Writing Tips – How To Write A Synopsis

As an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher, I read many (many, many) submissions from authors hoping to be traditionally published. Usually, submission packages include a synopsis (a synopsis is required for this particular publisher and are usually required for most publishers). Unfortunately, I continue to be surprised by the number of writers who either don’t submit a synopsis (which makes it difficult to judge the quality of the story and results in an automatic rejection) or they submit something that is not a synopsis at all (same result).  Hence, this post.

Writing a synopsis is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. Depending upon the publisher’s length requirement (generally, length ranges from three to ten pages), and the complicated nature of your story, you will have to revise and rewrite your synopsis several times to make sure that the action is clear and consistent and that the story makes sense. But what story elements do you put in your synopsis and what do you leave out?  That depends upon you, the writer, and the nature of your novel. As you begin to write and revise your synopsis, it will become more clear.

So what is a synopsis? A synopsis is a thumbnail overview of your story that tells the reader what happens to your characters, from the first word to the last word. The purpose of the synopsis is to show that your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts make sense. Most importantly, the synopsis will show if you have any plot or logic problems. If the events won’t make sense you clearly have a problem. Often it is the synopsis that determines if your story will be read by an agent, editor, or publisher (if you are going the traditional publishing route). If you plan to independently publish take the time to write a synopsis.  You will learn to see areas of your novel that need improvement and revision which will help you to publish the best product possible. In the long run it’s worth the effort.

There are no hard and fast rules of how to write a synopsis, but generally it is written in present tense (Johnny Character runs into an abandoned building, escapes the bad guys, but is captured by Alien invaders), uses active voice (Johnny shoots the Alien invaders), not passive voice (The Alien invaders were shot by Johnny). Your synopsis shows the external story conflict (Johnny wants to live another day but he may be eaten by the Alien invaders) and how the internal conflict affects your main character (Johnny is distraught because the Alien invaders eat people and he thinks he is on the menu). Most importantly the synopsis shows how each conflict element is resolved (Johnny escapes down a garbage shoot, blows up the spaceship, and saves the world). A synopsis is clear. A synopsis is concise. A synopsis shows the ending. No exceptions.

A synopsis includes the inciting incident (that which gets your character moving), the conflict (that which keeps your character from achieving the main goal), the climax (the live or die moment), and the resolution (that shows your character’s success or failure). The trick is weaving all of these elements into a logical few paragraphs. If you can’t figure out how an element of your story works in your synopsis, then your story needs revision and is not ready for publication. It’s a harsh reality.

Writing a synopsis is not easy and it is something that is dreaded by many writers. It can be arduous. It can be tedious. But I recommend that you do the work to write it. As you work through your synopsis, you will see story problems that need resolution and you will be prompted to fix them. This will make you a better writer and you will publish a better product. Your readers will be happier with you and more apt to purchase your next book. It’s a win-win for everyone. So do it. Write a synopsis.

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