Q. In a novel synopsis, how much should you go into detail about a character in terms of their backstory and past? I want to keep my synopsis short, as you suggest, so I don’t know how to approach this.
A. Simply because of length, you will need to keep backstory to a minimum. But info needs to be in there, sure. Try and squeeze in as much as you can. Start by combining sentences. “Following an injury that derailed his hopes of playing professional football, Jack hit the bottle hard, and had trouble getting to all his dead-end jobs on time.” With this sentence, I’m trying to squeeze in lots of info. You don’t have to give the agents much more detail, because they know that detail is in the manuscript itself.
This brings up another point. Don’t let your synopsis nor your pitch be bogged down with character names. If you meet an agent in person and pitch her, throwing out all kinds of names in the pitch (“Sally,” “Colonel Byrd,” “Billy Bob,” “Randolph Inky the Clown Guy,” “Officer Shane Matthews”) will more than likely leave her very confused. Stick to the basics. Use the name of the protagonist, the antagonist and the love interest in a pitch. If a cab driver enters the story briefly, call him “the cab driver.” Don’t say “Etienne, the French cab driver who’s hard of hearing and loves a good joke.” Even that little unnecessary tangent can affect your pitch.
Synopses are longer than pitches, so you have more time to mention characters, but avoid their proper names if you can. What you want to avoid is an agent reading your synopsis and seeing a name, then backtracking to refamiliarize herself with who exactly this character is.
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