The Dreaded Novel Synopsis

I recently came across some old correspondence from the first time I attempted to write a synopsis. It was for a novel I’d already completed, a novel which never sold. As I prepare to write a new synopsis for the second book in my contract, I decided it was worth reviewing.

A friend of mine, a nonfiction writer, read my first attempt at a synopsis, and described it this way: “it reads like you showed up one day for a final exam after not attending a single one of the classes.” I felt the same way, but I described it as, “no juice! There is no juice in this!”

My idea of a synopsis was, you’re supposed to give an encapsulated version of the book, a potent dehydrated powder–add prose and BING! A novel! My friend’s idea was that the synopsis would be more like, “I made some yummy pie. Do you want a slice?” She described a synopsis as getting across the feeling of what it would be like to read the actual book.

And, as I learned on further inquiry, she was correct. I now pass on what I learned about synopses from three helpful friends: Sherwood Smith, Ashley McConnell, and Rachel Manija Brown.

The synopsis is not a dry retelling of the book in neutral prose. Nor is it an Exciting! Advertisement! With Soundtrack! The tone of a synopsis should fall somewhere in the middle.

The synopsis tells the story of the book–the whole book, big reveals and all, you have no secrets from your editor–and it shows that things happen and in what order. It introduces each major character briefly and vividly. It presents the major problems the characters have to solve. And it makes the editor want to read the book.

Write the synopsis in the style of the book. This, for me, is the most difficult thing. At this point, I have written two synopses, one for the unsold novel and one more for Spice, for The Moonlight Mistress. (For The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom, and Their Lover, I submitted an outline and sample chapters, no synopsis.) Of the two, the second is far superior, and I think that’s due to it being written before I’d written the novel.

Writing the synopsis first meant I wasn’t distracted; I wasn’t trying to include all my favorite bits of the novel in the synopsis, relevant or not, because those favorite bits didn’t yet exist. I just had to outline the story and make it interesting, which was easier because I was also trying to interest myself. And for me, that worked.

Even if a synopsis is not required for submission, it’s still worthwhile to write. It helps you to figure out the most important elements of the story, which helps in the writing or, if that’s already done, the revising. Also, if the book sells, you will need a summary of the book for marketing, publicity, the art department, your website, anyone who asks, etc.. It’s best to just get it done.

Does anyone have synopsis wisdom to share?

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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11 Responses to The Dreaded Novel Synopsis

  1. katrinawilliams says:

    And your friend writes NONFICTION?? LOL – I agree, her advice was dead on. I have been thinking about writing the synopsis first because I've heard it recommended in a similar vein to what you described. I'm going to try it on my next project. So I guess my best synopsis wisdom is – Listen to other writers when they share their experience!

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    I don't know where I'd be without the advice of other writers!

    Yep, she writes nonfiction, but is a really, really good critiquer.

  3. Bethanne says:

    I find voice to be the most difficult as well. I still think my synopsis is kind of sucky, but I've been sending it out to agents as if it's the cherry on top. ;-) I'd like to try a synopsis in first person… as if I were the MC telling what happened. That's what I'm going to do for my newest wip. I'm hoping that first will transfer into something interesting…instead of staid. :D Thanks for sharing your insight.

  4. Victoria Janssen says:

    I have a suspicion that synopses might be a new problem for each new kind of book one writes, too.

  5. Sela Carsen says:

    I think I lucked out. I didn't know synopses were supposed to be these awful things when I wrote my first one. By the time I wrote my next one, I realized that a lot of people hated them, but I still didn't mind them.

    I find that if I write the synopsis as soon as I write The End on the rough draft, I'm still in the voice of the story. That might help folks who struggle to regain their voice after letting the story sit before revisions.

    And I love the idea of writing the synopsis first. I do that to some extent — answer major questions about the characters and brainstorm a few big plot points and conflicts — but then I don't look at it again as I write. Pantser!

  6. Victoria Janssen says:

    I find that if I write the synopsis as soon as I write The End on the rough draft, I'm still in the voice of the story.

    *makes note*

  7. jennareynolds says:

    Good advice all around. Thanks!

  8. Felicia Holt says:

    I've never done a proper Synopsis but I see the wisdom of what you say (and I'm taking notes). I don't think I could write it first because I'm not entirely sure of how it will happen and I don't have the voice quite down until a bit in. I do write a synopis first – just not, uh, submittable.

    I like Sela's advice – I think that'd work for me!

  9. Kate Pearce says:

    I find them hard because I really dont know what is going to happen in the book-except for 2 or 3 crucuial scenes. But I also find that when I do write them its best to do it before I write the book-far less to get in there.

  10. Crystal Jordan says:

    I actually like writing synos. Because I sell on proposal (syno and chapter, and sometimes JUST syno) I've found that they're a great way to write a road map of where I think I'd like the story to go. So, it's an outline plus a really long/interesting blurb. It's not set in stone, and the stories almost invariably change before I finish, but it's nice to have at least charted a course and found the voice of the story and the major plot points and character arcs before I start. That's what the syno makes me sit down and figure out.

    So, I'm weird. I like them.

  11. Victoria Janssen says:

    So, I'm weird. I like them.

    I confess, I like them much more now than I did when I began.

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