Synopsis: The Tool You Need (whether you know it or not)
by Chris Mandeville
A synopsis is a document —sometimes a paragraph, sometimes several pages— that describes your book. What could be simpler? As a writer, I know my story better than anyone and thus should have no problem summarizing it.
Really? Yes, theoretically. But in the real world, writing a short summary of a novel can be a challenging task, particularly for the author, who often has a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.
A synopsis is “a way of relating your story in a logical, chronological manner that hits the high points of plot and character development and resolution” from Writing the Fiction Synopsis: a step by step approach by Pam McCutcheon.
Setting aside for a moment the ease or difficulty of synopsis writing, let’s take a look at why you should care about synopses.
A synopsis is a tool used by writers, editors, and agents to sell a book. Writers use synopses when asking an agent or editor to consider their manuscripts. Agents use them when trying to convince editors at publishing houses to read their clients’ manuscripts. Editors use them when convincing their editorial boards to acquire manuscripts for publication. If you want to sell your book traditionally (to a publishing house, with or without the services of an agent) then the synopsis is an important tool.
Want examples of manuscript synopses? There are dozens here.
But don’t stop reading if you’re planning to self-publish. Why? Because the brief description on the back of a book is a type of synopsis. So, by my count, all writers who want to get their books into the hands of the reading public should know how to write a synopsis.
Back to the relative ease or difficulty of writing synopses, if you’ve heard the word “synopsis,” chances are you’ve heard it spoken with fear and dread, even by the most seasoned writers. To be sure, there’s an art to synopsis writing, but the process doesn’t have to be scary or all that hard.
These things are key to making synopsis writing easy and painless:
- Know your audience.
- Learn the expectations.
- Follow a guide.
And if you want your synopsis to be good, there’s one more thing you must do:
- Enlist help.
Let’s take these one by one.
1. Know your audience.
Who will be reading your synopsis and for what purpose?
If you’re writing a description that potential book buyers will see on the back of the book, it’s important that you don’t give away the ending.
However if you’re writing a synopsis for an editor or agent, the vast majority of them say to include the ending of the story. They want to see how the plot and character arc(s) progress, and how you tie everything up at the end. So don’t leave out the punchline.
2. Learn the expectations.
Voice. Whether you’re writing a back cover synopsis or a manuscript synopsis (for an editor or agent) this element is crucial. I don’t mean your voice, but rather, the voice in the story. If your story is humorous with a flippant narrator, the synopsis should be a little flip and funny. Voice can be the hardest thing to work into a synopsis, but editors and agents say it’s one of the most important. The reader’s expectation is that if s/he likes the “flavor” (voice) of the synopsis, s/he will like the “flavor” (voice) of the book.
Details of what to send. If you’re sending a synopsis to an editor or agent, find out specifically what they are expecting. Do they want a “high level” one-page synopsis, or a detailed ten-page synopsis? If they didn’t specify, look at the guidelines on their Website. If that doesn’t help, ask them. If you’d rather not ask, research what other writers have submitted to that particular editor or agent on sites like Query Tracker. If nothing else, find out what the industry standard is. Right now I believe a two- to three-page synopsis is common, but be sure to check because expectations change.
Perspective. Another industry standard is for the synopsis to be written in third person. Editors and agents expect this whether they state it or not. You may be tempted to write your synopsis in first person if your story is told in first person — after all, what better way to include “voice” — but don’t for a submission to an editor or agent. For cover copy, there’s more leeway: when the narrative is told from the first person perspective, you can use first person on the back cover, but you don’t have to. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is written in first person, but the cover copy is in third person. In Death’s Daughter by Amber Benson, both the narrative and the cover copy are written in first person..
Tense. No matter what tense you use to tell your story (present tense or past tense), synopses are written in the present tense. This is true for both agent/editor submissions and the description on the back of the book.
Formatting. There are rules. Find out what they are and follow them.
Hook. Above all, regardless of who your reader is, your synopsis must “hook” them. It should draw them in at the beginning, keep their attention until the end, and leave them wanting more.
3. Follow a guide.
When tackling a potentially difficult project, I find that following a step-by-step guide, worksheet, or checklist makes it simpler. It gives me a clear plan of action. The best guide I’ve found for synopsis writing is Pam McCutcheon’s Writing the Fiction Synopsis: a step by step approach. This is a clearly written, straight-forward, comprehensive guide with instructions, examples, and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. When I wrote my first synopsis, this book was a godsend, and I still refer back to it frequently.
Another option is to use a guide meant for something else and adapt it for synopsis writing. For example, if your story is a “hero’s journey” type of tale, you can use the elements of The Hero’s Journey to identify important plot points to mention in your synopsis. Alternately, you can use a plotting grid to help you identify significant elements in any type of story: just fill in the blanks with your key plot points and character arc moments, and you’ll have all the material you need for your synopsis.
If you don’t find a guide you like, you can create one. Start by thinking about which generic story elements (e.g. inciting incident, black moment, etc.) you think you should include, giving particular consideration to any expectations specific to your genre. For example, a synopsis for a romance should include all parties to the romance and the obstacles keeping them apart; whereas a short science fiction synopsis would include a few key world-building elements but should probably leave out details of a romantic subplot. Now put the key elements into a worksheet or checklist, and you have your own guide.
Wherever you procure your handy-dandy guide, using it will make choosing what information to include in your synopsis a lot less complicated and intimidating.
If you’ve been following my instructions thus far, you’re in good shape. You’ve figured out your audience, and you’ve tailored your work to their rules and expectations. You’ve hooked your reader. You’ve used a guide to select plot and character information. You’ve put all this together in a document of appropriate length, and you included voice. Congratulations: you have a synopsis.
But is it a good synopsis? Maybe, maybe not. You probably can’t tell the difference. Remember that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing? This is where that comes in. As the author, you are most likely not able to achieve enough objectivity to evaluate the efficacy of your own synopsis. You see, for a synopsis to be good, in addition to addressing the above requirements, it must be clear and easy to comprehend. Because you’re so familiar with all the complex parts of your own plot, inevitably you’ll either 1) include too much information, or 2) make too many assumptions and not include enough information. In both cases, the result is a confused reader. But don’t despair—there’s an easy solution.
4. Enlist help.
Seek out a critique partner, beta reader, well-read pal, or another writer, and ask for help identifying the most important parts of your story. It might not even be necessary for your helper to read the whole book—sometimes just by talking it through with another person, you’ll be able to distinguish what’s “big picture” and what’s just another tree. The synopsis is essential to your success as a writer, so please, ask for help. Then be sure to provide an appropriate thank you—name a character after your helper, proofread their website, give them a gift card, or if that person is a writer, offer to do the same for their manuscript.
If you’re thinking about skipping this step, think again. What good is a synopsis if it’s not a good synopsis? Remember, the purpose of the synopsis is to “sell” someone on your story. If your synopsis isn’t good, is the reader in the bookstore going to buy your book? Is the agent or editor going to ask for the whole manuscript? Is the editorial board at the publishing house going to give the green light on a contract and a big advance? Your story may be the best thing since sliced bread, but that doesn’t matter much if your synopsis stinks and no one ever reads the book.
In sum, a synopsis is a powerful tool. You should respect it (like you would a chop saw or nail gun), but there’s no reason to fear it or be intimidated. When a synopsis is the tool you need, carefully reach into your writer’s toolbox and firmly pull it out. Then dust it off, sharpen it up, and use it. If you have trouble, read the directions (even if you have to write them first). And in the end, ask for help whether you think you need it or not. Your readers will thank you for it.
Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com.