When I was just beginning as a novelist, the publisher guideline request “submit a synopsis and sample chapters” was intimidating to say the least. There was something terrifyingly daunting about writing a succinct compelling summary of my 300-page novel packaged into just a few pages. As author Katherine Eliska Kimbriel said, “The instinctive response [of the author] is to clap on a helmet and start digging a trench.” I had a right to be terrified. In some ways the synopsis is the hardest thing for a novelist to write. Yet it is the first thing most publishers and agents want (and have time) to see of your cherished project (aside from those sample chapters, of course). Every fiction writer who wants to sell in the current market must know how to write a synopsis because that’s what an editor wants to see first. Most editors (if they’re good) are overworked with scarce enough time to answer their phones, much less their emails.
I’m not going to describe how to write a synopsis in this post. If you want to see an excellent summary of what a good synopsis should look like, there are many excellent descriptions by professional editors, agents and other writers who describe what a synopsis is and even give examples—including my own book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!”, Chapter “O.” Elizabeth Lyon also describes the synopsis (as opposed to an outline) in several of her how-to books.
Instead, I present here why you should write that dreaded synopsis, and way before you finish your book, too.
Synopsis vs. Outline
A synopsis is not an outline. Both are useful to the writer, yet each serves a very different purpose. An outline is a tool (usually just for the writer) that sketches plot items of a book. It provides a skeleton or framework of people, places and their relationships to the storyline that permits the writer to ultimately gauge scene, setting, and character depth or even determine whether a character is required (every character must have a reason to be in the book, usually to move the plot). For writers just beginning, this is an excellent tool to keep the narrative spare and compelling and to remove superfluous characters and other things (a common beginning writer inclination). A synopsis, on the other hand, is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. This is usually what an editor wants to see, although I have seen them request an outline as well. To put it basically, the outline describes what happens when and to whom, while the synopsis includes the “why” part.
What a synopsis does (along with the sample chapters and extremely important query letter) is get your manuscript read by an editor. That’s the real purpose of a synopsis. An editor makes his/her decision to look at your manuscript based on these three items: query letter (intro to you); sample chapters; and your synopsis. Ultimately, their decision resides with whether your project fits their own imprint at the time.
If that isn’t reason enough to write a synopsis of your novel, below are two others:
Synopsis as Storytelling Prompt
A synopsis of your novel goes beyond the outline to help polish elements of story arc, characterization with plot and setting with story. The synopsis can answer questions perplexing the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. Because the synopsis is based on emotional turning points (related to theme), character dramatization of the premise is a key foundation. It makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.
Synopsis as Marketing Summary
Your well-written synopsis is often used internally by the publishing house staff (e.g., by artist, copywriter, and sales department) once your novel has been accepted.
I advise you to write it now. Don’t wait. Make the synopsis work for you throughout your novel’s journey.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.