Writing a Synopsis

I recently applied for a fellowship that required a novel synopsis. For someone who’s completed their novel, this might not be difficult. In my case, the book is under construction and written only through the first half. I know where it’s headed and how it ends, but telling the story of that second half before having worked out all the specifics, beats, twists? Talk about a sobering experience.

The first step was going online to get information on the elements and requirements of a synopsis. Right away there were two issues to sort out. One was the intermingled use of the terms ‘outline’ and ‘synopsis,’ sometimes within the same entity’s requirements. The most frequent definitions I found were: an outline is something writers create for themselves; a synopsis is what you send to others as a depiction of your book’s contents.

Also, some sites advise that you write the synopsis in the same voice used in the book, while others tell you it should be in business-style prose. After quite a bit of hunting around, the former turned up much more often and I went with that option.

One of the articles I found most helpful was on Jane Friedman’s site. Examples that helped were on a no longer active Miss Snark page, where I searched for the word “fiction” because there were so many examples from several types of writing.

The basic elements are:

  • write it in present tense and third person

  • create a narrative using only the primary characters and conflict(s)

  • show how the plot’s layers carry the narrative through the end

  • reveal the major plot twists and the ending, counter-intuitive as that may be, so the judge, editor, or literary agent can evaluate whether the book delivers on it promise

  • check the guidelines you’re writing for, but often a synopsis is no more than two pages and can sometimes be single-spaced

And now for that second step, getting it done.

In the beginning, it felt a little like drawing a map before I’d traveled through the territory I was sketching out. Immediately, though, it became an interdependent process with writing the book itself, since working through all the demands of the synopsis showed me ways to improve the opening chapters of the story and build a better foundation for it.

All of this required a much deeper analysis of the entire book, the characters, their history, the story’s events and plot points—everything. In the abstract, pre-synopsis, it all made sense. In fact there were gaps, dropped threads, and an assortment of other issues. Summarizing the story forced me to weave together all of the elements in ways I’d planned to tighten up when I got to the end and could look back over the entire story.

Now that it’s done, I know what an important exercise and tool writing a synopsis is. If your story doesn’t make sense at elevator pitch length, it probably won’t hold together in the writing either. Better to know that up front. It was a challenge, but I’m glad for the experience.

So this is where I have to laugh at myself a little. A few years back, a writer I knew regularly told me to always write a synopsis, even for short stories, and to write the synopsis first. Back then I could not see how it would help any part of the process. Now I get it.

One more writing lesson learned.

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