W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No 20. Writing Synopsis


Even the most talented writers quake at the word synopsis. Spoken aloud it sounds like a disease. Perhaps it is the idea of reducing work that took months or even years to a few pages combined with the pressure that it should represent your best writing that makes writing a synopsis so hard.

Some publishers state what they want in the synopsis. Others don't. Check each publisher's guidelines. However, if you have a synopsis already written it is easier to adapt it then to create one fresh.

Your synopsis is a commercial for your work. First time novelists tend to do a chapter by chapter review of their work. This is NOT the way to create a powerful selling tool for your novel. Would you buy a soap product if the publicity only listed the chemicals? A mere listing will turn off the editors. You must make the story fascinating.

A synopsis is a deconstruction of your novel. After spending weeks/months/years structuring your novel deconstructing it can be painful.


  1. Free write the story. Sit down and just write about the story. Give yourself ten minutes and don't stop writing. Keep your pencil moving. Don't worry about spelling, corrections.
  2. Mind map the novel. I've put two examples of mind mapping on my website at www.wisewordsonwriting.com One is a mind map of the major characters and the other is of the major story lines and subplots. A mind map is when you put down all the ideas as fast as you can, connecting related ideas with lines (it cannot be done fast on a computer. Use pencil and paper).
  3. Pretend you have ten minutes to tell the story of your book to an audience.

Suggestions (not rules) on format:

  1. Length - plan to write about a page for every hundred pages of novel unless the publisher gives you a limit. Think of a synopsis as a blurb on steroids. However, don't write to word count. Make it long enough or short enough to tell the story.
  2. Use the present tense for a sense of immediacy.
  3. Don't confuse the structure with the story.
  4. Make sure somewhere in your presentation the number of words plus genre. "Title is a 65,382 mystery novel that…"
  5. Chronological order usually makes more sense, even if your story is not told in chronological order.
  6. Use the third person.
  7. You don't have to include each scene.
  8. There should be a flow from one scene to another.
  9. Resolve everything. An editor will not want a cliff hangar.

The actual writing (gulp)

  1. Lead sentence - A good story starts with a sentence that hooks the reader. The same is true of a synopsis. I used the following for CHICKPEA LOVER "From the moment Liz admits she's in love with a man who dresses as vegetables, her life was never the same." If you haven't got the opening sentence, don't let that stop you. You can write it later.
  2. Flashbacks should be interwoven into the story not break up the flow of the story. Only include necessary flashbacks. For example if you've done a three-page flashback on a Vietnam war scene that haunts your hero, don't bring this in great detail but reduce it to the "The horror of watching an entire village die when his fellow office opened fire with an M14, still haunts John's nightmares.
  3. Emphasise major and minor plots and connect them within the story.
  4. Separate characters by giving each their own paragraph, but don't break the story line. Include their feelings and motivations.
  5. Theme should be touched on. In my novel CHICKPEA LOVER the theme is how power is used in personal and professional relationships, but it is shown through the story of a woman who falls in love with a younger man as her marriage and career fall apart when she gets embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal at the college where she teaches.
  6. Show how the characters have developed and changed.
  7. Resolve all plot lines. Editors don't want to be kept in suspense.

After writing your synopsis

  1. If you haven't a reliable critic, put it in a drawer to let it "compost". Look at it again in a month. If you have a reliable critic, have them read it and listen to their comments.
  2. Go over every sentence to make sure every word is necessary.
  3. Have you over worked the verb to be?
  4. Are you being lazy and relying too much on adjectives and adverbs?
  5. Spell check.
  6. Reread to make sure their and there, you're and your and other words that spell check will miss are used correctly.
  7. When you are satisfied that it is one of your best piece of writing, add sample chapters, a good covering letter and put it in the mail with a wish that it will motivate that editor to ask for your complete manuscript.
  8. Treat yourself to something special. You've earned it.


The two examples are about telling stories. A good synopsis is a good story.

Example 1

"So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favour the stretch in between since it is the hardest..." Margaret Atwood

Example 2

"I'm a novelist; I write novels. It's convenient for everybody but the writer to categorize writing: readers know what they like, bookstores know where to shelve them, reviewers can slot them. But it's irrelevant to me Dostoyevsky also wrote crime novel. I'm trying to do what Faulkner or Fitzgerald tried to do. They just did it better. We're all trying to do tell a compelling story." Robert B. Parker in an interview in October 2003 Yankee Magazine.


Take the most recent book you've liked and write a synopsis of it. You won't have the emotional involvement that you have with your own work.


A reader comments on writing about place from a foreign country

I found your excellent newsletter significant for personal reasons as well. When I was 18, I ripped myself away from my comfortable English culture and background to go and live in Paris. Real identity crises! It was then and there that I started writing. So the topics you touched on struck very resonant chords. The problems related to (near) bi-lingualism have been dogging me for decades. Thanks for exploring the theme in the way you did. (Incidentally, I didn't pick up a single spelling error, so your singing must be improving by leaps and bounds!)

Kind regards,

(For all my advice about proof reading, I am a terrible proof reader of my own work.)

Take a look at this site

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