The Dreaded Synopsis

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From Writers Helping Writers:

Many authors would rather write a whole new novel than cram the one they’ve already written into a five-hundred-word summary. If I wanted to write a short story, I would have written one. Right?

The reason we hate writing synopses is because they’re hard. The reason they’re hard is because, more than any other tool available to us, they show us what’s wrong with the novel we’ve labored over for months, if not years.

The synopsis is the equivalent of a house inspector—that man or woman who walks around with a clipboard and goes through the house you thought you were ready to sell, pointing out all the structural issues you either didn’t know about or pretended weren’t a problem: roof damage, termites, a saggy bearing wall, you name it. You can do all the fancy writing in the world. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with your novel, it will come out in the synopsis.

            That’s why we hate them.

            That’s why most agents ask for one.

Reading a synopsis is the quickest way to know if a novel will work or not. It’s also the surest way to find out if the author knows what they’re doing when it comes to things like structure, causality, story arc and characterization—you know, those critical developmental issues you hoped wouldn’t matter.

Guess what? They do.

If your plot is anecdotal, it will show up in the synopsis. If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal that they’re actively pursuing throughout the story; if there are no stakes, a weak antagonist, a plot that’s bursting with too much superficial business and no depth—yup, the synopsis will reveal all of that.

If you, the author, are willing to see it, the synopsis will be that heart-sinking moment of truth where you can no longer deny that this house is not ready to sell, not by a long-shot. It needs help. It might even need to be razed to the ground.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

5 thoughts on “The Dreaded Synopsis”

  1. The ordinary/primary audience for a synopsis is people who won’t read the work:

    High-school students.

    Sales/marketing/publicity staff.


  2. Steinbeck had a short summary at the start of each chapter. I have always wondered if he was just sticking his outline items there.

  3. To each their own.

    Actually, I synopsize before I really start. I’ll put down some scenes or even dialog that pops into my head before that, but I might discard or seriously modify them after the synopsis. I don’t limit them to 500 words, but they definitely run under 1,000.

    Then I synopsize each chapter (for a novel). Those I limit to ten lines in the document (about 170-220 words).

    All of this lets me make sure the pieces are probably going to work together. Something like sorting out the different colors when tackling a jigsaw puzzle. (Yes, it sometimes works about as well as for the puzzle, but it does help.)

    For a planned series, I do the series synopsis first. Just call me a serial synopsizer…

    (For anyone wondering, this has been a very bad couple of years for concentration. That is settling out now, or so the optimist side thinks – August 1 is my target date to start locking the office door for several hours a day. If you are of a mind to, please pray for me…)

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