Publishing — The Synopsis


The dreaded synopsis.  I’ve yet to find a writer who enjoys writing these things, but all agree that it is one of the most essential tools in finding an agent and getting a book published.  So, today, I’m going to show you a method of dealing with this horrible creature that might help make it a little less painful.

There are many forms this thing takes — different lengths, styles, etc — but they all fall into one of two main categories.  Those written before the book and those written after.  If you’re writing a synopsis before the book has been written, chances are either a) you’re an established author and must present a synopsis to the publisher in order to contract your next book or b) you use a synopsis much like an outline.  There are many other reasons you might do it before you’ve written the book but these are the usual two.  The best reason, the reason we all should write a synopsis at the beginning is because then the darn thing is done while you’re in the creation process and is, therefore, a little bit fun.

But, alas, most of us don’t do this.  Especially writers just getting started.  Most unpublished novelists get an idea, do their research, outline (if it’s their thing), and start writing.  So, you’ve finished the novel and now you’ve got to take this 100k words you’ve slaved over for a year and condense it into five or less pages.  But they have to be exciting pages that convey the novel so an agent or editor can see that it’s an exciting, complete story.  Oy!

Well, here’s a slow but powerful process that I’ve found works wonders.

  1. Write the opening of the book in one paragraph of about 3-5 sentences (if you need a second paragraph, that’s fine.  If you need 7 sentences, that’s fine.  Just try to shoot for the minimum).  Cut out detailed descriptions, secondary characters, etc.  Just establish who the main character is, what the main conflict is, and, if needed, the world the book exists in.  The sentences don’t have to be beautiful or complex or clever.  They just have to get the information across clearly.  Once you’ve done that (and it may take hours), you’re done for the day.
  2. The next day, do the same thing, but this time you write the end of the book.  Again, one paragraph, 3-5 sentences, explaining how the book finishes.  Finished with that?  You’re done for the day.
  3. The next day, you’ll follow this same pattern only this time you’ll focus on the key point in the middle of the book.  This might be where things are the worst for the MC, or it might be the MC’s turning point, or it might be a big set-piece battle.  Whatever the case, distill it into one paragraph, 3-5 sentences.  Then you’re done for the day.
  4. The next two days are for finding one or two key points between the opening and the middle, and between the middle and the end.  These key moments are then given the one paragraph, 3-5 sentences treatment.
  5. Look at that!  You’ve now written a complete synopsis of your novel.  You’re not done, yet.  But you are for today.  Like a novel or a short story, you need to take a breather and get a little space between you and what you’ve written.
  6. Next day (or two) — Take a look at what you wrote.  If you’re synopsis is more than five pages, you need to go back and start cutting it down until its five or less.  Many agents and editors will accept up to 10 pages for a synopsis, and if you’re writing a 120k epic fantasy you might need that many pages, but for most writers, less than five pages is a good guideline.  You also need to make sure the flow is smooth from one paragraph to the next.  Finally, you want to punch up the sentences you have to make them exciting.  Use the techniques we’ve described in past posts to get the most from each word and phrase.  You have limited space here, so make the most of it.

This may seem too simple to work, but it does.  By taking it one day for one paragraph, you’ll stop yourself from trying to cram in every little detail.  And by doing the paragraphs out of order, you’ll stay focused on the main story and not add in scenes that don’t help the synopsis.

Finally, some general guidelines that are standard in the business:  Use a standard font like Times New Roman or Courier.  Double-space the synopsis (this one gets argued back and forth.  If you choose to go single-space, then lessen the total pages of the synopsis).  The first time you mention a character capitalize the entire NAME.  Afterwards, always refer to Name in the same way.  In other words, avoid Nickname for Name.  Include the entire story.  Agents and editors want to know exactly what the outcome is.  This is not the place for teasers.  This is where you are displaying a short version of the entire product.  Do not include sub-plots, minor characters, extensive inner dialogues, etc.  The synopsis should just highlight the main plot points of the novel.

While this won’t work for all, and the guidelines are argued by everyone, the general idea holds true.  I’m sure my fellow MW contributors will have their own take on this, but this is what has worked for me.  Most importantly, I found this method to be the least stressful way to deal with the whole, horrid mess.


17 comments to Publishing — The Synopsis

  • Good stuff, Stuart. Let me second what you say at the end about sticking to the big stuff and add one thing to see what you think. If the feel of the book is a crucial part of the story–the narrative voice, say–you might try to make that come across in the tone of the writing. You don’t want a synopsis to read simply like an enumeration of plot points, right? You want your reader to get a sense of the flavor of the book itself. I think. Thoughts?

  • My first attempt at writing a synopsis wasn’t so neat or organized. I tried to cram every available plot point I could into the desired word count. Wow, was that horrendous. It was the driest, most dense material I’ve ever written and nearly brought tears to my own eyes (not joyous ones either).

    I found some help online and proceeded to attempt again, still failing to capture the essence of the story.

    Thanks for posting these guidelines. I’m going to try this method next time.

  • AJ — This is another one of those arguable points. I tend to agree with those who say don’t try to write in style but rather just write. Your style should come through naturally. If the book is highly stylized (and highly different from your usual writing) you might want to use a little bit of it, but one thing I try hard to keep in mind — somebody very busy and very tired has to read this, make it through to the end, be able to envision the story, and want to buy it. Make it as easy for him or her as possible. So, a “sense of the flavor of the book” — yes, sure. The entire synopsis, however, might be too much depending on how stylized we are talking.

  • NGD — Like writing query letters, writing a synopsis is an art form all its own. Once you find an approach that works for you, it does become more manageable. I won’t say it ever gets easier — at least, it hasn’t for me — but it does get to be something you can tackle with a little bit of confidence. Good luck with this method. Hope it works well for you.

  • Stuart, this is fabulous. You make it so simple.
    I will be refering people to this one often. My own foray into synopsis-land was so organic as to be painful. I wish I’d had this back when I was doing my first one.

    After many years of working at it, I agree with AJ. *If* I can get the voice of the project into the synopsis, I do, and I have found that voice is a good selling point. But that is secondary to getting the main plot down, concise and powerful. Lovely methodology!

  • Stuart, this is awesome. I have been agonizing over my synopsis ever since World Fantasy, and now I feel like I can tackle it, thank you!

  • Faith — I wish I had it when I first started, too. It’s taken me a lot of trial and error and swiping ideas from other writers to get to this point.

    Alistair — Glad to help.

  • Deb S

    Great advice, Stuart! It’s going into my Synopsis How To file. The only thing I might add is “don’t forget the stakes and motivation.” I’m not talking about backstory, just a word or two here or there to help the reader understand the plot progression and keep the synopsis from reading like a dry and/or illogical string of events.

  • I hate writing synopses. I hate it. Just hate it. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. I really, really, really hate it. And I have one to write.

    So, thanks for this, Stuart. I’ve never seen the process reduced to its component parts in this way, and, of course, it makes all kinds of sense. This will make a painful task (one that I hate, by the way — did I mention that?) a good deal easier.

  • Deb S — You’re right. Motivations and stakes are important to convey. In fact, that aspect of things (coupled with AJ and Faith’s comments about voice) should really be step 7. Going back through the raw material and making sure those elements are clear.

    David — I feel your pain.

  • This is one reason I plan on getting a good outline with my next novel done first. That way, when I need a synopsis, I can look at the outline and take points I, III, IV, and V; and flesh them out with the subpoints already listed for each.

    I hope that if the outline is done right, it should translate directly to a summary or synopsis.

  • Mark — The outline-to-synopsis method can work great provided you have a detailed outline. My own outlines tend to look like a checklist mixed with rambling notes. And I have to cross out things as they get done. So in the end, I have pages of mess which doesn’t help for a synopsis. But if you can do a clean outline, the synopsis part should be a lot easier for you. Good luck!

  • Tom G

    Writing, or trying to write, a synopsis kills me. Kills. Me. DEAD. I even write from an outline, usually between 5 and 10 pages, sometime as long as 20 pages. Doesn’t help me, since I don’t update the outline as I write, so it is frequently wrong by the time I complete the novel.

    I’ve tried many different methods, and failed in them all. I’ll try yours. This method actually seems rather logical and I have high hopes it’ll work for me. Thanks.

  • Tom — Make no mistake. It’s still painful. But this method seems to reduce the pain to a throbbing headache instead of an all-out migraine. 🙂 To you and all those who commented today, please let us know how it works out for you. I’m always trying to refine this process. Maybe before I’m 90 yrs old, I’ll finally have it all worked out.

  • Stuart, this was great. You really have taken something Big and Scary, and broken this into much less painful bits. (You guys are really good at that, you know?)

    I have to write one soon. Now I’m not dreading it so much. Thanks!

  • Stuart> Just one thing to say: THANK YOU. I’m to the point where synopsis writing is moving from a distance nightmare to a very close nightmare. This makes sense and makes it manageable!

  • Moira — And isn’t the world better with a little less dread in it? 🙂

    Pea — Just one way to answer: YOU’RE WELCOME.