The Dreaded Synopsis

I recently got back from Myrtle Beach where I had the privilege of hanging out at the South Carolina Writers Workshop.  While I was there, I had a lot of questions about synopses.

I know they're evil, but they're a conquerable evil.

The Basics

  • Keep your synopses down to two pages (unless the agent or editor you're sending it to specifies otherwise)
  • Your synopsis should be single-spaced, with a double space between paragraphs
  • Have your title, author name, and word count on top as a header
  • And don't forget, in a synopsis you're clear to give away the ending, in fact, you need to.
And writers are not alone in their hatred of synopsis - most agents don't enjoy reading them either.  Just in case you think we're trying to torture you, that's not actually the case.  Even the sweet and benevolent bunny mean and sharkly Janet Reid doesn't torture for the sake of torture.  There's always a reason.

The Purpose
  • Here it is: Synopses save time.  
    • When agents or editors have to share your manuscript with colleagues, they're talking it up with professionals who don't have a lot of time outside their own clients, so when we're trying to get some attention and in house excitement, we can give colleagues the manuscript and a synopsis.  That way, they can read the beginning and then see what happens to get a feel for both the writing and the story.
  • Synopses are also useful for subrights.  Film agents and producers often ask for "coverage" which is their version of a synopsis.  
The most important thing you need to know about a synopsis: It's ALLOWED to be boring.  It's actually supposed to be boring.

How to Attack Your Synopsis
  • Think of it like a book report (you can even practice by doing a synopsis for one of your favorite books)
  • Tell the facts that your readers need to know about your manuscript
    • Remember your actual writing in the manuscript will determine whether or not an agent is going to sign you - not the synopsis
  • List all of the major characters that are essential to the manuscript
    • Avoid Character Soup - we don't need to know every minor character who's part of the story, just the characters who are essential to the protagonist's journey
  • List all of the major plot points that are essential to the main plot line and thus the manuscript
    • Avoid talking about the Theme or the moral of your story.  Just stick to the plot.
  • Looking at both of your lists, reexamine and cross off anything that isn't essential.  Then put it together in narrative form and you should have a synopsis.  

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funny in the 'hood said...

What a great post. I will be writing the dreaded synopsis as soon as I finish revisions, and I'm not looking forward to it. I'm going to bookmark this post for reference because you explained it very clearly. Thanks!


Janet Johnson said...

Man I could have used this a few weeks ago. Great explanation!

Madscientist254 said...

Agreed, very nice synopsis of writing synopses. So referring to your post as a synopsis does that mean I inherently think your post was boring? Nah ;)

So quick clarification along those lines though. A query should be quick and exciting, where as the synopsis should be more detailed and factual; hence boring. In either event I would need to make them "hookable" correct? I'll be honest since I'm new to all the lingo that the two terms seem somewhat interchangeable depending on agent preferences.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the tips! I'm working (butchering) a synopsis right now and I've found it easier to just ramble on for five pages, then slowly scrape away the TMI to get to the *heart* of the book

suzie townsend said...

Mike, your query and your first pages should be your hook. If you're writing a thriller or a mystery then hopefully the "hook" will also appear in your synopsis when you're detailing the events of the book, but your synopsis doesn't have to be exciting.

Josin L. McQuein said...

The "practice with a book you know" advice is something I've done.

I've actually gone to wikipedia or Amazon, and copy/pasted their summary of a book into a document and used that as a frame work for how to do one. Read through it, see what key points are missing from their synopsis and tried to correct it.

It's not a perfect system, but I found it helpful.

Unknown said...

This is a succinct and useful post. The essence of synopsis. Thanks. Like Josin above I used a summery I found, to help me write mine.

Buffy Andrews said...

Thanks for your post Suzie. I shared it on Hope that was OK. It was very useful. Keep up the great work on your blog and please extend my thanks to all of the Suite 500 crowd. Blessings, Buffy

Trisha Wolfe said...

Yes I was one of the writers who was scheduled for your synopsis class that got canceled. I didn't run up to you and bombard you with questions however, I just went on to another class. Thanks for the quick lesson, I'll try to implement some of these things into my working synopsis. I believe I've finally found the hook, and actually writing it out in your characters voice helps well, then going back and rewriting it in present tense seems to be the easiest way for me to do this. Compliments of Elana Johnson's Website =) Good luck everyone! Thanks for the help Suzie.

lotusgirl said...

I have a friend who's stressing over this right now. I will direct her to your post. Thanks.

Richard Levangie said...

Thanks, suzie.

I've recently finished the ninth draft of my synopsis, and I'm almost there.

It's just slightly longer than two pages, so I'll see if I can cut another hundred words or so. Or use a slightly more compact font like Adobe Garamond. :-)

Lisa T. said...

It's very comforting to hear you don't believe a synopsis must be exciting, but I'm afraid I've heard other agents suggest that it should not just be "this happened, then this, then this". I think the writing still has to shine, even if it is just plot points, because there are those agents who look for any reason not to accept. It's the old "if you can resist, then do" mentality.

kellye said...

This came at the perfect time! Even though you said it can be boring, I'm still a little scared about that. Really? (No, I'm not expecting you to post "Yes." Still. It's hard to wrap my head around.) Also, the whole synopsis thing feels so scary because you're supposed to summarize the whole novel in 2 pages. But I appreciate your tips and ideas. Very helpful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

good image - think of it like a book report. Break out the 2B pencils and ringbinders!