Monday, 9 June 2014

Week Seven: Learn To Love Your Synopsis

I've been writing a new synopsis this week, so this topic is of acute interest to me. The discussion that follows is an amalgam of several I have written before on the art of writing a synopsis.

What Is A Synopsis? 

Generally speaking, a synopsis is a short document, sometimes one page, maybe 2-3, in which you briefly describe your main characters and the chief action of your story. Leave out anyone and anything non-essential. It's not a blurb - i.e. cover copy. That merely sets out a scenario without giving you the end result. In the synopsis you must tell the reader not only how it starts, but how it ends. And you're in trouble if you don't actually know by now.


This is a selling document, so write and present it professionally. Check your spelling and punctuation. Try to sound sane. This may be your only chance to showcase your writing skills to a busy agent or editor.

Whatever you do, keep the synopsis easy to read and check that, even if the book is dark, it never feels depressing or dull. If you enjoyed writing your book, let it show in the synopsis. Let your story shine.

Be a great synopsis writer: it's never too soon to start taking your work seriously.


What's the Point of a Synopsis?

Writers hate the synopsis. It interferes with the old illusion that writing fiction is a mysterious creative process, handed to us by a lyre-playing Muse, to be messed with at our peril. It makes our writing feel like a grubby commercial venture.

But you have to tell agents and publishers what's in it for them, just as a blurb tells the reader what to expect inside the covers of a book. Though a synopsis is more than an extended blurb. It has to achieve a number of goals. First, and most importantly, it should tell the person reading it what happens in the book. Note, not what the book is about, per se, but what happens and in what order.

Produce professional-looking synopses

Don't Include Everything

That's trickier than it sounds. Good novels often have sub-plots that weave through the main plot. So should we mention those or leave them out? If they have a genuine bearing on the main plot, they need to be in the synopsis. If not, then we can safely leave them out.

Some synopses are only a page long. With two to three pages, you can afford to mention the milk-maid's dalliance with the master, which provokes the son to leave home and join the army, which makes the wife hate the husband - and the freckle-faced milk-maid - when her beloved boy is subsequently killed in action. Otherwise, just start with the granddaughter packing her bags years later ...

Only mention these subsidiary details in passing. A few words should suffice.

Basically, a synopsis should sketch out the plot, location and main characters without going into too much detail. It should convey genre, where appropriate. Best not to open though with 'This is a funny book.' Keep the slick one-liners for the 3-minute pitch.

But Always Tell Them How It Ends

One common thing writers feel instinctively when describing their stories in advance is that they shouldn't reveal the ending. 'I won't tell you what happens after that ... but it's very exciting.' We don't do that in the synopsis. It's a non-fictional document. It's like packaging. It should tell the buyer what's inside, and how many grams of fat, and is that saturated or Omega-3?

In the synopsis, we tell the editor precisely what happens at the end, and why. Yes, even if it's going to spoil it for them.

Be A Little Imperfect

Having said all that, the synopsis must be a flexible document above all else. It should be constructed like a house in an earthquake zone, to move subtly with changes of mind and heart. It should not resist such changes and tumble down, killing your protagonists in their beds. Agents and publishers have an infuriating tendency to ask for changes. Sometimes they ask for them at the start of the writing process and sometimes halfway through. (Or later, when the book is actually finished.) You will need to be open to those changes, and not have your story so tightly bound together that no daylight can be admitted between plot points.

So the ideal synopsis is a little imperfect: it should err on the side of being too lightly written, kept flexible, with gaps - rather than holes - left for the editor's input, and neither too pithy nor over-ornate. A synopsis should always suggest rather than state baldly.

Keep things flexible

A Collaborative Document

Never forget that your synopsis will become, in many cases, a collaborative document. Writing a novel isn't quite like writing a screenplay, but by the end of the process, a number of different experts - often with clashing views on how a novel or even a synopsis should be written - will have stuck their fingers in the pie of your story and cheerfully wiggled them about. So be prepared for interference and try to view it as helpful in most cases. By the end, you may no longer recognise the novel you intended to write. C'est la vie!

Not Written On Loo Roll

Sadly, the days of the writer as an eccentric genius who goes off into a hotel room for ninety days and emerges with a ground-breaking novel written on a roll of perforated paper are long gone.

The synopsis has become unavoidable for most people, and can be one of the banes of a writer's life. But it represents the key to the first gate of the contract, beyond which a writer may not pass without permission. This may not be ideal for every writer, and there is a strong case for rebellion. But while the people who pay our wages continue to say we have to produce them, it might be wiser simply to capitulate.

QUESTION: do you love or hate writing a synopsis, and have you got any tips on how to do it?


  1. I hated them until I hit on a formula that works for me. I can and have written narrative synopses and always found them the spawn of the devil. I now prefer what I call a scene-by-scene. It's sort of an extension of my index cards approach to plotting. It is exactly what it sounds, telling the story of my novel one scene at a time. I do it at the start of a novel so I know exactly where it's going. I can (fairly) easily amend it to give to my agent/publisher. And it's a brilliant time saver because I don't have to spend much time rewriting plot holes etc. It also helps me pick up the thread straight away when I haven't written for a day or two. My most recent novel was very, very complex plot-wise. On some days, the synopsis became the Object You Would Save If Your House Was Burning Down.

  2. Thanks for another great post Victoria! I'm enjoying this series and finding it very helpful. Perhaps you should write a how-to book?!-if you haven't already...

  3. When I'm finished with this year of posts, Anita, yes, I expect I'll turn this into a How To book!

  4. The synopsis, I feel, takes the pleasure away as a writer. I hate the thought of presenting a synopsis and dread doing it. I have just edited my first, completed novel (written for Nanowrimo) and am nervous about completing the process.

  5. I write the synopsis at the end, once I know what's going on. There have to be surprises for the author too! There are too many changes that occur while writing ; it's an organic process and I don't write according to a detailed outline.

  6. Thank you for this Victoria, I'm coming up to writing my first synopsis (after writing the novel), so will refer back to your post. And I'll try to love my synopsis!

  7. Thanks for all your responses! And so glad you could comment in the end, Martha. I was beginning to worry! Vx

  8. Could you use the seven point novel structure; end, beginning, plot and pinch points?

  9. I have to admit to never having heard of the 7-point novel structure! (Or not that I remember.) I've heard of other ways to structure novels, but this is one that's escaped me, Louise. Do tell on ... Vx

    1. I first watched a video on You Tube made by Dan Wells but here is a link which explains it and has sample sheets. It may not work for every story but I just used it on a fantasy wip and it just occurred to be that it might (or not!) be a useful synopsis structure.


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