well your opening 3,000 words feed into the plot overall. Have you established your setting and overall milieu – Christie territory or Chandler? What do I know about your characters? What do I guess they’re going to do? Have you neatly slid in key information for your final reveal? Think about the ways in which your opening leads into your ending, and include these elements in your summary.

  1. The novel’s structure:

An important guide to the quality of a book is the care the author’s put into structuring it. Have a look at the way you’ve organised your book, and see how you can include that in your synopsis. If it’s split into 10 sections, maybe you could do a paragraph for each one. If there’s a clear pattern, explain it, for example,

Each section of the novel starts with present-day section, narrated in the third person centred on Jane, followed by a flashback from an unnamed first-person narrator who we gradually realise is the killer.

If your novel included multiple voices, I hope I’ll have seen that in the extract, but if not, I want to know about that too. Keep thinking clarity. If there’s not such an easily explained pattern, you could give your paragraphs a simple label:

Flashback 1880.

Frank’s POV, third person.

A year later.

[Again, other markers might not be keen on this. But just as with agents, publishers and, ultimately, readers, everyone’s got different views. So find the way that suits you and your novel best.]

  1. Make it sound plausible:

It’s a hard one! The best of our plots sound simply incredible when reduced to a synopsis. Do your best. Think about me, your average reader, who would have the sense not to get into a car with a stranger without a really good reason, or go straight into the lonely house where the killer’s lurking without back-up. If you must have your protagonist do these things that no sensible person would do, and you have to include them in the synopsis, try and explain why. If the reason is a deep-seated neurosis that’s developed over the course of the book, and would take too long to tell me about, see if you really need to mention the on-the-face-of it implausible action. And you have, of course, checked your factual investigation procedures, so that you don’t get the body found at noon, a post-mortem that same afternoon and lab results by the evening? Good …

6: The style of your synopsis:

Go for a simple prose style – clarity again (and this neutral voice will also highlight your worth-another-20-points prose style in the extract). Don’t try to be literary, comparing your method to Hemingway. Don’t tell me the chases are ‘high-octane.’ Mentioning Jane Austen only gets you into Pseuds Corner, but on the other hand, do please display your versatility by using what Dorothy L Sayers would have called ‘seemly English’. Clear, simple prose shouldn’t sound like A Child’s First Reader, so check there aren’t too many one-clause sentences.

Present tense or past in your synopsis? Go for whichever you feel makes the story clearest. Present tense is probably more usual.

It can also be helpful to put the names of key characters in capitals the first time they appear.

This year the Debut Dagger judges have given you more words to play with – 1,500 for your synopsis. Please use them well – and good luck!

Words from another Debut Dagger reader

As someone who does quite a lot of marking, the thing that I always find frustrating is when a synopsis doesn’t reveal the ending of the novel – this is peculiarly true for crime writing!

And from a Debut Dagger judge

My top tip has to be making sure that when you write the synopsis, you know what the overall storyline is. As a judge, I want to know what happens – not just be left with hints! You need to bear in mind what specific area of crime fiction you’re writing in – procedural, suspense, and so on – and keep in mind who your ideal reader would be.

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