Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Writing Your Synopsis

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 that 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 would-be buyer what's inside, and how many grams of fat, and is that saturated or Omega-3? In the synopsis, we tell the editor and agent 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

Rather sadly, the days of the writer as eccentric genius who goes off into a hotel room for ninety days and emerges with a ground-breaking novel handwritten on a roll of perforated paper - which is then published to great acclaim without the agent or editor having done much beyond changing a few commas and lighting a congratulatory cigar - are long gone.

So the synopsis is unavoidable, and one of the banes of a writer's life; it represents the key to the first gate of the novel, beyond which a writer may not pass without permission. Get typing!

This article previously appeared in a longer form at Raw Light.


  1. Thank you, Victoria! Just what I needed to read at the mo, faced with another dreaded synopsis.

  2. I rather like writing them for myself, so I know which end is up before I begin to write a new book. But .... writing them as a selling document is a scary prospect. Good luck, Emma! Good to 'speak' to you again. Vx


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