Tuesday, 3 August 2010


I have just seen a terrible synopsis. (Not from a P2P client - I would never use a client's material in this way, even anonymously.) No, someone passed it to me, after receiving it from a friend who was wanting advice. Thing is, he didn't actually want advice about the synopsis, because he believed it was brilliant and couldn't understand why agents were rejecting him. But, 'twas awful.

Why? Mainly, it rambled, containing the most ridiculous level of detail - for example, specifying the meal at which a piece of action took place, and the day of the week, and what a character was wearing during the conversation. (Trust me: it wasn't necessary.) It was an outline, not a synopsis, and I will explain the difference below.

[Also, I recently had a question from a blog-reader about how to write the synopsis for a non-linear plot. I'm going to cover that separately on Thursday.]

Anyway, here are my basic thoughts on synopses. (By the way, I have already blogged here and here.)

I was going to start by saying that I don't see the problem with the little darlings. Then I read that first post and realised that I'd either be lying or I've got a very short memory. I guess what's happened between then and now is that I've realised the truth about synopses and got to grips with them myself.

The truth? That their problems are greatly exaggerated and that writers worry far too much about them. OK, so I don't love writing them; I find them boring and I don't like how they remove the style and voice that are such an important part of what I'm trying to do in the book. But it seems to me that they are the easiest part of the package you send to agents and publishers.

The actual rules are few and simple:
  • Make it short - as short as you can while giving the bones of the story. Leave out all details, including details about minor characters and minor plot strands. Even leave out mention of minor characters if they aren't necessary for the main story-line.
  • Use the present tense.
  • Use the third person, even if your story is written in the first person.
  • Convey a sense of the style and feeling of the story - for example, if it's humorous, this needs to be obvious, not by saying, "This is a hilarious story", but through the action conveyed. If historical, we need to know period. Setting should also be included. The feeling of this story must come over in the synopsis.
  • Do say what happens in the end, simply to show you've got this wrapped up.
A synopsis is not a blurb or pitch. A blurb (in UK-speak) is the nifty, enticing paragraph which goes on the back cover and in eleventy-million other places, such as Amazon and every blog or website that mentions your book. A pitch is almost the same, the only difference being that you'd use it to hook the publisher or agent in the first place. In US-speak, a blurb is that puff / quote that you might hope a well-known writer will give you to endorse your book. Whatever it is, a blurb or pitch is short and enticing, whereas a synopsis is longer and functional.

A synopsis is also not an outline. An outline is a episode-by-episode account of the action in your book, in the order in which it happens. You would only need to do an outline either a) for your own use, so that you can keep track of the action, or b) if your editor asks for one.

In length and detail, a synopsis is in between these things. And you can do it in any way that best serves the purpose of any synopsis: to show that your story works, from beginning to end; and to show clearly what sort of story this is, what it is like.

So, why the problems? I am sympathetic because I agree that synopses are uncomfortable things that strip your story bare and make you feel exposed. But your story will not be rejected on the basis of your synopsis - it will be rejected on the basis of the idea / hook / pitch in the covering letter (because that's what has to sell the book to publisher, bookseller and reader) and / or on the actual writing.

Let me give you a few more tips:
  • Indicate whose point(s) of view the story is told through; if present tense, say so.
  • It may be single-spaced, even though the actual writing sample and your MS must be double-spaced.
  • If you have several POVs or time-scales or settings, or a particular structure, indicate this, in whatever way seems most sensible and clear. (More on that on Thursday.)
  • Unanswered / rhetorical questions are not recommended - remember that the purpose of your synopsis is to indicate that and how your story works, not to entice a future reader.
Here are two tips from blog-readers, taken from when I blogged about this before.
Emma Darwin: "The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively."

And Gemma Noon: "Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't." 

And the main advice: if you can leave it out, leave it out. The synopsis is absolutely the best place to kill darlings. When you edit your work, use a red pen; when you edit your synopsis, use a scythe.

See you on Thursday for a little bit more, to reassure you about non-linear stories.

Meanwhile: calm down! It's only a synopsis!


Dan Holloway said...

I think the reason I struggled is that I just wasn't sure how much character info was required on my protag and other main players. The first time I wrote a synopsis was for a thriller (which was a nasty experience to start with - how do you demonstrate you can plot properly, leave subtle clues and wrap up in a non deus ex machina without giving all the detail that demonstrates the ending is organic to the whole?), and a lot of the action emerged from the characters' er, characteristics and background - so my struggle was when to introduce character info, and how much.

In the end I followed Stella Whitelaw's guidelines (she suggests two paragraphs, in which we are first introduced to the main charcaters, and then given crucial information about their backgrounds ad motivations), with a strong helping of Carol Blake's advice on character bios. I ended up getting a request for the full ms for what I now realise was a piece of utter claptrap, so they must have got something right - because it sure as heck was the synopsis not the ms that sold it.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Fantastic advice as always, Nicola.

I've recently blogged about synopses as well. My writer friends hate writing them.

I think the reason they're hard is that as writers, we lose focus. Having written the whole book, we try and put the whole book into the synopsis.

But it's about focus. In once sentence, what's the book about? Who is the main character? What are the main turning points? How does it end?

I am always too close to my work to see the wood for the trees, but I think I'm getting there . . .

Sarah Duncan said...

One way to get the focus is to set aside the ms for a while (ie more than 5 minutes) then, without looking at it, write out the plot starting every sentence with And then...

This makes you concentrate on the important stuff that actually happens. When you've finished, you can come back and take out all the And thens... and re-write it into a selling bit of prose.

I've blogged lots about them because they seem to cause so many problems. Hate doing them myself, but you've got to ask yourself what you'd rather do - a bit of concentrated work on a synopsis and sell a book or not bother, and not sell.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - i think that goes to show that by applying good judgement and not trying to fit a synopsis to a particular format, you found the format that worked for you. You are a living example of my message about synopses! (Especially since both Carole and Stella's advice don't exactly fit the "rules" I've seen offered elsewhere. I know Carole's book and it's excellent.

Ebony - "Having written the whole book, we try and put the whole book into the synopsis." Spot on!

Sarah - my worry there is that lots of writers wouldn't recognise how to take out enough detail...

Nicole MacDonald said...

I found it challenging to write mine but I'm pretty pleased with it now :) and I got a couple of requests for partials so it must be okay *grin*

catdownunder said...

A purr-racy? I am not trying to be altogether a silly cat for once. It seems to me that a synopsis has to go straight down the track to the end, without taking any detours. You have to be able to say, "This book is a first class athlete. See how well it moves. Here it is from start to finish."

Sarah Duncan said...

That's why you have to do it from memory, using And then... it automatically filters out the detail.

Hearth-mother said...

Good advice. Have you also blogged about the covering letter? I need some advice for that too.

Spider Griffin said...

> "When you edit your work, use a red pen; when you edit your synopsis, use a scythe."

Another classic!

Synopses: I 'ate 'em! But I must admit, the last time I took a scythe to a synopsis, I actually found it quite enjoyable, almost like solving a logic puzzle, trying to retain the flavour of the novel in as few words as possible. I still "failed" though: I was pleased enough to have cut 6 double line-spaced pages down to three, then read that the agent required one page. Practice makes perfect, as they say! (Well, not perfect, but you know what I mean!)


Keren David said...

Can't do them..everything always seems relevant. I can do blurbs though. When asked for a synopsis or an outline I just write a long blurb.

Jane Holland said...

Having now had to look through a number of synopses for Embrace Books, I can tell you, I personally like the word 'short' in all this advice.

You can tell me about the funny scene with the deaf waitor later. When I'm first looking at a submission, I want to know the bare bones. X meets Y, X falls down a mine-shaft, Y rescues her etc. I don't need to know much else at that stage.

I need to know if there's a glaring technical problem with the plot (Y beats X regularly, for instance, or moves to Alaska where the relationship continues by email only). But what kind of shoes X likes to wear or the fact that her sister gets off with the deaf waitor and that's why X is late for her 5th date with Y is utterly unimportant. At this stage.


sheilamcperry said...

Thanks for this post, Nicola - it's very helpful. I've had a lot of trouble working out how long a synopsis should be, what to include etc. I'm glad the consensus is for 'short' because that suits me very well! I think where I've gone wrong up to now is that I panic because my synopsis seems too short, and I start to add unnecessary detail to it.

Elizabeth West said...

I really struggled with these. After Googling and reading a zillion bits of advice on writing a synopsis, I just buckled down and experimented. Following some tips and discarding others, I ended up with a 1-page, a 2-page, a 4-page and an 8-page that aren't too bad.

One thing to remember: if you write your synopsis(es) and then you go back and revise, don't forget to check your synopsis for anything you cut out!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - I see your point but in my case my bad memory would probably filter out everything!

Cat - oooh, precis - I loved them!

Nicola - good!

Heart-mother - yes, a lot! See labels re covering letters.

Keren - a long blurb is pretty much it!

Jane - yep.

Elizabeth - good point!

Others - thank you - glad it helped.