Thursday 5 August 2010


Bugger, I am now under serious pressure from Twitter "friends" to say something sensible on this topic. OK, here's the sensible thing: do not make people think that you are going to say something piercing and helpful, when you might not be.

Thing is, I blogged on Tuesday about synopses and foolishly promised to come back today to add something about how to do a synopsis for a non-linear or unconventional structure. Looking at it more closely, I never said I was going to say anything at all piercing, did I? Meh.

This whole question was precipitated by the following email from a blog-reader some time ago:
"I've been working on a couple of synopses recently, and it occurred to me that synopses are usually fairly linear in structure.  But what if your novel has an unconventional narrative structure?  For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences?  A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else?  A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another?  And so on - not necessarily the next James Joyce, but not a linear 3rd person narrative!

"With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style?  A brief comment at the start of the synopsis?  Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis?  Or something else?"
These sensible and lucid questions reveal two wrong beliefs: that a synopsis must relate the story in the same way it is told in your book, and that there is one perfect format within which a synopsis should fit.

No. There is no one prescribed format. There are, literally, more ideal formats for synopses than there are books. The only wrong ones are those that are too long, too detailed or too anything except clear. Simply tell the story in any way that  fulfils the purpose of a synopsis - to show the agent or publisher that you've got your story sorted and what it is like.

Let me unpick the specific questions. Obviously, I don't know the details of the stories suggested, but I will try to offer an example of how you might do it.

"For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences?" I would probably tell the main story in one paragraph and then say, "The story is interspersed with flashbacks in which Jake is taken back to a former life which he gradually begins to remember." And then one sentence which indicates the importance of this, perhaps explaining why the flashbacks occur.

"A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else?" Again, I would probably tell the main story in one para, and then say, "At intervals, the story cuts away to a brutal murder of a young woman on a Greek island one sultry summer a generation earlier." And then I'd give a sentence to show why this is crucial / interesting.

"A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another?" It may not be necessary to say this at all - it depends how crucial it is to the understanding of your story's beauteousness. But, if I felt it was crucial - not to the story, where it obviously is crucial, but to the synopsis, where it might not be - I'd mention it, probably after telling the main story / MC / main theme. For example, I might say, "The story is told mainly from Ella's point of viewpoint, but at intervals it moves to Sebastian's." And possibly, not not necessarily, a sentence to show why or how.

"With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style?  A brief comment at the start of the synopsis?  Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis?  Or something else?" Whatever suits your story best, in the shortest and simplest way possible.

Important point: if any agent or publisher tells you his own preferred format for a synopsis, this is helpful but not to be taken as a universal ideal. It will doubtless conflict with someone else's ideal. The simple reason for this is that there is, as I say, no one correct way to do it. We're all trying to help you but the more detailed our efforts, the worse it becomes. 

Extra points for clarity (I hope!):
  1. Just because your story has a complex structure, does not mean that its complexity must be conveyed in the synopsis. Authors tend to get very hung up on their beautiful structure - I tend to feel that, unless you've been really original, you should leave that to the story itself and just make your synopsis as simple as possible.
  2. With a non-linear structure, copying the structure of the book in the synopsis is probably not a good idea, as it is likely to be too long and complicated. Better to say, for example, "Woven between this is the story of..." or "The story moves between ... and ... " or "Meanwhile, as Sukey is dealing with her recalcitrant weight problem, Jeff is snow-boarding with llamas." 
  3. Agents and publishers have read many different structures. They do not need everything spelled out. Just capture the story, calmly and coherently. 
  4. Don't get clever in your synopsis - this is not a time to show off. Yes, hone the words perfectly and make every word do its job precisely, but the synopsis is a functional exercise, not a display.
  5. Imagine you are pitching your book to someone and that you have more time than the usual 10 seconds of their attention span. You have them for a whole minute - what would you tell them if you had one minute?
In short
I'm not saying it's easy, or fun. I'm saying it's not as hard as anyone thinks, because you are not trying to fit your complex story into a set format: you are simply finding the clearest, simplest way to tell the story. So, be ruthlessly concise. If in doubt, leave it out. (I would quite like to put that in capitals and delete everything else.)

I feel I've let you down a bit with this post if you were expecting more detail. So, I have a suggestion: let's have a Synopsis Surgery. If any of you would like me to post your draft or problem synopsis on this blog, email it to me at and I will post the first two up here for anyone to comment on. No specific rules: just send me what you'd like posted, as an email attachment, remembering to include an explanation of the problem you are having. But I can't take any responsibility for what happens thereafter - obviously, I can't control what people will say (though I will remove comments that abuse anyone other than me) or what people might do with your synopsis. It's up to you...

Anyway, whatever you do with a synopsis of any sort, here's the key: make it short, make it simple, make it show your story in a crisp, bright light.


Tim Stretton said...

This is quite simply the Best Blog Post Ever!

I know I'm not alone in hating synopses, and I've always struggled to reflect non-linear narratives. This sets out some practical solutions so simply that it makes me wonder why I didn't think of them myself - always the mark of a good idea...

Ness Harbour said...

This is a really useful and concise post that does exactly what it says on the tin and deals effectively with the issues of non linear stories. Don't knock yourself you have said what wsa needed. Thank you for such a great blog.

Queenie said...

Oh hurrah! This is such great news. I have a chronologically linear narrative with two interwoven stories. Several people, whose opinions I respect, told me that I needed to follow the structure of the book in the synopsis. I tried and tried and tried but just couldn't do it, at least not in one page. So I made my own decision, which was to tell the main story first, and then give a new paragraph to the subsidiary story, saying something like '[first theme] is set against the backdrop of...]'. I figured that was the best I could do, but I've worried and worried about it, and now I don't think I need to worry any more, and it's OK for me to like my synopsis just as it is, and, Nicola Morgan, I could kiss you!

Emma Darwin said...

As you say, there's no one way, and usually it's a matter of focussing on the main drive of the main story, and making sure the others get a mention. But I have a bad habit (in the book trade's eyes) of writing true parallel narrative, which are absolute buggers to synopsise: The Mathematics of Love alternates two self-contained and equally-weighted love stories, set 150 years apart. In the end I told it roughly in the order it's told in the book, making liberal use of 'signposts' such as 'In 1819' and 'Meanwhile Anna...'

catdownunder said...

All purrfectly sensible of course.
Mind you I think I will stick with the linear story. It is hard enough to plot that sensibly!

Keren David said...

This is great...but what about suspense? My problem so far is that so much of the book is ruined if you know what's going to happen, that I absolutely find myself incapable of writing it down in a synopsis. I want them to read it without knowing what's going to happen. And I have to say I have managed to get published without ever writing a proper synopsis, so there is hope for everyone.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Hey Nicola, I reckon this post is pretty darn good!

Cornelia Grey said...


Now that that's out of the way... thank you very much for this post. It's very useful!

Sally Zigmond said...

This post is hugely reassuring.

Dan Holloway said...

I agree with Sally that it is reassuring. We are frequently told in how-to books by professionals that in the case of non-linear plots we should always unfold things in the synopsis in the order they are unfolded to the reader - I do wish people wouldn't say that if it's not true!

I've sent you a couple of my non-linear disasters that I tried to squeeze into something vaguely presentable - feel free to use them as lampoon, er I mean, instructional fodder if I'm not too late

David John Griffin said...

> "There is no one prescribed format. There are, literally, more ideal formats for synopses than there are books. "

Lightbulb moment for me there, Nicola; thank you!


W Doc Finder said...

There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. I really haven't had that exciting of a life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I'd rather tell a story about somebody else. Thanks for your advice and keep up the good works

Jane Smith said...

Keren, the job of the synopsis is to show to agents and editors that you know how to construct a believeable, coherent story. So yes, you do have to give away the ending and yes, it does mean they won't get to enjoy the suspense but also it means that yes, they do need to see it.

When I was editing full-time I read the sample chapters first, and if they convinced me I turned to the synopsis to see if the writer could sustain things. Often they couldn't. It was a shame. But when they could--wow!

Sulci Collective said...

Spot on advice as ever Nicola, but I do wonder how you'd advise on a synopsis for a non-story fiction - have you read Scarlett Thomas' latest "Our Tragic Universe"? There is no story but the nature of narrative itself - pitch that (though as an established novelist presumably she didn't have to actually write a synopsis).

Marc Nash

priceless1 said...

Nicola, you bring up very good points - as always. However, we editors always know that there are different kinds of narrative structures that involve backstory and the like. The important thing to consider (and I'm talking about US publishing) is that none of that matters or impacts the overall plot/pitch.

The main thing editors want to see is what the story is about, not how it's structured. We don't care. If the pitch is mouth watering, we'll ask for pages and happily follow you along with your backflash scenes (provided it's deftly written), or any other narrative goodies that exploded from your quill.

Just my take on things...

Nicola Morgan said...

Queenie - I think this is because there's perhaps a confusion between outlines and synopses. An outline would follow the story, but an outline is not what a commissioning editor or agent wants to see at this stage (though she might later). Also, in the old days a synopsis might have meant something longer and more structured.

At the same time, US editor Priceless1's comment reveals a difference between US/UK based submissions - in the US the "synopsis" would tend to mean the very short snappy bit in the query letter, which, as priceless1 indicates, doesn't need to mention structure at all. For UK submissions, the synopsis can include a sentence mentioning structure, IF this is truly necessary and relevant.

Emma - you said "The Mathematics of Love alternates two self-contained and equally-weighted love stories, set 150 years apart." - In my view, you've just said all you need to say about the structure and for the shortest possible synopsis you could perfectly easily just tell one then the other, having said that they are interwoven equally. You can, as you did, tell them chronologically, but did that not make your synopsis too long?

Keren - as jane says, this is not the place for suspense in that sense. The editor / agent wants to know that your story wraps up properly. The place for intrigue and suspense would be the blurb on the back of the book, or the hook/pitch.

Dan - you said you'd sent me something? Yikes - #memoryfail - what? (Mind you, at the moment, I haven't got time to look at anything...)

Dan - thing is about conflicting advice: things change, so that mnight have been the advice about synopses a while back. Also, I think the main point is that there is no single ideal way. The one thing everyone agrees with is: keep it short.

Marc - no, I haven't read that so i can't say how I'd do a synopsis for it. However, I don't see why any book should be impossible to explain. And that's all a synopsis is doing, really. I think if we stop thinking of a synopsis as a realting of events in the book, and more as showing what the book is like and what it is about, we'd stop agonising about it. Does that make sense?

Dan Holloway said...

I mean I sent you two synopses in answer to this post, abot 20 hours ago with the title "synopsis" :) That's all!

Emma Darwin said...

Nicola, yes, I could have done it that way but I think it would have come out much the same length. Perhaps even longer, because I knew that the book trade is very suspicious of parallel narrative. The basic readerly question with true parallel narrative is always 'Why are these two stories in the same novel?', and if I hadn't told it chronologically it would have meant repetitions to make it clear why.

I did with much honing get it onto a single page, for a 140,000 word novel, so it can be done.

But I was deeply thankful not to have to do a synopsis for A Secret Alchemy, which is structurally much more complicated...

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - ah! I haven't looked at that email address yet. Thanks - will look and act v soon.

Anne R. Allen said...

Great advice. Especially "when in doubt, leave it out."

Queenie said...

Nicola, even your comments are helpful. "I think if we stop thinking of a synopsis as a relating of events in the book, and more as showing what the book is like and what it is about, we'd stop agonising about it." Show, don't tell! Golden rule! Why on earth would that not also apply to synopses? Major light-bulb moment for me. I'm never going to be scared of my own synopsis again. Hurrah!

@TheGirlPie said...

Pay attention to every word of this post -- send it to your writer friends -- print it and post it and RT it and link to it and blog about it and do what she says: You will never read a better set of advisories on this topic for any written medium, ever.

And god save us from the thousands who don't have the good sense to know they are not beyond this advise, they are not the one special writer who can ignore it... we see that foolishness, naiveté, or arrogance immediately in your writing and stop reading that second.

Just do what she says and get out of your own way, please!

Thank you.

Your fan (if you allow it),

~ GirlPie

@TheGirlPie said...

And all that was meant with great support and sincerity, AND with a red-faced admission at asking that you take Nicola's "advice" (rather than taking my typo in the passionate note above. *sigh*)


Rachel Fenton said...

Perfectly timed advice for me - thanks, Nicola.

I just altered the structure of my novel and I can draw the story shape, but had trouble writing the synopsis!

Going to give it another bash now.