Monday, April 09, 2007

The Synopsis

Anytime I mention the word "synopsis" in front of a group of writers I hear a collective groan. It seems that many of you would rather go up in front of an editorial firing squad than write a synopsis. Well, I’m here to tell you to get used to it. For the published or unpublished, the synopsis is part of the game. You usually need it to sell your first book and you often need it to sell your hundredth book. If you don’t, you need one for the Art Department, the Marketing Department, or Sales. At some point along the line it is very likely you are going to need a synopsis of some sort. So, where do you start? And how concerned should you be?

Relax. While you want to make sure it’s free of grammatical errors and that an editor can actually read it, your synopsis doesn’t have to be perfect. The point of the synopsis is to give your reader—an agent, editor, or publicist—the key selling points of your book. We don’t need to know about every secondary character or every storyline, we only need to know how the plot progresses and what makes your story different. If you’re writing erotica we’re going to need an idea of how sexy this book is and where the sex scenes, at least some of them, come into play. If you’re writing suspense we’re going to need to know how the suspense progressively builds throughout the story and, of course, how things are resolved. Mysteries obviously need to show us how the clues are dropped and how the case is solved, and a romance should clearly define the conflicts the characters face as well as show us what makes the book different—how it’s not just boy meets girl. Do you see where I’m going with this? I need a basic timeline of the story, written in your voice and giving some idea of who these characters are. It’s not easy, but once you find a format that works for you it shouldn’t be that difficult.

And that’s another hint, the format that works for you. You can find a million different synopsis examples online or through your writer’s groups. Just like writing your book, you have to create a synopsis in your own voice and in a style that you’re comfortable with. There is no right or wrong to this. Three pages, five pages, ten pages, it doesn’t matter as long as you are including the important information—who, what, why, where, and how.

When I look at a synopsis I need to know those things that are enticing, those things that make the book stand out—does your werewolf also have magical powers? Show me how that works in the synopsis, and of course show me how the main plot carries through. But most important, I need to know how the book ends. When I request chapters and a synopsis I expect the synopsis to be a spoiler. I want to know how the rest of the book is going to play out, how the story is going to progress, how the characters will grow, and yes, I want to know who the killer is.



lily said...
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JDuncan said...

Jessica, given the basics of the synopsis, being the highlight film of the book more or less, my question is this. How important a role does the synopsis play in your decision making process about whether to request more material or not?

Just curious.


B.E. Sanderson said...

Thank you, Jessica. As horrifying as the job of writing synopses always seems to be, advice like this goes a long way toward making them less terrible.

Kimber An said...

Writing synopsis is a drag, 'tis true. But, there are a lot of helps in cyber-space. Look for links on writers' sites and read the archives of agents' blogs, like this wonderful one. It doesn't get anymore fun, but it does get easier. Of course, I'm still a novice myself!

Lesley said...

Thanks, Jessica! Writing the synopsis is harder than writing the book for me! Do you think spicing up an original outline (if you had one) is a good way to get everything that you'll need in?

Cindy Procter-King said...

Wonder if the killer changes in the writing of the book? I know an up-and-coming RS author this has happened to. But her sales are great, so I'm sure her editor doesn't mind!

To me, that's the problem with synopses. I'm not a plotter, so it feels like my brain is leaking out of my skull when I do (try to) plot. I usually wind up with a monstrous first synopsis as a result, because I need to make it detailed in order to come up with what is likely to BE the ending. Then I pare down from there. I also find it easier to write a synopsis AFTER writing the first three chapters of the book. If I write one before starting the story, honestly, I'm just making stuff up, because it's the physical act of writing the story, not the synopsis, that introduces me to my story people. All the pre-planning in the world can't accomplish that.


Laura Kramarsky said...

Hi Jessica--

As usual, your post reflects, and helps to calm, the anxiety many of us face. The one thing I've found is that some agents/editors ask for a "detailed synopsis" and some just ask for "a synopsis." How detailed would you think a detailed synopsis needs to be? I write mystery, so I don't want to include all the red herrings unless that would be considered a necessary detail...

Thanks again for all the work you do to make this process simpler and less nerve-wracking to all of us!

Chris Redding said...

I'm weird. I know. I actually don't mind writing a synopsis.
But I wouldn't dare until the book is done.

Southern Writer said...

"how the characters will grow"

I think this request is the hardest for me to incorporate smoothly. The more complex the character, the more difficult it is to narrow their growth down to a couple sentences.

elysabeth said...


Thank you for posting this. I forwarded the message to several of my friends who are that point of having just done a synopsis or about to begin that leg of their journey.

My question is to Cindy Procter-King - why in the world would you write a synopsis before your story is totally finished? I'm just curious, especially since the key is you have to give away the ending and if you haven't written the whole story, how do you know how it will end? - From everything I've read or been told about the synopsis, they really don't seem that difficult - I guess because I have a very straightforward writing style and that's how my synopsis (did a practice one for a friend who was strugging - and she thought it was great because it pulled the simple things out that needed to be pulled out - when telling what each chapter is about) will be done - straightforward (actually now that I've finished my first YA and have actually named my chapters, I think it will be easier to do my snyopsis based on the chapter names, or I hope that's how it turns out - we'll see) -

The reason I question this is because a synopsis is a summary of the completed manuscript - not an outline or plan or plot to what you expect to write.

Again, like Jessica said, whatever style works for you - E :)

Kristin said...

Synopses are no fun to write...not because it is hard to do. BUT, for a writer, especially a writer looking for representation, writing a synopsis makes our effort of the writing the whole book seem so pointless.

My great ideas are reduced to a few simple sentences. The climax, which builds over several chapters, is explained in just a handful of words. We want to prove that we can write well...not just that we have a great idea for a book. And the synopsis just does not give our writing a chance to shine.

I understand the need for a synopsis, but I definitely freak out that my book will seem to 'simple' or too 'neat' to a potential agent. Just one more thing for a writer to worry about in the process....

Anonymous said...

My question is to Cindy Procter-King - why in the world would you write a synopsis before your story is totally finished?

I'm not Cindy, but I can tell you that if you have an agent, she may want to see a "proposal" of your WIP. This typically means sample chapters and a synopsis. (I just sent my agent a proposal. Yes, many of the plot points will probably change, but she needs to see where my story is headed.) Sometimes contest entries require a synopsis. And oftentimes published writers sell future books on the basis of a proposal or a synopsis.

Given these scenarios, a synopsis isn't necessarily a summary of a "completed manuscript," as you stated. It's also a tool to help agents and editors evaluate a future project. Also, contrary to what you wrote, some writers do put together a synopsis to help them plan the direction of their story. (I do.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post- lots of great information.
Something I wonder about is when querying for a book that is a planned series, do you write a synopses for the entire series? Do you write the synopsis just for the initial book, and then mention that you have planned/started on book number two?
More specifically, if the planned series has one continuing storyline through all the books, but each individual book also has its on plot and sublot, along with the continuing storyline (If that makes sense.)
I haven't been able to find an answer to this anywhere. What is your preference?
Thanks again for the great information you provide here. You really help in demystifying the whole process.

Cindy Procter-King said...

Good thing I checked this comment trail again!

>>>My question is to Cindy Procter-King - why in the world would you write a synopsis before your story is totally finished?>>>

Hi Elysabeth,

Because, eventually, authors sell on proposals and/or partials. The latter is 3 chapters and a synopsis. So it's good practice. With my first (and former) agent, I had to write synopses so as not to waste time writing a complete manuscript that an editor might not want. Then, if you go back to tailor the story to a different market, you aren't ripping apart the whole thing...just a bit.

If I want to enter a contest for unpublished manuscripts to test out the story, usually I need to supply a synopsis. So I have no choice but to write it.

>>From everything I've read or been told about the synopsis, they really don't seem that difficult - I guess because I have a very straightforward writing style >>>

You might be a Plotter then. I'm more of a Pantser. I call plotting "plodding." :) If left to my own resources, I plot in chunks. Like a scene or a chapter or maybe 3 chapters ahead of time. As little as I can get away with, truthfully. :) I experience a vague "fuzziness" about where the story is headed, like I *know* it's buried in my brain somewhere, but I'm only allowed access to a little bit at a time. I actually prefer writing this way...unless I HAVE to provide a synopsis early in the process. Then, well, you know the drill...blood seeping from the forehead, yadda, yadda.