Many writers will agree that writing synopses is something they have difficulty doing. There is quite a bit of confusion as to what exactly a synopsis is. Why is it required? How do you go about writing one? It’s common knowledge that a synopsis is a summary of the story a writer has written and that publishers and agents need to see how that story pans out in a brief two or three pages before committing to read the sample chapters sent to them. But what exactly do you include? How do you summarise all the ins and outs of your masterpiece, all the heartache, conflict and drama? What needs to be recognised upfront is that a synopsis is an entirely different animal to the novel you have written and needs to be approached in a very particular way.
Writers often make the mistake of thinking a synopsis is in some way related to the blurb that will grace the back cover of their book if it has the good fortune to be published. It is most certainly not this. Back cover blurb is designed to give potential readers an idea of what is inside the book without giving too much away. It is written in such a way as to tease the potential reader into buying the book in order to discover what happens to the main character or characters that are placed in the situation alluded to.
Publishers and agents do not want to be teased in this way (or any way, for that matter). Finishing a back cover blurb-style synopsis with a ‘Will Peter save the day and win the heart of his true love?’ will not impress a publisher or agent. They do not want to have to ask you for the whole manuscript to find out. They will just bin the sample chapters you included in your package to them and move on to the next submission. You may well have penned the next War and Peace, but the publisher or agent will never know it; they just don’t have the time to second guess you.
Another mistake writers often make is in using their synopsis to extol the virtues of their magnum opus. The synopsis is not the place to mention that ‘This novel is a story of love, loss and redemption’ or that this story is ‘a hilariously witty examination of the human condition’. It is not the place to mention that this novel is ‘comparable to Nabokov at his best’. In fact, nowhere is the place to say any of this. The publisher or agent is the person who will decide how good, bad or indifferent your novel is, how funny or profound, and whether or not your work carries resonances of the work of the giants of literature. That is if they get past your cover letter, the synopsis, and the sample chapters you send, and ask to see the full manuscript.
So, what do you include in your synopsis? It’s actually simplicity itself. As Joe Friday is purported to have said time and again (but never actually did) in the 1950s TV show, Dragnet: ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ A synopsis should include everything that actually happens in the story. Just the plot. There is no need to include every thought the main character has or every single minor occurrence in the story. Just the main events. It may be important to mention the main character’s state of mind occasionally, but keep it short. In fact, keep the whole thing short. And this is the art of writing a good synopsis: what to put in and what to leave out, how to get the essentials of the story across in as brief a way as possible.
Below is a sample of what I’m talking about, the wording of the synopsis for the first five chapters of my novel Down and Out:
Chapter 1: Joey and his fellow vagrants sit in St. Stephen’s Green licking their wounds after a failed attempt to make off with several bottles of alcohol from an off licence. A gang of thugs arrives in the park, intent on wreaking havoc. Joey and the others decide to beat a hasty retreat. Unfortunately, before they can get out of the park, they witness the gang of thugs surrounding another vagrant and kicking him to death. Joey’s group are spotted and for a frozen moment, both gangs stand regarding each other. Joey realises he knows one of the gang; the recognition is mutual. The vagrants, impelled by a shock of adrenaline, manage to get out of the park and away from the thugs. That night, Joey ponders the enormity of what has happened and tries to come to terms with the fact that one of the gang of thugs is his son Darren.
Chapter 2: Back in the squat he shares with his gang, Darren realises what he has done and is disgusted with himself. He is also ashamed of his dad. As the others shoot up and crash out, Darren wrestles with several conflicting emotions before seeking the oblivion of heroin.
Chapter 3: The following morning, Joey’s daughter Chloe flees her abusive boyfriend, Robbie, with her daughter Jade. Heavily pregnant, she abandons the apartment they have lived in for two years and ends up in Dublin’s city centre with Jade and all their belongings, not knowing where to start looking for a roof over their heads.
Chapter 4: In a typical day on the streets, Joey struggles with the question of what he should do about Darren. We learn a little of how Joey feels about his wife Caroline.
Chapter 5: Darren’s gang causes disruption in a convenience store, hurling racial abuse at a member of staff. They subsequently mug a man a few streets away and visit their drug dealer with the proceeds of their robbery. Back in the squat, as they prepare to shoot up, Darren finds himself thinking again about his dad and dwelling on the event that shattered his family.
You will note that the above is written in the third person present tense throughout, which is standard for synopses regardless of the person and tense used for the actual novel itself. It states exactly what happens, chapter by chapter. This includes the ending. Publishers and agents need to know how the story ends. It will inform their decision to read the sample chapters or not.
I should say at this point that there is a trend, particularly in the US, of including a very short one page pitch document with your cover letter, which publishers or agents will read before they decide whether or not to read the synopsis. This document includes the title of the work and author details, word count of the full manuscript, a one-line description of the story in as few words as possible, and the book’s unique selling points (USPs).
For examples of one-line descriptions or pitches, I’ll turn to Hollywood. I don’t have any details, but I’m guessing the one-line pitch for Cowboys & Aliens was: ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. This says it all and would have had producers queuing up to throw money at the project. Another example is the SF movie In Time. The story is based on a really simple but effective premise that people in the future are given one year of life left to them when they hit 25 years of age. They are paid for their work in time and have to use portions of this time to buy a cup of coffee or groceries or whatever they need. I’m guessing the one-line pitch for this movie was: ‘They say ‘time is money’. But what is money was time?’ Potential producers would have been intrigued enough to at least go on to read the synopsis.
Including a list of unique selling points in your pitch is designed to indicate to the publisher or agent how a publisher’s sales and marketing departments might push the book. Yes, I know; why should you be doing their job for them? Unfortunately, this is the way things are going (ditto for promotion of your book and yourself after it has been published). An example of a USP might be, in the case of a book about special ops behind enemy lines, the fact that the writer is an ex-SAS man, with first-hand experience of what he is writing about. In the case of a travel book, it might be a USP that the author’s father was an army officer, which necessitated the author’s moving around a lot and living in exotic locales. If you have access to a well-known celebrity, who is in some way connected to the main subject matter of your book, and is willing to endorse it publically, this is a plus. The challenge, of course, is to come up with a few USPs for your book, which, no matter how good the book is, can be quite a task.
However, for the moment, most publishers and agents still operate on the model of cover letter, synopsis, and sample chapters. It’s a case of doing a little research when drawing up a list of publishers or agents you plan to submit to, and checking out their requirements.
Of course, I have to put my hand up here and say I’m still in the process of finding a publisher for my novel, and am considering making minor adjustments to the novel (and a major adjustment to the ending) before making another foray into the madness that is the publishing industry today, but the important thing is to ensure I put my best foot forward from the get-go.
The sad and discouraging fact is that publishers and agents are swamped with submissions and have very little time to devote to each ‘case’. It’s important to sound the right note with your cover letter (see Part 3 in this occasional series). This will encourage the publisher or agent to read the synopsis. If they like what they see there, they may move on to reading the sample chapters you lovingly included in your package to them. That’s what you’re trying to get them to do. Ninety per cent of the time they won’t make it that far. You can’t assume they’ll automatically read your sample chapters just because you sent them. They are actively looking for the first opportunity to not have to read any further. Depressing, I know, but an unfortunate fact of life.
But all is not doom and gloom. It’s just a matter of getting your cover letter and synopsis right. You want to get the publisher or agent to the sample chapters themselves. If you can do this the battle is half won. After that, it’s down to the quality of the writing itself. If you’ve done a half decent job of that, the chances are the publisher or agent will ask to see the full manuscript.
Very informative article! Thanks John.
Thanks, Brendan. Discovered it all the hard way. 🙂
Thanks for the info on submitting. It’s always a hard task to stand back and write the story in miniature when you’ve spent so many hours slogging over 300 or so pages.
That’s so true, Nuala. Sometimes when you’ve done this, it can seem your story is quite slight, even if this isn’t actually the case. A good side effect of writing a synopsis, though, is that you can see the main structure of your story. In my own case, when I wrote the synopsis for my novel, I discovered a couple of gaps in the timeline and realised I needed to write another couple of chapters in a few places.