Publishing — The Short Synopsis


As my new agent search continues, I also continue to rework and refine my query letter and submission materials. Having good friends to look over your query and give feedback just like you would with beta readers for your manuscript can be a great help. (Thanks guys!) Sometime last year I wrote about a multi-day method for producing a synopsis, and I’ve found that it works quite well. Except what it produces is referred to by some as a long synopsis — and, indeed, mine turned out to be about six pages. But in looking through the guidelines of the agents I’m most interested in (I’m sure you all know to look at the guidelines, right? RIGHT?!?), I’ve discovered that more and more of them are asking for a 1-2 page synopsis. One to two pages? Sheesh! As if the whole process wasn’t hard enough.

Well, it had to be done, so I sat down to do it, and I figured you all could benefit from my pain. Enjoy.

The first major shift in my brain was to realize that this synopsis could never possibly encapsulate the story I’ve slaved over. It had to do more than a query pitch, more than the back cover enticement of a book, but still not overwhelm the reader with a clutter of too much information. At best, it would highlight the novel’s most important aspects and possibly give a bit of the flavor of my writing style.

So, I asked myself — Self, what really are the most important aspects of my novel?

My thoughts wandered throughout the events of the story but I noticed that most of my focus fell on the characters and not the plot. The characters make any novel become important. Boring characters in the most exciting plot rarely equals a successful tale. However, incredible characters in a mediocre plot can often lead to a wonderful read.

So, I chose to lead the synopsis with an explanation of the two main characters, and in revealing their goals, I also detailed out the main villains of the piece.  Thus, in one swift stroke, I managed to set up the key figures and the key conflict of the story.  The next paragraph laid out the secondary characters but not the plot points that brought them in. Rather I wrote something to the effect of “As they travel towards their goal, the group grows in numbers” and then gave a short bit on the new characters. My third paragraph finally mentions some plot points by jumping to the middle of the book when my villains kidnap a character and steal an important item. The fourth paragraph glosses over the challenges my heroine faces as she strives to save her friend and ultimately defeats the villains. Finally, my last paragraph explains the coda and closes out the synopsis.

In other words, I let a few sentences paraphrase hundreds of pages by not bothering with describing any scenes, but still (hopefully) giving a sense of what will be found in the pages of the novel. It’s an overview, after all, not a detailed rendering. I actually still have a fifth-of-a-page with which to play, and if there’s something I feel extremely strong about putting in, I can go to two pages (provided the guidelines permit it).

Now, this synopsis has been sent out with queries (where appropriate) over the last few weeks, so it’s still too early to tell how effective the approach has been, but the response from my wonderful beta readers has been positive. And since those beta readers are Faith and David, they can respond in the comments with their thoughts! How convenient!

So, this is what worked for me (so far). What methods do you all use?


16 comments to Publishing — The Short Synopsis

  • Great post, Stuart. I hope you find success with your new synopsis and query.

    Does the MW Beta look at queries and synopsis? Mine have been viewed so many times by my regulars I’m sure they’re scared to look again. I suspect my query and synopsis are broken because my only partials have come from in-person contact with agents and none from queries.

  • tiffany

    I am a chronic lurked here, and if you wanted, I would be happy to look over your items and provide constructive feedback. Any questions about my provenence, just email me or ask Faith:)

  • Stuart, that *glossing over the story parts* is amazingly hard to do, especially after one slaves over the story for so long and has so much invested in it. But it does have to be done. I tell people to be ready with several synposes: a one page, a five page, and an extended outline that can go to an agent with a full mscpt if requested. You have to give the agent what they want. And you did a great job at that!

    NGDave, Tiff would do a great job on looking over your synopsis. And the Beta readers should jump in too!

  • NGD — Thanks. I hope so too! As for your own results, you should certainly have someone look at it with fresh eyes (sounds like Tiffany is the way to go), but also know that unless you’re a jerk, you’ll always get better results from in-person contact with agents. For one thing, they are judging you on both the pitch as well as just that human connection. Also, it’s a lot harder to say No to that eager face in front of you than it is to send out a standard rejection letter.

    Faith — Part of what I’m trying to get across with this post is that if you can change the way you look at the purpose of the short synopsis, then the *glossing over the story parts* isn’t nearly as hard. It’s still tough, especially because we so badly want to share all the wonders of our story, but I spent more time working on the sentences explaining the characters than anything else. And, yes, having various synopses ready at your disposal is really the way to go. I just hate writing these things, so I tend to put it off until I have someone requesting it. Then I suddenly have to produce one. To all our readers: LISTEN TO FAITH. Write these all out beforehand and save yourself much grief.

  • I agree with Faith’s comments — hitting the high points (and only the high points) of the plot is incredibly difficult, because we want to show off those tiny little plot twists that are such fun to write and read, but which can’t survive the triage required to get a synopsis down to two pages. I also agree that your synopsis did a great job presenting the book. Finally, as I have recommended before, I would suggest that people sit down and write a synopsis without worrying about length, at least to start. Then they should write it again and seek to cut in half whatever length their first effort came out to. Then they should rewrite again and shoot for 1000 words. Then 500. Then 250. Then 100. Then 50. And finally a single sentence. In the end, we wind up with (in reverse order) an elevator pitch, a follow up for when the recipient of the elevator pitch says “Sounds cool, tell me more!” and various summary lengths that will come in handy throughout the process of pitching and selling the book. Try it. It works.

  • Stuart> First your “how to write a synopsis over a few weeks” post from a few weeks ago was WONDERFUL. I’ve written (or participated in writing) two synopses based on that. We got a working synopsis (my co-author and I) and then had to cut it down.

    We ended up going with the character approach, similar to what you mention: We’ve got three POV characters, so each got a short paragraph. MC got paragraph one, outlining her conflict. MC 2 got the next paragraph. MC 3 (smaller role, but the villain) got a paragraph. The last 2-3 (they were short) brought the story together. It was 500 words exactly when we were done. 🙂 One page single spaced.

    NGD> Post it to the Betas and I’ll take a look at it! 🙂 People read our synopsis for us just a few weeks ago.

    I think the pitch letter is the most important part (aside from the book itself, of course). I haven’t tried working backwards from the synopsis to the pitch–but it is a cool idea and I think I’ll give it a go with the next one I write.

    And I want to reiterate my thanks to all the folks at this site because we’re in the process of querying and we just got a manuscript request! Here’s crossing our fingers hoping for more requests.

  • I actually really like a lot of Holly Lisle’s methods. One of the things she does by way of outlining is a notecarding method, which I found really helpful in planning my most recent book. Each notecard has one sentence that explains Characters, setting, conflict, and twist. Once I’m done revising, I notecard everything based on the scenes I got, and then use the sentences from those note cards as my synopsis, expanding and trimming based on what I want to emphasize, and varying the sentence-structure, etc.

  • David — This is really one of those “no one right way to do things” situations. I can see how your method would work for a lot of people, but I’ve tried it before, and for me, it doesn’t work. I’m not sure why, though I think it has to do with the different natures of the different length synopses and what they focus on. Anyway, if it works for you (and for any of our readers) then that’s great. Regardless of how you get there, I think we all agree that the various length synopses need to be done.

    pea — So glad to be of help, and a big CONGRATS on getting a manuscript request. Best of luck and keep us posted!

    LScribe — That’s another interesting approach which might actually work for me — except I’m sure I’ll lose all those notecards! 😛 I do well with a single notebook, so maybe I’ll have to mix the two and place the notes on separate pages or something. Hmmm.

  • It really worked for me. I’m sure you can find it on your own, but here’s a shortcut to the explanation:

  • Great post and excellent responses :). I have a hard time doing a synopsis that makes sense and still gives a feeling of my voice. But with these ideas I may have a better shot at it!


  • Hmmm… I’ll post my latest query and synopsis to the beta. I’ll just head over there and figure things out.
    Thanks Tiff, Pea, and everybody else.


  • NGD, I’ll second Pea and give you feedback when you upload it to the betas.

    Stuart, thank you. I just finished (mostly, sans epilogue and a few pages of little fixes I want to go back and make), so I plan to work on a synopsis very soon. I really like this suggestion, so I’ll give it a try. (Along with the other types, of course. Faith makes a great point about being ready with everything.)

  • I just want to second Pea and say that Stuart’s method works very well – not only does it produce a finished synopsis, but it does actually take a lot of stress out of the process. Pea and I ended up doing a hybrid of Stuart’s method and what Dave recommends because, as I’ve found with abstracts, it’s easier to cut than to add later. So we over wrote and then cut down. And cut down. And down again. We have them filed as Short Synopsis and Super Short Synopsis. Some agents also ask for a one line pitch in addition to the synopsis and the query. That was hard!

    Oh, and Faith we still owe you our first born for your help with the query letter. It’s not boring any more!

  • This is the problem with coming in late in the day: everything I might have added to the conversation has already been written by others. A necessary post, well-executed by Stuart. Great job.

  • Thank you all. I’m glad to hear that this kind of thing is helping so much. And, Ed, it’s never too late!

  • David: Interestingly, your approach sounds a lot like the Snowflake Method in reverse! Turning it back around again, someone who has applied the Snowflake Method to their novel would have something pretty close to a synopsis at every level you describe. Hmmm. Food for thought.

    Stuart: Speaking of Randy Ingermanson, he apparently submits character synopses instead of plot synopses as well sometimes. I’ll be interested in hearing about how this approach works for you.