We're writers, not summarizers. The synopsis does not come to us naturally. We crave dialogue, descriptions, action. We were made to tell stories, not write Cliff's Notes. So I understand why the synopsis is such a fearsome opponent to most writers—it's antithetical to our nature.
Why bother with the synopsis?
As I say again and again in posts like this, I'm endlessly impressed by pantsers—those people who start out with only the seed of a novel and start writing... then, somehow, manage to spin that into a functional manuscript.
But pantsing is a luxury that not every writer has. I am not yet at a stage in my career that I get to sink a ton of time into whatever project I want. Paying the bills comes first; writing my book-of-the-heart comes second. (Or comes when I have the time and financial stability, which is a bit like saying, "when I grow rainbow wings and a unicorn horn.")
Most people find themselves writing a novel synopsis long after they've written the novel itself. During the querying process at the request of agents, in fellowship applications, for potential editors—the list goes on. And, as I'll discuss in a moment, sometimes this essential step can shine a light on what is and isn't working in a manuscript.
But a synopsis is a great way to start a novel, too. Like its sister tool, the outline, the synopsis forces you to distill and condense your ideas into something concrete and digestible; to get to the heart and the meat of it sooner, rather than later.
I'd argue that a synopsis is a great tool to writers on both sides of the tracks: as a check-and-balance system for pansters, and as a brainstorming and planning tool for those embarking on new projects.
The Synoptical Advantages
A good synopsis conveys some key elements of your novel in a short, easy-to-digest format. The advantage of a synopsis—especially for those thriller and mystery writers out there—is that it allows for a bit of backwards-construction: starting at the end, and using that as a touchstone to work your way back through a story that makes that ending possible.
At least, this is how I work. I start with a POINT A, and a POINT B, and my synopsis is often the only way I can force myself to consider the causal chain leading from one to the other. So it serves a basic purpose: how is this novel structured? What are the main plot and character points?
This is the essence of your basic synopsis. However, a truly good synopsis will also be able to convey:
- Characterization/character arc
I didn't just create that hierarchy there willy-nilly—this list is ordered in what I consider "most important" to "least important." And yes, I do consider "plot" to be the least important element of a synopsis.
Plot vs. Story
I want to explain why I've come to this conclusion, because I know it sounds absurd. But think about it like this: obviously your synopsis is going to explain your plot. And getting that right is absolutely key to writing a great synopsis. We need to know what happens and when, to get a feel for the road your novel will travel.
But I believe what truly separates a basic synopsis from a great synopsis is everything else besides plot—essentially, what someone could expect should they pick up this book and read it. What kind of book is it? Fast-paced and thrilling? Morally complex? (Ha ha.) Dark and twisted?
The language you use to craft a synopsis is just as important as the language you'd use to craft the novel itself, and conveys a huge amount about you, the writer, and the style and tone of your work.
But the real reason that I rail against holding "plot" as the highest goddess? It neatly circumvents the real purpose of the synopsis: to get at the heart and soul of the story you're trying to tell.
Why this book? Why this plot? Why this character? These are the questions to keep in the back of your mind as you write your synopsis—and this process can illuminate quite a bit about your novel to you that you might not have seen before.
Synopsis as Guidebook and Troubleshooter
As I mentioned before, I think the synopsis is helpful at multiple points in the writing process: first as a planning tool, and then, in later stages, as a sort of Uncomfortable Flashlight to highlight the problem points in a work-in-progress. It's also immensely helpful in strategizing before a revision, which I've already written about.
The synopsis, to me, is able to show these major flaws in a manuscript:
- Missing beats, where a plot point doesn't "hit" the reader with the right amount of emotional impact
- Plot holes
- Weak characters, or a lack of character agency—where the plot seems to be dragging them along, rather than the characters guiding the plot
- Too much backstory in the beginning of a novel, or too much world-building
- When the "heart" of the story is missing
Your synopsis, if your novel suffers from one or more of these problems, will look a lot like the Leaning Tower of Pisa: heavy or slow in the beginning, thin at the end. Characters will feel like names on a page, not actors influencing their world and their setting. You're allowed a rare, big-picture glimpse into this behemoth of text you've created, and it isn't always flattering.
Ok, but how about using a synopsis as a guidebook?
When you embark on a new novel, the possibilities are endless. And for people like me who suffer from chronic anxiety, possibility is probably one of the most frightening words in the English vocabulary. I like having a bit of direction as I work through a novel, because it makes me feel like someone sturdier and smarter is holding my hand. When I get lost, or lose the thread of my story, a good synopsis is right there to give me suggestions on what should come next.
(Yes, I think it's important to look at a synopsis as a suggestion, rather than adhering to it without forgiveness. Sticking too close to an outline and refusing to deviate will stifle your creativity a lot more than it will help it.)
But even more than that, your synopsis is a guidebook to others. Have you ever read the blurbs for two different novels and thought, "Wow, these sound like the same book!" It happens a lot when we're coming up with new ideas, and spot something on the market that "sounds like" something we've already written. (Ensue terrified screaming.) But once you open that other book, the fear flees: they're nothing alike.
This is what a synopsis is for: any two novels can have the same plot, but your voice, characters, and style will set yours apart.
Okay, so... how?
Here are some of my own basic tips—but I'd be interested to hear from others what you've learned during the process of pitching and querying.
- Be complete. Tell the whole story, from start to finish.
- Write concisely; don't elaborate. Get to the point of each event as it happens, and avoid wind-ups.
- Don't stop to tell us who a character is. Show us, and show us fast.
- Don't ignore character, either! Characters are critical; they're who we fall in love with, the reason we keep reading. Your story is a reflection of character, and also the fire through which they are tested and changed.
- Avoid world-building as exposition, and simply give the reader (in context, preferably) what the reader needs to know—and only when they absolutely need to know it.
If I can give you any one last, all-important tip, it's the BUT, THEREFORE rule: every plot point should have a "but" or a "therefore," or else the action drags. Check out the talk that Trey Parker and Matt stone gave on the subject.