Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The synopsis exists in a weird shift-state for authors, at once a treasured daydream and a waking nightmare. It’s fun to be in the shower, at the gym, on the train, thinking about your synopsis – breaking your story down, thinking how to sum it up, maybe even jotting down effective phrases – but when play turns to work, when you actually try to write the thing, it becomes a dreaded, near-impossible task.
It’s a shame, because as an author you’re likely to need a synopsis. These short summations of a larger story are essential when pitching to agents or publishers, but even if you choose to self-publish, you’ll find that they keep cropping up. A potential reader might ask for a summary, a journalist might want enough of an idea to start planning their piece, an advertiser or marketer might need the gist to plan a great campaign, or a blurb writer might need the key details to ply their craft well.
Even if the synopsis itself wasn’t so useful, you should be able to write one just to avoid the lack of a decent summary. When a potential reader discovers you’re unable to summarize the story – or, worse, when you cobble together a synopsis that makes your story sound awful – they lose faith in you as a writer. If you can’t tell a story in the short form, why would they invest their time in the longer version?
So, like many elements of writing, the synopsis is left as something that authors simply have to get good at. Like Carnegie Hall, the only way to get to this point is practice, but you’ll also have to make good decisions that appreciate what a synopsis is really doing for your story. That’s where I come in (hi!), and in this article I’ll be laying out everything you need to really nail your synopsis. Let’s start with the key idea behind the synopsis.
The synopsis is not the story
When a synopsis goes wrong, it’s almost always because the author is being too faithful to the story. ‘How can a summary of something be too faithful to the original?’ cries a doubtful reader I just made up. Well, the truth is that the synopsis isn’t a summary of the story; it’s a summary of the reading experience.A synopsis summarizes the reading experience, not just the plotClick To Tweet
I’ve said before that it can be useful (when marketing, at least) for authors to understand and approach their stories as ‘product’ rather than ‘art’. ‘Art’ doesn’t need a reason to exist, and that’s a reasonable viewpoint when you’re creating it, but when you’re trying to sell it (and that’s what your synopsis is for, at least to some degree), you need to understand what you’re offering to the buyer. In the case of a written work, this is almost always an emotional experience – non-fiction may also be intended to deliver information, but if that’s the case then a) your synopsis should be pretty easy and b) you’re likely also providing an emotional experience, or else you’ve written a textbook.
The words on the page are there to cause an emotional reaction – grief, lust, amusement, excitement, etc. – or a bunch of emotional reactions one after the other. This is the reading experience, and although it might not feel like something you’ve directly created, it’s an essential part of the finished book and an essential consideration in your synopsis.
The synopsis, then, isn’t just ‘what happens in the story’, but rather ‘what happens to the reader’. It has to communicate what it’s like to read the book rather than just what happens. In a fairer world, this would mean you could just write ‘the reader is happy here’ in the margin, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Instead, you have to subtly communicate the emotional experience the reader can expect in the longer work – you have to outline tone and mood, because they’re essential parts of how the story works. That said…
The synopsis is not the blurb
While the synopsis has to capture the reader experience, it’s also a practical document. It is, first and foremost, a way to give interested parties a potted understanding of the story; it’s just that ‘the story’ has more facets than ‘the plot’. A blurb, on the other hand, in a straight-up sales tool – it’s there to entice the reader to want to know more. It might explain or outline, but only because those are effective routes to its real goal: making you want to know what happens next.
A synopsis is not, and should not be, a ‘long blurb’, because that would be inherently self-defeating. Making the reader want to know what happens next is pointless if you’re going to tell them what happens next within the same document.
Instead, it’s important to use emotive terminology: daring, tragic, awful, etc. While consciously avoiding cheesy phrasing, these words will help you present the story’s emotional impact, communicating vital information to the reader. Don’t forget to be enthusiastic, either. You shouldn’t come off like you’re amazed at your own work, but if a section is exciting then say so. The reader is trying to understand the emotional journey of the story – that kind of information is really useful and, consequently, generally welcome.
Identify what’s ‘need to know’
A synopsis should be a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, summary of a story. The number one issue for most synopses is that they share too much, getting bogged down in the B-story and secondary character paths. These elements may be important – they may even be necessary to mention – but in order to include them in a sensible, approachable way, you first have to understand what the reader needs to know.
If you used the Snowflake method to write your story, you should already have a good idea of the main plot points and key events. If so, go ahead and write them down. If not, it’s time to consider your elevator pitch – if you only had a short elevator ride to sell someone on the story, what would you cut out? What about if you only had two sentences? Generally, after asking this question, you’ll be left with the main character, their goal, the obstacles they encounter, and perhaps some brief context to clarify the world they inhabit. This is the core of your story, and the most important thing to communicate. As you add information back in, be conscious not to muddle or obscure this key information. Don’t allow anything else to take precedence, even though you’re going to want to…Structure your synopsis around key info. An ‘elevator pitch’ is a good place to start.Click To Tweet
The big problem that most synopses have it that all the information is packed into the first paragraph. This isn’t surprising, as you’ve got to introduce characters, clarify setting, establish stakes, and even do a bit of world building. In the story itself, you can tease out this information, but when it comes to the synopsis, it can often end up as an info dump that becomes a slog for your reader.
Again, it’s important to know what you have to tell the reader at any given time, and the way to know that is to consult your ‘need to know’ information. Does the reader need to understand the world to be introduced to the character or understand (at least on a base level) their goals? Probably not, so save that information for a little later, when the reader is invested in the protagonist.
In fact, you can even warp the story to suit the synopsis. Remember, you don’t have to be overly faithful to the story itself – you’re summarizing it, not telling it outright. A synopsis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, might start with his parent’s murder – it’s information the reader of the story doesn’t get until later, but it sets out a lot of key context from the get-go. If you’ve got a twist in your story, it’s likely that you have some information like this. Consider including it early on and giving the synopsis reader the necessary insight to understand what follows. In fact, try to do this wherever possible. Again, the synopsis is not the blurb, so there’s no reward for hiding a twist, or making it as shocking as possible. Opt for clarity instead.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
The reader of your book wants to feel particular emotions. The reader of your synopsis wants to understand the emotional journey of that reader (as well as the book’s story). Including ‘twist’ information early helps to do this, but so does simplifying the plot.
This might mean truncating events – does someone make an early mistake that snowballs into later consequences? In the story, you’d have the initial mistake, other events would happen, and then the consequences would follow. In the synopsis, however, it may be better to attach the initial act to its consequences. You’re not trying to surprise the reader, after all.
If a character hates cats, it may make sense to say so when they’re introduced, but it may make more sense to save this information for when it’s relevant – when they first encounter a cat, for example. That way, the reader isn’t being asked to save information; the understanding they need is right there in front of them.Aim for clarity over fidelity in your synopsis. If it helps to warp or cut down your story, do.Click To Tweet
It’s also worth considering whether or not the reader needs to know something – if your protagonist has a terrible fear of something, does the synopsis reader need to know where it came from? Perhaps, if it’s odd, but if it’s something like rats or spiders, it may be that you can tell a cleaner, clearer story by establishing the phobia without context. Likewise, it may be that it’s enough to say that one character is another’s childhood crush without describing the scene in which this is established. This is something to apply to your plot, but also your characters…
Limit your characters
Or, rather, be prepared to limit your characters – both how many you talk about and how much you say about each. Again, your synopsis needs to be designed around core information – there is room for color, just not where it distracts, complicates, or bores. You may even want to downplay secondary characters if it means focusing on a protagonist. Ensemble stories are great, and you should be clear about the tale you’re telling, but if there’s a central goal around which the story is based, it can often make sense to scale back B-plots, flashbacks, and side adventures.
This is especially true with a first draft. You may want to give secondary or tertiary characters some love, but make sure you’ve given the protagonist their dues first. Once they’re established, you’ll find it’s easier to reintroduce other characters as they relate to the protagonist. Not only does this ensure the focus stays on the key information, but it will help the flow of your synopsis. Having secondary details presented in relation to key events makes lapsing into digressions and over-explanation much more difficult.
Fight your ego
This is the point we’ve been dancing around so far, and my best advice for authors on… well… pretty much everything. You know and love your story, which means you’re an appalling judge of what’s important. You want your synopsis reader to really experience the story, and that’s great, but that’s not what this document’s for. Yes, you’re selling, and yes you want to communicate the emotional journey, but give yourself an inch and you’ll take a mile.
Keep an eagle eye out for beloved secondary characters getting too much time in the spotlight, and the slippery slope of justification. You’ll say your protagonist is a space cop – vital info – but then let yourself describe the organization she works for (getting off track), the area they police (off track), where they’re based (way off track), and other agents in their employ (what were we talking about, again?) You’ll keep getting that itch, the feeling that the reader won’t really understand without a bit more context. You’re right, they won’t, but they don’t need to.
Focusing on key ideas helps, because when that set path exists, you’ll become aware of when you’re veering off it. It’s common for a synopsis to be ruined by this kind of ‘I’ll just explain this bit’ thinking. It’s a perfect storm – the reader has too much information and too little context, they don’t understand where they’re going, the digression is either going to end abruptly or take a tortuous path back to the key narrative, and they’re going to feel irritated or nonplussed when it turns out all that detail wasn’t taking them anywhere.
To stop this from happening, you’re going to have to be strict with yourself and redraft repeatedly, often after leaving some time to distance yourself from the headspace in which you were writing. You’ll also have to try and think like someone who doesn’t know your story – is there something basic that you didn’t think to cover? Something complicated you haven’t taken the time to unpack?
Fear not, though, because there’s only so much you can be expected to do yourself. The synopsis is a document for other people, so when you’ve done all you can, it’s time to go and find some…
Road test your synopsis
I’ve written before about how useful beta readers can be, but here they’re vital (okay, they’re vital elsewhere, but here they’re extra vital). Find someone, anyone, who hasn’t read your story and see what they think of your synopsis. Pay careful attention to the questions they ask: this is the information they don’t have. In some cases, that’s a good thing – the summary is intriguing – but in others, it’ll show where they haven’t followed your writing.
Be sure to ask them, directly, what you can cut. You can even phrase it as if you have to make a word count, as if you have to cut something. That way, they’re doing you a favor, and they can be more open about where you’ve veered off-topic.Your synopsis is for people who haven’t read your book. To perfect it, you’ll need to find some.Click To Tweet
Don’t let yourself dismiss this feedback. They may get the wrong idea, or ask after something inconsequential, but if they’re missing the point it’s because the document in front of them hasn’t made it clear. Be sure, also, to separate what they want from how they want it. This is a universal truth of feedback – the reader knows what’s wrong but is unlikely to know how to fix it. The latter part is your job, but you’ll need to really listen to do it. One reader might suggest writing a paragraph to flesh out a secondary character. What they’re saying is that the character caught their attention and they want to know more, but to you, that could mean different things. It could mean you need to talk more about them, but it could also mean you’re focusing on them too much, that you’ve gone a bit too far and the reader is picking up on the currently unjustified level of detail.
Parsing feedback is a hard skill to learn, but a synopsis is a piece of writing where you need to be on the reader’s wavelength even more than you need to bring them onto yours. Take notes, cross-reference what you’re told, and the patterns will appear.
Figure it out as you go
I mentioned earlier that most authors spend time daydreaming about their synopsis. It’s a fun thing to do, but it can also be limiting, wasting all your drafting energy on fantasy while the page stays blank. The only way to get a great synopsis is to write several bad ones. You can even experiment as you go – make the protagonist the central thread of one version and focus on their goals for the next. See what works, see what sticks, and you’ll have a synopsis you can be proud of in no time.
For more on writing the surrounding materials for a story, check out Trade Secrets: Your Confidential Guide To The Perfect Book Blurb. Or, if you’re preparing to start contacting agents, try What Literary Agents Do (And Don’t Do) For Authors.
Are you struggling to write your synopsis, or do you have some tips for other authors? Let me know in the comments.