Writing a Good Synopsis
Every writer’s fantasy: an opportunity to write a soulless summary of the book whose intricate nuances you’ve slaved over [insert number of months/years], glossing over all the twists and turns, and giving away your carefully crafted ending. Yes. What’s not to love?
This is how most writers feel about the synopsis. Unfortunately, they’re wrong on a couple of fronts. For one, it should definitely not be soulless—although you will be much more straightforward in your synopsis style than in your book.
For another, they’re wrong when they assume the synopsis is pointless. Just read the book. Aha, but the synopsis is not for the reader who’ll find your title at the local bookstore.
The synopsis is for the people who will help you get your book to the local bookstore—if you do it right.
So what is a synopsis, and why should you care about creating a good one?
Spoiler alert: A synopsis is for your editor or publisher
Have you ever run into a movie director who doesn’t know, while making the movie, how it’s supposed to end?
Have you met a publicist of any kind who lives in mystery about the product or story that they are promoting?
No, and why should they? In order to reach their audiences effectively, they need to know all the dirty details. Just like you, the writer, need to know all the dirty details to reach your audience effectively.
The synopsis is not for your end readers; the synopsis is for your editor, your agent, and your publisher (if you want any of these). We need to know your story so we know how we can help you.
As an editor, let me tell you that I LOVE a good synopsis (also a good outline). It’s the fast track into your story. You may have spent all those months or years in that universe, but your editor is only getting introduced to the story now, and it’s in your interest to get us there are quickly as possible.
We need to know where you see your story going, so we can help you get there, or course-correct if necessary.
Guidelines for a good synopsis
People argue about many details of the synopsis. The following are good basic rules to live by:
- Include the beginning, the middle, and the end of your story.
- Make sure to include your protagonist, what’s at stake, and whether s/he succeeds or fails. (A synopsis is most often used in the world of fiction, and I think it’s excellent in memoir as well.) For nonfiction, we need the big argument, the major player and developments, and the conclusion.
- Keep it short and sweet. A lot of the arguments revolve around length; you can probably go more than a page, but if you’ve got more than five single-spaced pages, our eyes may glaze over. If this is your summary, what’s the story like?
- Include only information that moves the plot forward. If the synopsis only makes sense (aka, reads like a mini-story) with the information, include it. If it makes sense when you delete the information, delete it.
- Continuing on with #4, a synopsis is not stage directions. We don’t need every move. Cut to the chase. We also don’t need every secondary character or thoughtful digression.
- Don’t be mechanical. Include character feelings and emotions—but unlike in your book, tell, don’t show (see “Keep the soul” below).
- Don’t use subheadings or break the synopsis into sections. If you can’t make this feel like one short chapter, you’re doing it wrong.
- If you want to approach a traditional agent/publisher, a few rules of formatting are in order: write in third person, present tense (no matter how you wrote the book), and character names are typically in all-caps on first mention.
Keep the soul
The synopsis should read like a story in miniature (see #7 above). “Cynthia kicked the ball. Lucy caught it before it went in the net. Then she restarted the play,” is about as interesting to read as a microwave use manual (apologies to the technical writers who put these together). “No matter how hard she tried, when Cynthia kicked the ball, she could never get it past the third grade’s most savvy goalie, Lucy,” is much better. This gives us the action, the conflict, Cynthia’s emotional state, and important information on Lucy (she’s a great goalie).
In other words, don’t be mechanical when you write your synopsis. Remember you are using the synopsis to recruit people to help you with your story—an editor to help you polish it, an agent to help you sell it, etc. If we’re bored out of our minds, how inspired do you think we’ll get? You don’t need to be fancy—that’s what you’re doing in the book—but you do need to thoughtfully introduce us to the story that means so much to you.
The bottom line
A good synopsis is short, clear, and highlights the emotional stakes of the story—what you’re using to hook your readers. It’s a tool you use to recruit other people to support and develop your book. A synopsis does NOT take the place of any marketing copy (e.g., back cover copy) and MUST include spoilers. Do you want help making your book the best it can be? Invest the time in creating a readable, approachable synopsis.
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