Synopsis Hell

I mentioned last week that I was at the Romantic Times convention in LA. While there, I led a workshop on how to write “a sensational synopsis.” Before the class, I panicked that I wouldn’t have enough to say to fill my two and a half hour time slot. You know what? I can TALK. I ended up barreling through those hours and actually ran out of time at the end. And that was in spite of nattering on right through a fire alarm. It turns out people in other places pay attention to alarms. Dean Koontz’s class got cleared right out. No one even stopped in to check on us. Apparently folks are totally content to let the agents burn. I see how it is…

What I loved about the workshop (other than the opportunity to hear myself talk for several hours) was that it gave me an insight not only into how much people freak out about trying to synopsize their books, but also the ways in which they trip themselves up. A synopsis seems to be the new query letter. Everyone hates them, panics about them, and then writes a bad one. With so much information out there about writing queries, the quality has gone up astronomically over the past ten years. Most synopses on the other hand still kind of suck.

It probably has to do with the conflicting advice: Tell us everything, but be concise. Write the details as plainly as possible, but make sure the writing is still great. Don’t be jokey, but I love to laugh. (That last one might just be me). After working through a few valiant volunteers’ samples, I realized that the single thing people have the hardest time with is choosing what to include. One of my most common questions when reading a synopsis is a simple, “Hrrh?” Because when you’re cramming 100K words into a page, things tend to get confusing and I often find that authors lose track of what they have shared in a synopsis and what they need to lay out more plainly.

The synopsis, happily, isn’t the most important part of any submission. It still can only hope to have a good one. To that end, if you’ve been asked to submit one, my advice is this:

Chart the action of your novel. Actually map it out and identify the key points. Identify cause and effect between those key points. Then narrate it so that you tell us A which leads directly to B, how B then leads to C, and so on. If you can map it out in a straight line in front of you, it will read cleanly. This isn’t where you get to dazzle us with your subplots, your thematic resonance, or your brilliant character descriptions. Usually, we’re only reading this to make sure you know how to tell an actual story. The synopsis is ONLY about the plot. People get bogged down trying to encompass everything about their novels in a handful of pages. If that was possible to do, you wouldn’t have written a novel. You’d have a short story with too many words.

And then read it back trying to pretend you know nothing about the story. Can you still follow the action without knowing what you know of the book’s content? It’s tricky to be able to remove your knowledge of your own book, but try to think critically. “Here I say that Dave shoots Donna. Has Dave been introduced? Has Donna?” And only introduce new knowledge when it is absolutely critical for the reader to know it. There’s no foreshadowing in a synopsis—it’s just too confusing.

One piece of advice I garnered just by running the class itself: have other people read your synopsis back to you. Once we got going, writers would stop me and say that though they had read their own pages over and over, there was something about hearing me read it out loud that made them realize how extraneous some information was. Or how awkward some phrasing was. So if you can force a friend or family member to read it back at you, that can only help. Go ahead—exploit them. That’s what they’re there for!

And the last piece of advice makes it counterintuitive that I spoke on the subject for two and a half hours: don’t worry too much about them. Don’t overthink them. They really aren’t THAT important.

10 Responses to Synopsis Hell

  1. josin says:

    The biggest problem with a synopsis? No two agents have the same definition.

    Agency A says “short synopsis” and means 3-5 paragraphs, or no more than one page.

    Agency B says “short synopsis” and means no more than 2 pages, but in depth.

    Agency C says “long synopsis” and means no more than 2 pages, but in depth.

    Agency D says “long synopsis” and means a chapter-by-chapter break down of what happens and when it occurs.

    Meanwhile, the writer starts to look like this: :/

  2. Mimi Cross says:

    Great post Jim, and for me, perfect timing. Thanks!

    And now, back to hell.

  3. Kimberly says:

    I had a great time listening to you ramble on at your synopsis workshop! :) And I can confirm, you learn a lot about your synopsis when it’s read to you. It’s something my critique partners and I will be doing from here on out.

    Thanks, again, for the great advice Jim!

  4. Lance Parkin says:

    “The biggest problem with a synopsis? No two agents have the same definition.”

    Well … no two writers have the same definition either.

    I think the big problem is that everyone knows what a letter looks like, what a novel looks like and so on, but writers, how-to book writers, agents and editors all forget that the synopsis is an invisible part of the process to most readers (probably because they see hundreds of them a week).

    I blogged the writing of a recent novel, one for the Doctor Who range, and put up one of my synopses and another from another book not written by me.


    and I discussed it a little here:


    But hunt down as many synopses as you can.

    There are *two* synopses you need. The one *you’ll* use when you write the book, and the one you send to an agent. The first one is where you sort out the problems with plot logic and pacing and most writers find it a useful foundation (although all writers are different – some write vast prep documents, others don’t use a synopsis at all).

    The synopsis we’re talking about, though, is a document *for* the agent/editor. It’s not just a recap of events, it’s meant to get them excited enough to want to see the final book. Make it easy for them to follow. Don’t be afraid to break the fourth wall, explain what you’re doing. It’s a place to show your enthusiasm. Bear in mind they’ve not been living with this book for months, so just walk them through it.

    Think of it as a presentation, because I think most people have experience of those – you want to make a case for your book. ‘Look at the strong narrative, see the high stakes, see how that bit wasn’t slow and boring, it was all a clever build up of atmosphere leading to a twist?’. Keep it confident, tight and professional, but not arrogant, stiff and solemn.

  5. Sara says:

    :) I seem to come to this conclusion with a lot of things in life. Keep it simple, and follow your instincts!

  6. Joelle says:

    One of the best things I’ve learned about writing a synopsis is something I learned inadvertently, but I think it’s really important. Send your synopsis for a critique to someone who has NOT READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT. Your critique group is of little use to you on the synopsis because they will fill in the gaps if they’ve read your manuscript. Someone who knows nothing about your book will give you the best critique.

  7. Joelle says:

    P.S. Meant to say this is really quite helpful. As a writer whose agent now asks for sample pages and a synopsis, the synopsis is actually quite important. Maybe more so than when querying agents because he will use it to present my idea to my editor. I’m getting better at them, but still struggle. This is very useful information. Thanks!

  8. Ryan Field says:

    “And the last piece of advice makes it counterintuitive that I spoke on the subject for two and a half hours: don’t worry too much about them. Don’t overthink them. They really aren’t THAT important.”

    This all depends on what you’re writing and for whom you’re writing it. All e-publishers require contracted authors to write back cover copy (sell copy) when they submit their manuscripts. And in many ways this is the synopsis that will make or break the book. Serious digital readers, those who buy a dozen e-books a week, want detailed information before they make a purchase, and if the authors can’t nail this it could hurt book sales…and future book sales.

  9. Lance Parkin says:

    “The biggest problem with a synopsis? No two agents have the same definition.”

    No two writers do!

    I think the problem is simple: we all know what a novel looks like, or three chapters, or a cover letter. Even if we can’t write one, we know what they’re *meant* to be like.

    Editors, agents and people who write ‘how to’ books just assume people have seen as many synopses as they have. The best advice is to find as many synopses as you can, and see what writers have done.

    I blogged the writing of a recent novel, and included a synopsis there by me and one for another book, and if you fish around there and in the comments, you’ll see various pearls of wisdom:


    I think the big mistake is to think of the synopsis as a flat plot summary. Think of it as a presentation – don’t be afraid to break the fourth wall and say ‘this section is scary’ or ‘here’s the bit where it goes a bit David Foster Wallace’ or whatever.

    Don’t forget it’s not for you, it’s *for* the agent and editor. Make their life easy. Keep things brief and easy to read. Keep the story moving and logical, but don’t get bogged down in detail. Make it clear what’s at stake. Understand that yours will be the tenth one they see today, they want something that isn’t a chore, that surprises them and stands out. For the right reasons, if possible.

    It’s courteous and professional to follow instructions, but if an agent says they want five pages and you’ve written a compelling
    three pages or six pages … they want ‘compelling’. Don’t send them thirty pages, but don’t get obsessed with the exact page count.

    One thing that came out in discussion on the blog and elsewhere which I think was a bit mad, but also quite an interesting thought experiment – a useful way of thinking about it could be ‘if I handed my synopsis to another author, could they write the book?’. They wouldn’t write the *same* book, but are you giving them enough information to see what the book’s like and come up with their version? Would it be something they’d be interested in writing?

  10. ChemicalLove says:

    great stuff but you missed a couple (minor) spellin mistakes near the end lol and my comment from earlier hasn’t shown but hey…..

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