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Writing the Synopsis

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Writing the Synopsis

Postby Neurolanis » Sat Dec 08, 2007 1:32 pm



The synopsis is quite possibly the most important aspect of your writing in terms of getting published. There is no doubt that a poor query letter can mean it never even gets read, but it is the synopsis which the editor/agent reads with the greatest care, and based on its overall appeal decides whether or not to pursue an interest in working with you. The query letter is the knock on the door, the synopsis is the pitch, and the manuscript is what’s for sale. We all know that your book is your heart and soul, but before you can get a career in doing the thing you love, and before millions of readers across the country or beyond can enjoy every word of your accomplishment, you have to make the sale.

Your synopsis is the window for your manuscript through which the editor/agent peers before entering, and you may be surprised to learn that there are whole books dedicated to the subject of writing a synopsis alone. Its importance cannot be overestimated, for after an editor has read your manuscript and brings his/her proposal before a boardroom full of executives, he brings your synopsis with him as a reference. So even to the board who makes the final decision, your synopsis is still a window.

So let’s get to it. There is an editor/agent that you wish to submit to. First you need to send a query. This involves a query letter -- a subject of great importance in itself -- and under that a synopsis, and then a sample of your work; whether it be fifty pages, one chapter or three, whatever they ask for. But there are many, many things that might turn off a potential editor/agent. And their personalities vary like those of most professions, so it’s not all written in stone. But there are many widely expected and unaccepted aspects/tactics in writing a synopsis which need to be known by writers who are serious about getting published. Make no mistake, as much as you may resent having to sum up your whole book in a few pages or less because they’re unwilling to read your whole manuscript, that’s the gatekeeper’s rules. Getting inside might be extremely difficult and time-consuming, or it might be a walk in the part. It largely depends upon talent and chance, but another major factor is in making the right approach.

Below are a list of tips and a list of errors to avoid, compiled and worked out after many hours of study, thought and practice. I hope they serve you well.

Synopsis Tips

1. The Hook

Begin your synopsis with a hook, whether it be an unanswered question, an unusual backdrop or an odd fact about the lead character. The more personalized the better, but make sure it fits in with the rest of the synopsis. Always get off on the right foot, and from there you can drop what follows.

2. The Protagonists

Introduce them soon or right away, and give the editor/reader a reason to care -- a struggle, a personal loss or surprise. Explain what they’re after and briefly what their motivations are. The more important and interesting aspects of them you can sneak in the better, because none of the story really matters to the editor/agent if they do not feel drawn in by the protagonists.

3. Stay on the Road

Especially for a short synopsis, do not go astray from the main question, purpose or storyline which you have begun your synopsis with. You hooked the editor/agent, now keep wheeling them straight in for the capture. If your story begins with a murder, the synopsis should follow after the ‘who-done-it?’ like the kite led by a piece of string, right up to the conclusion. Secondary plotlines can be tossed right out of the synopsis mix, and often they have to be. And as a rule, secondary characters are only mentioned unless they directly affect the plotline. (For example, if your story is about a dragon running amok in China Town, a side adventure where one of your characters chases a runaway through the gutters might be a bad idea; even if it complements the novel and is one of its memorable treasures, in the synopsis it would likely serve to distract the editor/agent from the storyline.)

4. What’s in the Brew?

When considering which pieces to include or exclude, think about what speaks intimately about or is otherwise significant to the main characters and their goal. Are there some clever or gripping elements you might add which would further the appeal of the manuscript? (For example, if the book is about a vampire jackal and one of your heroes has a tattoo of a jackal on his arm it might deserve mentioning, as it adds extra surreal appeal to the story.)

5. Mood Shifts

Any emotional change or development in your key characters should be mentioned, as to keep the editor/agent attached to the story, and to make them feel that you’re keeping them in the know.

6. In the Dark

What is often called “the Black Moment”, when things go wrong and your characters are in a state of crisis, loss or confusion. Sometimes this occurs when the murder suspect turns out to be innocent when the real culprit strikes again, or in romance when the couple breaks up, or in a thriller when the love interest is kidnapped or something to that affect. This forces the main character/s to make a change which alters the story and opens a new door. When these events unfold the editor/agent should feel for the characters and understand why they make the choices they do. This is often when a protagonist’s character is put to the test, and the editor/agent will be looking to see your antagonist struggling. So be sure to describe their emotions and explain their change in direction.

7. The Conclusion

What brings it to the boiling point? What do the lead characters do and what are the major results, and what do these results mean to the main characters? Did they get what they were seeking, or did they learn a hard lesson? If the beginning of the synopsis asks a question, here is when it must be answered.

Synopsis Errors

1. Incorrect Formatting

A one-page synopsis is single-spaced, more than one are double-spaced. Use the right paper and a quality printer. Use “--” instead of a “—”, and without a space between them I’ve been told. Obviously there cannot be any spelling or grammar mistakes, although there is a some creative leeway. Make sure every page has your book’s title in ALL CAPITOLS, although shortened down to one or two short words, as well as your surname and page title at the top of each page. Make sure it reaches but doesn’t succeed the length asked for, and always follow the Author’s Guidelines by the editor/agent to the word. To indicate italics always underline, and never use bold either. Don’t add any colour or fancy gimmicks of any kind.

2. Ignoring Market Considerations

The synopsis should not reveal or unintentionally imply that the book is not marketable. If it isn’t indicating a clear market there might be a problem. If your book fits into a specific genre or sub-genre it would be wise if your synopsis reflects this. If however your book is edging for an unknown market you might want to focus on aspects of your story which are clearly sellable.

3. Chapter-Biased

Sometimes a writer will focus in on the early chapters and just skim through the rest of the book. Obviously, the editor/agent wants to grasp the whole thing.

4. Talking About the Reader

Affirming your story’s communication to the reader. (For example, writing, “The conflict is...” or “This is where the story heats up...”) A big no-no, as this confuses the editor/agent by breaking between telling the synopsis and telling them about the manuscript’s affects on/for the reader. Not only will this distract them from your storyline, but it also mirrors insecurity in your abilities. Stay in tune with the synopsis and leave out what can’t be said.

5. Unanswered Questions

Failing to explain character motivations, leaving loose ends, or ending with questions posed in your synopsis/story unanswered are serious blunders. They expect your synopsis to outline everything of importance to the story, and your failure to do this would be seen as proof of your lack of writing talent; communication is a key skill in writing, after all, and the synopsis is all about communication. Don’t even feel tempted to leave the final conclusion, or its reasons, up in the air as an attempt to hook them in for more -- chances in that working are extremely slight at best. Unclothe the face of your work and reveal it. Don’t blush, this is part of what being a writer is about. Gladly expose all your work’s key features.

6. The Characters Aren’t Likeable

They’d better be, but if it doesn’t sound like they are in the synopsis you’re in serious trouble. Revealing snippets of their backgrounds or inner conflicts can be of great help, especially if it sparks sympathy. Remember, the editor/agent is using your synopsis as the window to your manuscript; they have to like what they see or they won’t be going in.

7. Too Much Detail

You might get so caught up in showing off your well-researched material, well-crafted sub-plots or characterization that you’ve overwhelmed and confused the matter. Remember, a synopsis focuses on the main characters, the main plotline and the main points associated with the key events, twists and turns. Adding some nice descriptions may be useful, but read it over carefully and make certain it does not distract from the synopsis’ purpose; to summarize your book for the editor/agent’s understanding, and to serve as a reference when pitched for sale before a publishing committee.

8. It Lacks Emotion

Writers can get so caught up in translating the plot correctly that they leave out an emotional anchor. Don’t forget that the editor/agent is looking for strong emotional content to pull the reader in, so you may want to go back and make sure that the emotions of the characters and their ordeals are revealed plain enough in the synopsis. (For example, don’t just say that ‘Tod leaves his wife Tara.’ Give us some grounding of the emotional impact on him. The simple inclusion of words such as ‘heartbreaking’ or ‘painful’ can do the trick, and perhaps a brief description could be helpful (‘Tod lies on his bed wide awake the whole night after.’)

9. The Tone isn’t Consistent

Your manuscript has a tone and your synopsis must reflect this, whether it be dark and moody, edgy and passionate, solemn and eerie, or curious and mystical. Explore your synopsis several times over and check how the tone translates. Make sure it is consistent or you’ll throw your editor/agent of.

10. It isn’t Fluid

(‘He did this, she did that. This happens, that happens, leading to this.’) After you have gone over everything else -- all the do’s and don’ts of writing a killer synopsis -- your final rework phase should probably be this one. You’ve shaped your synopsis like a sculpture, and you’ve chipped away all the ugly bits. Now you just need to smooth over the rugged edges, to make sure that it flows as smoothly as your manuscript. (So for example, instead of, ‘John hears the bad news. John runs to Marcy’s. He tells her the bad news. They travel to Eliot’s...’ you would have, ‘After hearing the bad news John runs to Marcy’s and tells her the whole story. Afraid it may all ready be too late, they drive to Eliot’s...’)


Here is a list of winning synopses which for obvious reasons can be very helpful. I am in the process of working over synopses of my own -- I say synopses plural because I am multi-submitting to several different agents, each of which so far are asking for different lengths. This is something you’ll have to be prepared for too. I’ve found that writing an article about synopses has helped me to gather my thoughts and research on the matter, and I would recommend that you might try the same. If you are passionate about storytelling you’ll have to get passionate about synopsis writing, or you might never get published. But bear in mind, writing a synopsis for a fantasy or science-fiction story is different than writing one for any other genre; because you can't help it, it's just going to sound crazy! Try summarizing the Lord of the Rings and you'll see what I mean.

Good luck!
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Postby RHFay » Sat Dec 08, 2007 1:45 pm

I am impressed with this, Neurolanis. Thanks for posting it.

I've found that the synopsis is the hardest thing for me to write. I can write poetry, short stories, and novels (or at least attempt to), but the synopsis has proved the most difficult. These tips could prove to be incredibly useful.

And a great synopsis is vital. It's so important to make a good first impression. If not, you might not have a chance to make a second impression.

"I'm going to do what the warriors of old did. I'm going to recite poetry!" Andrew of Armar.
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Postby Neurolanis » Sat Dec 08, 2007 1:53 pm

Thanks, RH Fay! I too have found the synopsis extremely difficult to write. I had to get passionate about it to make the progress I have made. It's worth it if it will get my manuscript read! :D

Oh I see I spelled "Synopsises" wrong at the bottom. I hurried my conclusion. Another lesson learned. :lol:
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Re: Writing the Synopsis

Postby Dan Kohanski » Tue May 12, 2009 2:32 pm

Great summary and very useful. Not to nitpick, but ...

"Make sure every page has your book’s title in ALL CAPITOLS..."

"Capitol" is a building. :eye:
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Re: Writing the Synopsis

Postby reecehiggins » Wed Aug 13, 2014 6:08 am

The Synopsis is very useful and interesting. And it give more knowledge on how to make a Synopsis and the Source to make a good argument. The points discussed in the page is handy and meaningful has it can use for the readers in their reading purpose.
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