Thursday, May 6, 2010

Synopsis Pointers and a Reminder

If you are a serious writer who one day wants to be traditionally published, you will most likely have to write a synopsis at some point in your career, either for an agent or for an editor. A query letter, for example, contains a synopsis of your book, albeit a very brief synopsis. A book proposal for an editor contains a synopsis - a long synopsis. If you're writing a series, and you sell the first book with interest in the others, a publisher will most likely want synopses of the other books.

So, you need to know how to write a synopsis at some point.

I'm sure many of you already know how to write a synopsis, but for those of you who still find it frightening or a mystery, here's a few pointers. This isn't a post on how to write a synopsis because I don't believe there is any 100% right way to do it. I do believe the only way to learn is to just sit down and write it. Experiment. Let others read it. The more you practice, the better you'll get. Yes, imagine that.

Some of this information I learned from a writing conference I recently attended. Nephele Tempest from the Knight Agency taught the synopsis class.


Every synopsis, no matter the length, will need to focus on the following:


See, simple. Keep it simple.

How much detail you give on each of these points depends on the length you're going for. Remember, you most likely don't need to mention your entire cast of characters and every scene.

Structure & Length
Your synopsis should probably be told in chronological order, even if your story isn't told in chronological order.

If an agent requests a brief synopsis and doesn't say what that means, go with 1 - 3 pages or a large paragraph (single or double spaced). If an agent doesn't specify, well, anything goes, I suppose.

Don't summarize every chapter and/or scene unless that's what the publisher or editor wants (sometimes this is needed, but not for a brief synopsis).

Don't put characters names in ALL CAPS unless specified. That's usually for a script, not a synopsis.

Don't write your synopsis in first person. Please. Synopses should almost always be written in third person past tense.

Don't show. A synopsis is the exception to the "show, don't tell" saying (I refuse to call it a rule).

Don't start your synopsis at Chapter 4 if the agent requested the first three chapters and a brief synopsis. Include the entire story. Yes, I've heard of people doing this, and it's not a bright idea. The agent may read the synopsis first. Imagine that. They might not even read your chapters at all.

Don't leave off your amazing mind-blowing conclusion to the story because you want the agent to request your full to see what happens. Bad idea.

Do use your writerly skills to create the same sort of feel in your synopsis that exists in your book. For example, if you're writing a light-hearted YA story, don't make the synopsis heavy-handed and dramatic. This does not mean, however, that if you're writing a thriller/horror that you should try and scare the pants off the reader in the synopsis. I like to think of it as trying to capture the voice you've created for the main character - if your thriller/horror MC is dry and sarcastic, it might be fun to weave that into your synopsis.

Do treat the synopsis like a business document. Don't put it in French Script MJ italicized font because it looks cool. Be clear and concise and please have someone proofread it before you hit send.

Do take a book off your shelf, or a well-known movie, and practice writing a synopsis of it. It's much easier to practice on something you haven't written yourself.

To conclude, I'd just like to say that when I wrote my first synopsis, it took me a solid week to get it right, and that was only because I was rushed and had a deadline. When I write another one, I'll take a lot longer. I had several people read it - including people who had read the book, and people who hadn't. I received a lot of different feedback, and in the end, it's you who decides what will work for your writing.

Remember, the synopsis represents your book. It is not a summary (unless it's a very detailed synopsis pretty much outlining the book). Treat your synopsis as a thorough hook that represents the essence of your story and the characters you've created.

Do you have anything you'd like to add as pointers for synopsis writing? How important do you feel it is to know how to write a synopsis, and does writing one frighten you (or did it if you've written one in the past)?

Also, since I have closed my personal blog, The Innocent Flower, I'd like to put a reminder here that I am still running my short story contest. You can find the details here: Glam's Short Story Contest. I'd love to see your work! The deadline is June 1st.


  1. This is great, Glam. I hear so many people groan about synopsis simply because they're unsure of what they're doing. I haven't gotten to my synopsis yet, I'm still first drafting, but I'll probably come back to this post if I have any problems with it. Thanks for the advice! :)

  2. Awesome advice. I would add:

    Don't hold back. If you have a twist, or any form of surprise, make sure it's included. You can leave out some little details, but every major aspect of the work should be included.

  3. I always try to write a chapter summary as I'm writing the book. That way when I write the synopsis, it's right there and I don't have to keep looking for things.

  4. Ya know, the life of an author would be great if it wasn't for all the #*$&%@ writing involved. Queries, synopses, bios and of course the novel/short story/flash fiction itself. Sheesh!

    Thanks for the info. I'll come back to this in the future--assuming I ever finish my WIP.

  5. Synopses are a thorn in every writer's side, but I agree, they are a necessary evil.

    Here's hoping I got it right, or even close, for that matter.

  6. Some good tips here, Michelle. I'd just also emphasize that if you are a writer who is intimidated by the idea of writing a synopsis, you should just force yourself to start. It does get easier, and the sooner you start, the less stress you will feel when it comes time to actually use it.

  7. Amanda: It's really not as hard as it seems. Nephele stressed that over and over - and that the more we fret over it the harder it's going to be. So good luck! Just keep it simple in you mind.

    Rick: I agree with that all the way.

    Anne: I've done that with my novella, and it helped a lot!

    Chuck: I know! What's up with all the writing? Perhaps you should try writing a synopsis for your WIP now. You might be amazed where that gets you.

    L.T.: They shouldn't be a thorn, but we turn them into one, sadly. I think the more a writer just sits down to write it (even before they write the book, and then adapt the synopsis to the work as it changes), the better.

    Davin: Thanks, I agree with that. Although I've heard it said - and I've said it myself - that writing the synopsis can be as difficult as writing the novel, that's really not true. In my opinion, it is much less complex and involved. If it turns out to be as complex, I'd say the writer is doing something wrong and making things way too difficult.

    I also agree that the sooner you get one written, the better. I wish I had done that before it came time for me to need one...

  8. I'm not quit there yet, but I will say, the synop scares me! Thanks for the advice! =)

  9. Great advice. I fear the query more than the synopsis, don't know why. :)

  10. Good advice! I practice my synopsis skills with movies all the time - easier to write for me! Thanks

  11. Fantastic article. Thank you for this information. This will definitely go on our blog at the top of the synopsis links!

  12. Concise, organized piece here. Excellent advice. Rick Daley's advice is important, too, although it's not always easy to follow, especially for a fast-paced, densely plotted commercial novel.

    Your advice to practice synopsizing (is that a word?) favorite books and movies is great!

  13. I am happy to say that I've never written a synopsis (my agent never uses them and doesn't read them), but you make it all very straightforward and after reading this I feel like I could actually do it. What's so hard about writing down what happens in my book, right?

  14. Carolyn: Ah, don't be scared! I'm always here if you need help.

    Crimey: But the query IS a synopsis, so you shouldn't fear one over the other in my opinion.

    Christine: Yes, my husband and I do that after we've watched a movie. We'll analyze it and break it down into a synopsis. We're nerds like that.

    Adventures: Awesome! I made a list. How cool is that!

    Anne: I like Rick's advice, too, and I think it's possible to do for any work, but can be more difficult in a densely plotted novel.

    Scott: You might have to write one for an editor one day, so you never know! Yeah, easy as pie to break down your 80k novel into 2 pages. :)

  15. It took me so many practices to get my synopsis to a place where I finally feel settled.

    But now I am shopping my second novel. Aaargghhhh!

    I like your suggestion of writing synopses for existing books.

  16. Great advice, Glam. I've done the "take a book off your shelf, or a well-known movie, and practice writing a synopsis" thing before, and it's harder than it sounds!

  17. Thank you for the clear, practical advice. It makes the whole process seem less intimidating.

  18. Yat-Yee: Yeah, it never ends. I've found that writing the synopsis beforehand has been a good kind of outline.

    Mariah: It IS hard! But I think that it's good practice and makes doing your own easier.

    Genie: Your welcome, and thank you. I was hoping to make it a little less intimidating, which is what the class did for me.

  19. the word 'synopsis' causes itchy welts to raise up on my skin.

    I don't know why I can write a whole novel but can't write a stupid synop.

    it just escapes me.

  20. Tess: You're making it too difficult! If you ever need to write one, I can help if you'd like. Not that I'm an expert, but I'd do what I can.

  21. Say the words "synopsis" or "query" and my brain freezes. I'm terrified of the darn things!

    And I took the plunge and entered your short story comp (I can tell you, because you'll be reading the stories without knowing who wrote them!)


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