The use and importance of book synopses

by Sarah Carless

You might think, as someone who is pursuing self-publishing, that you’ll never have to write a synopsis of your work. Why would you? That’s what traditional publishers ask for, and you’re not going that route.

Unfortunately, you can’t escape synopses that easily. If you’re hiring an agent, they might want one. If you’re hiring an editor, they might want one, too. They might be handy for cover designers, or anyone else you’re bringing on to your team to get them up to speed. Synopses are very handy things to have when you need to efficiently tell someone about the nitty-gritty of your book, and they can also be a great writing tool in and of themselves. Paring down your story to the bare essentials can give you a clear outlook on your turning points, character motivations, pacing, and story flow. Even if you don’t plan on ever showing your synopsis to anyone, it can still be a valuable tool for any writer.

No matter if you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing, it’s important to not only be able to write a good synopsis, but to write one that does the job it’s supposed to do.

So what is a synopsis supposed to do for you?

The most common mistake people make is that they think a synopsis is supposed to do the job of a book blurb or an inquiry letter: to entice, to intrigue, and to invite the reader to want to know more. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

A synopsis, in actual fact, lays all your cards on the table, airs all your book’s secrets, and spells out exactly what happens and why. This is what publishers use to decide whether or not to publish your book, this is what freelance editors use to decide whether or not the book is of a genre and topic they can work with, and this is what writers use to spot high-level problems in their plots.

Do not write that your protagonist discovers a dark family secret; write that your protagonist discovers that her much older sister is actually her mother (or whatever that dark family secret is). Don’t hide anything—now is not the time for mystery. Now is the time to come clean about whodunit, where, how and why.

So how do you distill your 50,000+ word masterpiece into a single page without making it sound generic and dull?

One of the best guides I’ve found for writing a good one-page synopsis of a novel is Susan Dennard’s How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis, on the Pub(lishing) Crawl blog.  There you’ll find a great step-by-step, fill-in-the-blank template to follow that works for virtually any story, including three important rules of thumb to follow: only name three characters; tell the ending; do not include sub-plots.

Like any daunting task, not having the right tools can make it seem much bigger and more impossible than it really is. Learning how to write a good synopsis is a valuable skill you’ll keep using, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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About the Author

profileSarah Carless is a technical writer on Kobo’s Publisher and Author Communication team and an author of traditional and modern fantasy. Her traditionally-published short story “Daystar” appeared in On Spec’s 2008 winter issue, and her other short stories can be found on Kobo: Familial Bonds, Echoes of a Voice, and The Pelin Tree.

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