Judging Before Reading: On Synopses

Today’s Judging Before Reading post is about what I like and don’t like in synopses. Soon I’ll also make a post specifically about buzzwords, but this post will be mostly about how the synopses are written.
My two previous posts were about what I like and don’t like in covers.

What I Don’t Like in Synopses

There are some warning signs in synopses similar to crowns on covers, but nothing makes me want to not add or remove something from my TBR as the mention of a mysterious boy in a YA fantasy synopsis if the main character is a girl. That’s when I think “oh, here’s the generic bad boy love interest, I’ve already read this story other 50 times, no thank you”. I may decide to read the book anyway – maybe it’s a non-western fantasy and I always look for those, maybe I trust the author or the reviews – but it’s less likely that I will pick it up.
It’s even less likely if I encounter this specific version: when the book is set, at least at the beginning, in a place where all major characters are women, but the author introduces a mysterious boy just for the romance, as if there couldn’t be anything like romance between women. So much wasted potential; when I saw Seafire by Natalie C. Parker did that I removed it immediately. I thought it was going to be gay, but no (and the boring cover didn’t help).

It’s not that I have something specifically against mysterious boys in books, it’s just that almost every single YA book has one. Other signs that are similar to crowns on cover – so: fine if not that great when one book does it, not fine when dozens do and that’s usually what happens – are:

  • If I can already guess a twist from the synopsis, I’m probably not going to pick up the book unless something makes me think I’m not guessing right. One example is mentioning a lost princess and trying to act like it’s not going to be the main character (this plot twist still exists. In 2018. How). I can be fine with this trope if the book doesn’t act like it’s trying to surprise me.
  • If a synopsis is badly written, I’m not going to think the book is the opposite. If the only way you can show mystery and suspense is to fill your synopsis with ellipses, we have a problem. (I know authors usually don’t write the synopsis, but still)
  • If the synopsis is all about the romance, I’m probably going to assume the book is too, and I’m not really a romance fan.

However, I want to keep in mind that the opposite can happen – that a book is actually not focused on the m/f romance, but the synopsis is. I can think of the synopsis of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, which is actually really misleading because it makes you think the book is about a romance between Blue and Gansey. It’s not.
Two other things I can do without in synopses:

  • spoilers. I’m kind of surprised by how often the synopsis spoils the book, and I don’t even care about spoilers that much. If a synopsis needs spoilers to be interesting, the book is probably not that good anyway.
  • queerbaiting. Listen, if “mysterious boy” is almost always code for m/f romance when the main character is a girl, if the synopsis mentions a “mysterious girl”, chances are there won’t be a f/f one. Mention if it’s just a friendship or mention the almost-always-present-anyway m/f romance, I’m tired of being baited by synopses.

Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift and A Room Away From the Wolves are two books whose synopses I found kind of queerbait-y. Paris Adrift mentions that the female main character meets a girl and does not mention the actual love interest, who is male (surprisingly, I ended up not hating the romance, but…). A Room Away From the Wolves  by Nova Ren Suma ended up being a queer book, but not in the way the synopsis makes you think – the “mysterious girl” becomes a friend of the main character, there’s no romance, but the main character of the book is bisexual. [I would have loved if the reviews or synopsis had mentioned that the book was queer because of the bi mc, instead of being vague about whether or not there were queer elements and hinting at a romance that wasn’t there].

What I Like in Synopses

I think the main function of a synopsis is to make you want to know more. Sentences like “but not everything is as it seems” may be cliché (…please find another way to say it), but they’re basically the idea the synopsis needs to get across. It tells you something about the set up, but hints at more.

I tend to like shorter synopses because they’re less likely to have spoilers in them, but any length is fine. I think that one of the most difficult things to achieve is not sounding generic, which is easier for some books than for others – I think “orphaned chosen one discovers magical powers and begins to train in a castle” sounds inherently more generic than “fallen angels in historical post-apocalyptic Paris try to stop mysterious murderer” or “lesbian engineers become space pirates to avoid student loans”, but that doesn’t say anything about the quality of the book itself (those are the premises for Shadow and Bone, The House of Shattered Wings and Barbary Station; I liked the first two and not the third) and I try to keep that in mind.
“Done before” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, but it’s more likely to be less interesting. (That’s probably one of the reasons I’m not reading a lot of YA fantasy lately, but I want to fix that.)

Other two things I like in synopses:

  • As I mentioned before when I was talking about A Room Away From the Wolves, I like when synopses tell you if and how the book is diverse without dancing around it.
  • I love worldbuilding, and if a synopsis hints at an interesting magic system or a fictional world unlike everything I had ever read before, I’m far more likely to read the book. A recent example of this is For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig – binding souls to puppets with blood? I immediately knew I wanted to read that (also, it mentions that the heroine is Asian and bipolar, so…) even though I didn’t like Heilig’s previous books.

What do you like or don’t like in synopses?