Why Write a Synopsis?

Attention all novelists! I get it. I understand how difficult it is to write a synopsis. And yet, every fiction book proposal must have a synopsis. Everyone who teaches on the book proposal says you need one. But why? Those two to three single-spaced pages of agony will never be seen by anyone else but editors and agents, so why? Why, oh why, must a novelist create a synopsis?

The Purpose

The synopsis is a quick overview of your whole story. It’s more than a 100 word back-cover-copy blurb. And it is less than the entire manuscript. Since you are sending the first three chapters we must have more than that to properly evaluate the story.

Consider this scenario: I’ve read the first three chapters and you’ve got me hooked. But there isn’t a synopsis. I’m left wondering if the story can be resolved, if you have plot holes, or poor story structure, or no character arc. I know nothing beyond those first pages. Sure, I could request the full manuscript, but that is a major time commitment for something which lacks an overview.

You would be amazed how often we receive three chapters from someone and nothing else. That author has given me a reason to look no further. The writing may be brilliant in the sample chapters, but the author has not completed the picture.

It would be like applying for a job but leaving your work history blank on the application. It is incomplete.

Or like asking someone to buy a car but only showing them the front grill and the passenger side door.

We simply need to know “the rest of the story.”

Relax

Realize that the synopsis is going to be THE worst story writing you have ever done. It will have little style or craft to it. Don’t worry. We know that. We are not looking for the perfect synopsis. We expect a stark, even sterile, skeleton of your work of art.

I’m not saying it is easy. But I am saying it isn’t a measure of your writing style.

At the same time, put some effort into making it have some energy and vitality. Sometimes a simple word choice can bring a flash of brilliance. In other words, don’t skimp or get lazy. As mentioned earlier, don’t give the editor or agent a reason to say “no thanks.”

Need Help?

Below are some articles from our blog that should help you work on the craft of your synopsis:

From Tamela Hancock Murray:
Keys to a Great Synopsis

The Synopsis Tells the Tale

From Karen Ball:
Synopsis Made Easy – I Promise

Creating a Strong Hook

 

16 Responses to Why Write a Synopsis?

  1. Judith Robl March 13, 2017 at 5:22 am #

    If you write the synopsis first, you will have a framework on which to write your story. Yes, the first synopsis may have to be changed after you finish the novel, but having the synopsis gives you something of a road map.

    I’m a huge fan of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method. Have I mastered it? No. But I’ve stolen from to good effect. Just as I have used portions of the advice of others, too many to name.

    Wasn’t it Edgar Allen Poe who wrote backwards – beginning with the last scene and working his way forward?

    Writing the synopsis first gives you the destination. You can always take side roads on this journey.

    Thank you for the practical reasons. They help us understand why you need a synopsis as an agent or editor. Very helpful!

  2. Joey Rudder March 13, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    I can’t thank you enough for this post. Seriously. And what perfect timing. I’m at the point where I need to write my synopsis and planned to do so today. I’ve been praying for help, and I’ve been reading your blogs and learning so much…and even last night read those previous posts you mention here.

    But what helped me to read just now: “Relax. Realize that the synopsis is going to be THE worst story writing you have ever done. It will have little style or craft to it. Don’t worry. We know that. We are not looking for the perfect synopsis. We expect a stark, even sterile, skeleton of your work of art.”

    I can breathe a little easier. Let the synopsis begin…
    Thank you, Steve.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 13, 2017 at 6:13 am #

    I rather enjoy the challenge of making a synopsis fun and readable; sort of the Readers’ Digest Condensed Book carried to an extreme.

  4. Jon Guenther March 13, 2017 at 6:26 am #

    Just going to comment along the same lines as Andrew Budek-Schmeisser. If you make a synopsis FUN to read, you not only have another way to show off your writing but you can potentially use it as one of the tools to help your agent “make the sale.”

    If you are at all a writer who plans ahead with character sketches, outlines, etc. there are variety of platforms available that can take your outline and actually generate a basic synopsis from that. Snowflake Pro by Randy Ingermanson was already mentioned. There’s also Scrivener, and my personal online favorite: Hiveword — https://hiveword.com — which is free!

  5. Katie Powner March 13, 2017 at 6:44 am #

    I have a love-hate relationship with synopses, but at the end of the day I have no doubt about their usefulness and necessity. If a writer can’t explain their story to others in one to three pages, maybe they don’t understand it themselves.

  6. Martha Rogers March 13, 2017 at 7:53 am #

    I am a SOTP writer, but I know how it begins and where it ends, so I see the synopsis as my way of working through the gist of the story. Yes, my story often does change as I write it and my characters speak to me, but if the story is contracted, I let my editor know of any major changes in the plot or the ending.

    Sometimes I’ve written the whole manuscript then gone back and written the synopsis before submitting. It all depends on how much of the story I already have in mind.

    I do what Andrew and Jon do and make the synopsis fun. A synopsis is a useful tool whether you are a “Plan Ahead” writer or a Seat of the Pants writer like I am.

  7. Jeanne Takenaka March 13, 2017 at 8:21 am #

    I always write a synopsis before beginning my story. This helps me stay on track. And, I’ve found in the writing process, that sometimes what I thought would work in the synopsis doesn’t quite fit how the story is unfolding. Having my synopsis written helps me write my first drafts more quickly because I have a good feel for where the story begins, what happens in the middle and how it will end.

    Then, when the story’s written I revise the synopsis accordingly. I don’t dread writing them. But I do need to work on making them a bit more interesting to read. 🙂

  8. Carol Ashby March 13, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    I’ve found two more uses for a one-page synopsis of a novel even though I’m not submitting proposals now.

    First, I send it to my cover designer so she knows the entire story. I want to make it easy for her to think about what would be a good image that would appeal to a person while reading the novel. I find myself wondering what inspired a particular cover image, and it’s fun when I hit a scene that I think was the main inspiration.

    Second, I send it to my content editor so she knows where the story is headed from the very first page.

    It can be a challenge to fold 110K words with two interwoven plotlines into a single page, but I think it’s worth the effort.

  9. Margo Carmichael March 13, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    HI, Steve, just curious: Which do you read first, the synopsis or the chapters?

    Thanks,

    • Steve Laube March 13, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      Margo,

      You want me to reveal my deepest darkest secrets?

      Here is how I work….

      The proposals go to a reviewer who has worked with me from the beginning. The reviewer pretty much skips the proposal and starts with word one, chapter one. The job is to tell me if this author is a good writer. Comments are written and the proposal is passed to me.

      I take a look at the proposal first. I look at it like a marketing person or a consumer in a bookstore. If I like what I see then I look deeper. If the reviewer says this is a great writer I pay even closer attention.
      Then I begin reading the sample chapters. If I like those, then I read the synopsis to see, the rest of the story, especially if the proposal and sample chapters have left questions unanswered.

      If all is well, then the full manuscript is requested and the process starts again, this time taking a little longer because there is much more to read.

      This description is a simplification and generalization to illustrate the process. I sometimes works quite differently, but what is described is the normal way we do things in my office.

      Tamela, Karen, and Dan work differently than I do, as do all agents and editors. Each has a method they’ve created that works for them.

  10. Margo Carmichael March 13, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    (In sixth grade, my teacher, dear Mrs. Martha Stokes, made us write three-sentence synopses of the long short stories in our reader. I came out writing sentences like William Faulkner’s, but I could write a three-sentence synopsis. Now, it’s harder to expand them.)

  11. Becky March 13, 2017 at 12:47 pm #

    This is the most help I’ve found for writing a synopsis. I might just write one now. God bless you.

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee March 13, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

    It sounds like Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story. Thanks for the blogs- I copied and pasted them for future review.

  13. Laura March 14, 2017 at 8:51 am #

    Thank you so much for the blog links!

  14. Effie-Alean Gross March 14, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    Excellent article. This helps relieve some stress in knowing that the synopsis is not an example of the author’s fine fiction techniques. Thank you!

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