It’s that element of writing that makes us recoil in horror. The Synopsis.
The idea of a hundred-thousand-word novel or 120-page screenplay doesn’t faze us but ask us to write a one- or two-page summary and we draw a terrifying blank.
It is this writer’s opinion (and I learned this the hard way) that the first mistake we make is thinking about the synopsis far too late in the book’s life. Not that we can be blamed – we’re writers, we have a great idea for a novel and we want to write it. But my advice would be Stop! And write a synopsis before you start Chapter 1.
The reason for this is simple – it will be infinitely easier to write a synopsis from a concept than to whittle down four hundred pages into two. Keep in mind as well that this synopsis won’t be etched in stone, it can be tweaked or even completely rewritten later if need be.
The correct timing of writing the synopsis is only a small part of getting it right, of course. Something equally important is knowing who it is you’re writing it for. A few weeks ago, I talked about writing the blurb, which is designed to get that person standing in the book shop perusing to read your book. The synopsis, although similar, is for a completely different audience – the publisher or literary agent.
There is, it has to be said, no shortage of online resources to help us write that compelling and novel-selling synopsis. But before I guide you through a few of them, here are a few fundamental rules-of-thumb (some of the basics I’ve learned over the years) that you can follow when writing a synopsis.
- It’s a description of the story, beginning, middle and end (yep, it DOES reveal the end), introducing main characters, main plot and subplots.
- It will instil the same thrills, laughs, romance, or terror as your book
- It will be as compelling and emotive as possible.
- It will mention word-count, genre and maybe some similar books currently on the market.
Those of you on the Twitter-sphere will know the name Jane Friedman. An editor since the late 90s, Jane is former publisher of Writers’ Digest and is generally regarded as an expert on the ever-evolving world of publishing. On her website, she offers an invaluable guide to synopses, including notes on why they’re so important to agents and publishers, the general principles and possible pitfalls of writing a synopsis and a list of the 4 elements that every synopsis must have.
Writer Holly Robinson tells us how writing the synopsis for her unwritten (and barely-conceptualised) second novel was significantly more straightforward than the one for first first book, the one she was actually trying to sell. This was after she was asked that ever-rare question by a publisher ‘Do you have anything else?’ and she was forced to pull a new book out of the air.
She also tells us that she got some great advice from friends about synopsis-writing, including ‘Write it like you telling it to me over dinner.’ And she also found, to her surprise that writing the manuscript for the second book much less difficult – because she had a synopsis already written.
If you have, in fact, written your novel and are now faced with the daunting whittling-down job, fear not. New York Times Best-Selling author Marissa Meyer offers us her six steps for writing the synopsis based on a finished manuscript, steps she used to sell her debut novel Cinder and the upcoming Scarlet. One of her tips is to skim the manuscript and boil each chapter down to one or two lines.
On their ever-useful and informative Submission Tips Page, the Curtis Brown Literary Agency, or more specifically lit agent Karolina Sutton, tells us what they’re looking for in a synopsis. She also reiterated in her own unique style the differences between a blurb and a synopsis. It’s worth keeping in mind that, although these guidelines are penned by a Curtis Brown agent, the same will pretty much apply irrespective of where you’re submitting to. That said, it’s always advisable to look at the submission guidelines for each agency or publishing house (it can nearly always be found on their website) to find out if they are looking for something specific.
And lastly, for all the budding screenwriters, it is definitely worth checking out the ‘How to Write a Synopsis for Screenwriters’ page on the Suite101 website. It gives some great details for writing a screenplay synopsis, often requested by producers before a script will be accepted. The guide points out that the attraction of a synopsis is that it lies somewhere between a one-sentence tagline and the much more detailed treatment. It also suggests that, unlike a synopsis for a novel, a film synopsis should only be around 250 words in length.
“Normally I start with a plot, and write a synopsis, and the ideas come from the construction.” – Jo Nesbo.
She Who Knows.
Editor and all-round-publishing-expert Jane Friedman tells us how to create that synopsis that sells.
“The synopsis conveys the narrative arc of your novel; it shows what happens and who changes, from beginning to end.”
Well Hello, Ms. Robinson.
Author Holly Robinson tells us about how having the synopsis done first, helped her write the manuscript.
“Then I realized what was different. Duh, I had a synopsis. I knew where to start the book and who the characters were.”
But It’s Okay, You Can Write It After.
Marissa Meyer tells us how to effectively write the synopsis of your already written novel.
“Try to boil every chapter down to just one or two sentences. What is the point of this chapter? What is the most important thing that happens?”
Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (So To Speak).
Literary Agent Karolina Sutton tells her what her agency Curtis Brown is looking for in a synopsis.
“We want a glimpse into your story and an idea of the plot and characters, not a five-page blow-by-blow account.”
Don’t Send Me A Script, Send Me A Synopsis.
Suite101’s advice on why it’s vital to have a synopsis of your movie.
“Many filmmakers or agents insist upon a synopsis of the screenplay.”