If you have ever written a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, or even a super-long academic paper, chances are that you have written an abstract. Abstracts are expected for scientific studies, too, and put simply, an abstract is a courtesy to the reader to help them decide if the full-length work is what they are looking for. An abstract is a high-level summary, usually one paragraph, that ranges between 150 to 250 words.
A synopsis, for fiction, is like an abstract for non-fiction.
If you are seeking traditional publication, your synopsis may (or may not) unlock the door to finding an agent or a publisher.
Steve Laube commented that sending your first three chapters without a synopsis is: “Like asking someone to buy a car but only showing them the front grill and the passenger side door.” Ha! I love that analogy. If you want to read his entire article, here’s the link: “Why Write a Synopsis?”
Even if you plan to self-publish, your synopsis is a valuable, not-to-be-missed part of the writing and refining process. Why? Because it will help you ferret out the weaknesses in your story:
I advise attempting to create your first synopsis BEFORE you write your story.
Breathe! fanning your face It’s gonna be okay.
Write a single paragraph:
ELIZABETH BENNET is one of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five daughters. The estate is entailed to a distant cousin, and the girls’ parents are desperate to marry them off. MR. DARCY is a wealthy prospect who is attracted by Elizabeth but put off by her decidedly crass relatives. He insults her at their first meeting, despite his immediate attraction, and she is in no hurry to forgive. Can love overcome his prejudice and her pride?
See? You can do that.
If you can summarize more of your story before you begin writing it, then you will spend less time wandering aimlessly, wasting precious time.
What did you say? You’ve already written your first draft? Some would say this is the very best time to write your synopsis.
Write your synopsis. Let it stretch to five pages, if need be. It’s best to stick with the main characters and the major plot points without following the bunny trails.
Then step back and ask:
Now you can tighten your story in an informed way during the revision phase. You can even rewrite your synopsis before you start revising to perfect the plot and the story arc.
Ideally, you should hone your synopsis down to one, single-spaced page. This is about 500 words. The payoff is that it is a short distance from this synopsis to a one sheet, which would act as a marketing piece for your book.
One page is difficult to achieve, especially for a full-length novel. Honestly, if you are self-publishing, it isn’t necessary to shorten your synopsis to one page, but you shouldn’t need more than five.
However, if you are preparing your synopsis for agents like Steve Laube, then you need to pay attention to their submission guidelines. If you overlook their wishes, then you are inviting them to toss your manuscript out. Some agents or publishers will want one page, some two, and some will go for three.
Start with your main character(s). State the main problem. You are expected to tell, not show. Put on your summarization hat. “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Joe Friday, Dragnet)
Tell how the characters start out, as in the example above.
Tell the inciting event. Go through the major plot points, making the stakes clear.
Then, tell the ending! Give it away. Hold nothing back. Agents and publishers want to know the resolution. If you play coy, you may find your submission in File 13.
A good rule of thumb is:
Resources for the topic:
Do you have any pointers or experiences to share about writing synopses?