Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Synopsis

Many of you out there look to an editor to help you with your fiction projects - so this entry is for you. Below is part of a presentation I gave at a writers' conference this past April. It was directed at how to query agents, but the same rules apply regardless of intent and readership.

The synopsis: how long, what to say, and what not to say

Your synopsis should be relatively brief when querying agents, no more than three pages. If you have a longer one, also create a short one and then if you feel it necessary, mention to the agent that you have a longer synopsis they can look over if they like.

An agent’s time is cramped as it is, so you need to make things as brief as possible; agents have dozens and dozens of submissions to review, so don’t take up too much of their time. If they want to see more, they’ll ask.

The synopsis needs to tell what the story and plot are about. Open with a paragraph much like back cover copy – sum it all up, then work into how the story will flow (from start to end) in the second paragraph.

Don’t give a play-by-play of each scene – boil it down to the important parts that happen and what makes up the story. If you know your story and what it’s about and where it heads and concludes with, then a synopsis shouldn’t be too hard of a task to complete. You are telling someone about your book. There is no magical recipe; you just have to put your writing skills to good use for this exercise (and I don’t know of an author that actually enjoys the process).

After you’ve written it, read it over carefully. Does it make sense? Have you made it sound interesting? Are the main characters mentioned? Is it coherent and logical? If you’ve hit every point that needs mentioning, then you’ve done your job.

The number one reason a synopsis fails to work (in that it doesn’t resonate with the reader) is that the writer doesn’t yet have a firm grasp on their material ─ which is a good indication that there might be something wrong with the story.

Once you’ve written the synopsis, have another person (someone who has no idea about this story) read the synopsis and then quiz them on what they just read. If what you get back sounds like the story you wrote, then consider your efforts a success. But if they seem confused or don’t quite get it, something in your write-up is failing to connect with the reader. Review it, edit, and re-write. It’s your job to be absolutely clear. No editor is going to ask to see a partial or full based on a muddled synopsis. The synopsis is often your first and only chance to make that crucial first impression.


a) No dialogue! Don’t get creative and pull pieces of dialogue from the story to use in your synopsis. It makes you look lazy – don’t make an agent figure things out – spell it out for them in the synopsis.

b) Don’t pull a poignant passage or letter from the book – it means little out of context.

c) Write the synopsis in the present tense.

d) Polish, polish, polish. This, like the cover letter (query), represents you. If you fail to present a logical, coherent, and well-thought out synopsis, then you are likely going to miss out. If the synopsis rambles on and gets to no point in some time quickly, or if it’s confusing, it shows your thought process isn’t clear and that you still need to hone the story. An agent might assume you write like that, true or not. So be sure to present the cleanest, crispest copy you possibly can.

e) If your synopsis doesn’t answer “What’s the point of this novel?” then you need to go back and rework your synopsis until it does.