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WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

Having to write a synopsis is the single worst part of being a write. THE WORST.

I see you “tagged in a negative review on Twitter” and I raise you “having to condense 80k words worth of my beloved precious lyrical story baby into a summary.” Bad reviews happen, but they happen to you, they are not of your doing. But a synopsis? This is a torture you must visit upon yourself.

(Can you tell I love writing these things? Ha!)

Okay, seriously, a synopsis is hard. But you know what?

A synopsis is the most valuable tool in your pitch package.

I promise. Really.

Beyond being a really great intellectual exercise for you as a writer to use between drafts (“Does the book I actually wrote match the book I think I wrote?”), a synopsis is an invaluable tool by everyone else on your publishing and marketing teams too.

How?

  • If you are unagented, potential agents use them to assess the quality and content of your story, and of your ability to use writing as a medium to communicate. It helps them decide if this is a novel they want to try reading, or something they’d like to pass on.
  • If you have an agent, then the synopsis helps them have a blueprint of the story you’re trying to tell, so they can help guide you through revisions. It also becomes a valuable part of their own pitch packages for publishers.
  • Publishers review the quality of your writing and your stories to see if they’d like to read your book and / or sign it. Editors use it as when their pitching to their higher-ups in favor of signing you, and also to extrapolate potential series value. And like an agent, they use it as an outline for guiding revisions.
  • The marketing team at your publishing house uses it in their packages to entice reviewers, as the basis for blurbs and press releases, and to help craft back cover copy and ad copy.
  • Reviewers sometimes read the synopsis for the first book in a series if they’re asked to review the second, so they know what happened in advance. They may also refer to a synopsis after reading a book to help write their review.
  • The synopsis is sometimes given to moderators, speakers, and interviewers who won’t have the time to read the whole book before engaging with you for press.
  • Adaptations agents / entertainment agents / producers and screenwriters, and anyone else working on any sort of adaptation of your work may use it in their own pitch packages, or as a guide for what you the author consider the spine of the story, and all the same reasons literary agents do.

So, it’s really important.

It’s also important to know what we’re talking about when we say “synopsis” here. Sometimes the term ‘synopsis’ is mistakenly used interchangeably with Back Cover Copy or Pitch Copy or Hook Copy to mean the small paragraphs on the back of a book or in marketing materials.

A synopsis is actually a 1 to 5 page summary of all the major characters and events that happen in the book, including the ending (surprise your readers, not your agent.) This isn’t the ad copy you use to hook a reader, this is the full narrative laid out in easy to read language.

Sounds a lot simpler than it is, because it’s often difficult to figure out which parts of the narrative should be mentioned in the synopsis, and which shouldn’t.

Here are my biggest synopsis-writing pieces of advice:

  • Echo the voice of the book.
    • A synopsis is commonly written in third person present omniscient (“Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit of the Shire”), but can sometimes work in another tense and POV. 
    • Most importantly, use the same words, the same style of sentence structure, and the same idioms as your narrator or main POV character. The book should sound like the synopsis. 
      • Example – Book text: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
      • Example – Synopsis text: “Bilbo Baggins is a gentlehobit of good breeding, and he, like the rest of his kind, is very much not interested in Adventures, thank you very much. They are nasty things that make one late for dinner. So when the wizard Gandalf the Grey arrives at his doorstep with thirteen dwarves looking for help reclaiming their lost homeland, Bilbo is more than a little miffed.”
  • Create three different versions in three different sizes, and write the longest version first.
    • Write the 5 pager first. It’s much easier to trim down than pad a synopsis, so get it all in the big one first. Then trim to 3 pages, so you have that version on file. Then trim to 1 page. By then you’ll know what’s the really important stuff.
    • Start by writing a character/story introduction paragraph.
      • Basically, “this is who the character is, and where they are in the world and in their life, and why the following events will be welcomed/hated/a burden/etc.”
    • Then, ignoring the length of the synopsis for now, write one summary paragraph per chapter in the book.
      • Sometimes all the events in a chapter need three or four sentences, sometimes it needs just one.
      • Be clear about motivations. Not just “Bilbo doesn’t want to be seen with the dwarves,” but “Bilbo is embarrassed to be seen with raucous, rowdy dwarves while within the boarders of the Shire, where his reputation as a staid and reliable gentlehobbit is at risk.”
    • Then write a final conclusion paragraph that explains how the world and people in it have changed as a result of what they’ve experienced. 
    • If you go over 5 pages, go back and start tightening it up.
      • Decide if every event needs to be reported, and cut those that don’t.
      • A good rule of thumb for this is to only include events that directly effect the outcome of the climax, or directly effect the main character’s emotional arc.
  • Focus on Cause and Effect.
    • Lay it out as: THIS happens and as a result, THAT happens, and as a result THIS OTHER THING happens. Show the reader how the plot interlocks, one action after another, and how they all build to their inevitable climax.
  • Also focus on Character Growth.
    • Zero in on the lead, and maybe one or two side characters.
    • How have these events changed these people, their beliefs, and their perspectives. Tell us where the characters end up.

And remember, however difficult it may be to distill your baby down into so few pages, it will totally be worth it in the end. Polish, refine, get beta readers, and work your synopsis just as diligently as  you do your book, and I promise you won’t regret it.

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE.

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JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

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