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Up From Down Under November 2008

The Synopsis: What’s in it for Them?



That title immediately raises a couple of questions, doesn’t it? I mean, just what is a ‘synopsis’? And who are ‘Them’?


Synopsis derives from Greek roots pertaining to “a general view” or “see altogether”, and has the modern meaning of: “a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.” ( ) Hence, to a writer, a synopsis is a summary of a literary work, generally produced by the author of the work.


Them, of course, has its usual meaning of being somebody (or somebodies) no part of ‘us’. Them are also known as they, as in the phrase “They don’t like us”.


It’s a pity that writers must have anything to do with them. They are frequently harsh, cantankerous, mean and unsympathetic. They are the editors (and agents)—that’s them: the people that writers have to approach in humble supplication for favour and succour.  


 Ever sent a synopsis to an editor? Did it impress them? Did it win favours from them?




Perhaps there was nothing in it for them. As a supplicant you must present your offering in the most desirable and palatable manner.


How should a synopsis be prepared?


Let’s start by saying skilfully. No surprise there. However, is the skill of the general fiction or non-fiction writer sufficient? Writers know how to write. Right?


Yes, of course, … er… . No.


The type of writer who finds it necessary to pen a synopsis of a novel is usually an entertainer. However, the prime purpose of a synopsis is not to entertain.


A synopsis is a business document. It’s business communication, not entertainment. It’s meant to SELL!


Yes, a synopsis does contain information—vital information about the plot, characters, conflicts and resolution that makes your novel a super nova—but is it going to sell them on the idea it will score profits? No potential for a score, no sale!


Make it a personal sales pitch and keep it in present tense for direct impact.


How long is a piece of stri … synopsis?


Yes, they do come in pieces of different lengths. You can have a concise one line synopsis, a succinct one paragraph synopsis, a brief one page synopsis, or a pithy five-page synopsis.


Other variations of length are possible, too. In fact, it all depends on them. What did they ask for? Always, always, always read submission guidelines. If the publisher wants a seven and one-half page synopsis of your novel, what do you send them?


Mathematics is not your strong point? No matter, I’ll tell you. Send a synopsis of exactly the length requested. And, I’ll tell you a secret. The length really doesn’t matter; it’s the content that is important. Give them whatever length they want. But sock it to them with content that sells.


The one sentence synopsis


What do you say to anyone who asks you what your novel is about? Is your response concise, succinct, brief or pithy? Better if you can sum it up in one sentence, I believe. Easy to remember, always on the tip of your tongue, and consistent, that’s the one-sentence synopsis.


The one sentence synopsis may not be enough for a publisher, but, by golly, an editor will be impressed if your query letter sells him your product with a one-sentence pitch.


It takes formidable skill to sum up a novel in one sentence. It reveals vision, intent and purpose. It’s the snapshot that conveys much more than a thousand words.


The one paragraph synopsis


This is what they often expect in a query letter. You’ve one paragraph to sell them your soul, your heart and your mind. That’s what your novel means to you, isn’t it? If not, what are you selling, something less than your gutsy best?


In that one paragraph you will have to outline a great plot, remarkable characters, astonishing conflicts and dreadful dark moments. You must reveal everything to the editor, even the fantastic twist that ties all the ends together and climaxes in the reader’s sweaty palms.


One paragraph? Yes, you can do it. After all, it’s a lot more than one sentence.


The one page synopsis


So, the editor wants a query letter accompanied by a one page synopsis. Simple. All that opportunity to expand on the plot, the motivations and experiences of the main characters, mention a secondary character or two (don’t overdo it), add the piquancy of an exotic setting, and pivotal points of conflict producing important developments. Ah, you could rave on, and on.


But don’t!  The fact is that writing the one page synopsis is more dangerous than the one paragraph. The more you say the more chance you have of muffing it.


Remember, you are selling not informing. Can you maintain the sales pitch throughout a whole page? Never lose sight that it’s the dollar signs in the editor’s eyes that are important, not your main character’s penchant for tweed jackets, or sex under willow trees.


One page? Yes, you can do it. After all, it’s a lot more than one paragraph.


The longer synopsis


Read the publisher’s guidelines! There, I’ve said it again. If a longer synopsis is required you must do as you are told. It could be one paragraph for each chapter of your novel without a delineated page length. Or it could be strictly five pages, or seven, or … whatever.


Again, even with an extended synopsis, you are selling, not informing. The one paragraph synopsis was easy compared to the one sentence. Now it’s just a series of single paragraphs.


Don’t let your synopsis become a boring sequence of “Then this happens …” or “Next thing Max does is …”


Each paragraph must sell its chapter, but do it with a transition that fits nicely in sequence. What is unique about each chapter? How does each chapter build the character’s/characters’ resolve, and carry them forward to the ultimate climax?


Five pages? Yes, you can do it. After all, it’s just an expansion of that one sentence synopsis.



Suggested reading for more specific details of what should be in a synopsis from you.


Structure, content and presentation of a synopsis.


The writer’s notebook/journal as the key to a synopsis.


Important warnings for the synoptically challenged.


How to Avoid the Top Ten Mistakes in Writing Synopses



Highly Recommended:


Example of synopsis writing for the romance genre.


Writing a Synopsis from the Ground UP

Using the single sentence, single paragraph, single page and expanded version method.



Les Stephenson

Up From Down Under November 2008