Synopsis: The Necessary Evil


There are many myths surrounding the common synopsis. I’ve known authors — professional, published authors — who flinch at the prospect of having to write a synopsis. I’ve encountered aspiring writers who’ve given up their dreams of publication because of the challenge that the synopsis presents.

Yes, it is daunting. It isn’t easy. But for anyone who hopes to become published: it’s a necessary evil. And, if approached in the appropriate manner, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge.

Myth 1: “When editors ask for a synopsis they only expect to receive the blurb that would appear on the back of the book.”

Bullshit. When an editor asks for a synopsis they want a synopsis. If they want the blurb they ask for the blurb. Trust me on this. Editors have many faults but being vague about their needs is not one of them. The blurb on the back of a book is approximately two hundred words of promotional hook. It says enough to (hopefully) make the reader want to buy the book. But it says nothing more. The editor wants to see a detailed layout of how a proposed story is going to develop. The blurb is not likely to do this.

Myth 2: “The editors have asked for a 1,000 word synopsis but they’ll usually be happy with half a page if it tells them what they need to know.”

Bullshit. If editors ask for a 1,000 word synopsis they want a 1,000 word synopsis. The word count doesn’t have to be exact. Allow a margin of 10% – 15% either side. But don’t think they’ll be content with much less. Usually synopsis length is stated in publisher’s guidelines/requirements.

Myth 3: “If I write a synopsis it’s going to tell the editor the story I’m writing, and spoil it for when they read the finished novel.”

The irony here is, if you don’t write the synopsis, the editor won’t get the chance to read your finished novel, and therefore the danger of the ending being spoilt won’t be an issue. Editors are not expecting to be entertained in the same fashion as the ultimate reader. Editors are expecting to see a professional synopsis from a professional writer.

The synopsis doesn’t have to be a challenge. Anyone who has written a novel, or has produced the workable outline for a novel, is in the ideal position to write a synopsis. All that needs to be remembered is that you’re impartially narrating the events so the editor can see how the story will develop.

Practising can be helpful — but it can also be time consuming. Writing the synopsis for an established novel or film, and then appraising your own abbreviated version of the original, can help to show some elements of mastering this challenge.

Obviously there are different ways of approaching the synopsis. And, like with every other element in writing, there isn’t one method that’s superior to another — only methods that are preferred by individual authors.

My favourite way of tackling this chore is to break down the story into chronological events (that are important to the plot and central characters) before expanding on them to present a fuller picture of the intended work.

For example, most editors won’t give serious consideration to the synopsis for an erotic novel that says:

Boy meets girl, she fucks a lot of other people, and then she and the boy settle down in a semi-open relationship.

More likely they would prefer to read a synopsis that is slightly more detailed.

The story begins with a passionate sex scene involving the two central characters (John & Jane). The third person narrative shows events from Jane’s POV. John and Jane are a couple who have only just met but it is clear that they are soul mates and have made an immediate connection. The reader joins the action as Jane is preparing to have John for a fourth time.

This shows the editor that the story starts with a sex scene, which is always a bonus for erotic fiction, it introduces the names of the central characters, and suggests that the author will include some back-story to bring the reader into the diegesis of the narrative.

After their night of passion Jane realises she has met the man of her dreams but wants to put closure on the other affairs she had been enjoying prior to meeting him. Primarily she needs to tell her roommate (Mabel) that there will be no more lesbian sex sessions while they watch reruns of Xena, and she needs to inform the two brothers, Billy-Bob and Billy-Jo, that she is no longer available to be serviced on booty calls as their occasional fuck buddy.

This tells the editor that the author has thought through the potential hurdles to happiness that are likely to conflict against the budding romance between John and Jane. It also shows the style of narrative that the author is aiming to achieve.

Some publishers might not like the idea of Jane being so overtly promiscuous. Others might be uncomfortable with the fact that Jane has clearly had more people inside her than the Statue of Liberty. But that’s the whole point of the synopsis. It’s there to give the editor an opportunity to appraise the proposed work and make sure it will fit alongside the other titles in their list.

Jane and Mabel kiss farewell to their Xena interludes with a final Sapphic fling. Immediately afterward Jane telephones John and tells him what she has done, and that she is trying to get her life sorted so that they can develop their relationship. He is sympathetic and understanding, and assures her that he is comfortable with her honesty and openness. He also tells Jane that the only thing that would ever alter his opinion of her is if he were to discover she had once had a relationship with his long-lost cousin from Mexico — El Monstro. This is the point where the telephone conversation ends and Jane begins to fret because she once did spend a torrid weekend with a Mexican man. And, although she can’t remember his name, there’s a danger that he might have been John’s cousin.

Again, this is simply showing the editor how the story will develop, how the author intends the plot twists to carry the narrative, and how the characters are likely to react to each surprise throws at them.

As I said before, this could be the turning point where the editor decides the novel is not suitable for their publishing house. John is clearly a minor figure in the romance and the publisher could be looking for a central male character more integral to the plot.

Or, equally likely, the editor might warm to Jane. She is obviously comfortable with her bisexuality and deserved of the central place in a story where she maturely concludes her casual relationships before concentrating on monogamy. But, whether this is the point where the story sells or sinks, it is a necessary part of the proposal and the editor needs to read these details to make an informed decision on the novel’s potential.

The synopsis is daunting. For anyone who has spent long months toiling over a full-length manuscript, the idea of whittling their story down to its bare bones borders on being sacrilegious. But, in order to produce a professional proposal to accompany your manuscript, production of the synopsis is a task that must be done properly.

Ashley Lister
July 2007

“The Write Stuff” © 2007 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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