The Successful Synopsis

This article originally appeared on the Erotica Authors Association website

Writing a novel is an heroic endeavor. It takes not only imagination and creativity, but also more prosaic virtues such as perseverance, discipline, and attention to detail. Anyone who can generate 80,000 to 100,000 words without giving up in self-disgust has my admiration. I've done it myself, so I know how difficult it is. Yet many novelists quail in the face of a far less daunting task: producing a few thousand words for a synopsis of their work that is often required by publishers.

I think that one reason why so many writers claim to have trouble with synopses is that they may have misconceptions about what a synopsis is supposed to accomplish. Also, this may be a forest-and-trees phenomenon. Novelists are so deeply involved in the complexities of their fictional worlds, they may have a hard time pulling back and taking a more generalized view.

What is a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a summary of a longer work - for purposes of this article, a novel or novella. Publishers have different standards for the length and format of a synopsis. One common format is a chapter-by-chapter summary, with one or two paragraphs per chapter. Assuming 200 words per paragraph and 10 to 20 chapters, the length of a typical synopsis will be in the same range as the average short story: 2000 to 4000 words.

You should of course always consult your target publisher's guidelines before creating the synopsis. Some publishers want more detail, while others may ask for less.

Although a synopsis is of comparable length to a story, the similarities end there. A synopsis does not need to establish the setting, set a mood, or develop characters. Fundamentally, a synopsis is about plot. It is a prose outline of the major events in your novel. Your synopsis needs to introduce and identify your major characters, and then explain what they do or experience during the course of the novel. Given the constraints of word count, your synopsis should not include much description or backstory. It does not need to create suspense. It should never contain dialogue.

The purpose of a synopsis is to convey information to the publisher (or editor or agent). The synopsis allows the publisher to evaluate whether the action flow of your novel makes sense, and whether it will be of interest to their target audience. If your novel is not yet completed, the synopsis also demonstrates that you have worked out the resolution for the conflicts and problems that you introduce in your early chapters. (It's sometimes possible to sell an incomplete novel on speculation, based on initial chapters plus a synopsis. In fact, I've sold all four of my novels in this manner.)

A synopsis is part of your marketing package, but it is not intended to sell the publisher on your writing style. Your sample chapters should do this. A synopsis is also different from a "blurb", those brief plot summaries that are often included on websites or book jackets to try to attract readers. A synopsis does not need to be clever or elegant or even creative. Rather, it needs to be clear and comprehensible, communicating the essential structure of your novel while leaving out extraneous details.

How to Write a Synopsis

There are a variety of strategies that can be applied to creating a synopsis. They vary somewhat, depending on whether your novel is already complete or you're writing a synopsis for a speculative submission. Different strategies might feel more natural, depending on your cognitive style: linear and hierarchical versus non-linear and associative.

1. The outline approach.

This strategy works well for linear thinkers. Create an outline of your novel. Create a major item for each chapter. Within each major section, list in order the most important events that occur in that chapter as sub-items. Try to limit the number of sub-items to three or four. Focus on the one chapter you are considering. Don't go back or forward in the narrative flow.

Once you have your outline, turn each major section into a paragraph. Each sub-item should generate one or at most two sentences.

The result of this process will be a synopsis, but it may be hard to follow because it is missing transitions. Go back and add, as necessary, sentences that link chapter events back to previous chapters.

Once you have tried this approach a few times, you'll probably discover that you don't need to create the intermediate outline. You will be able to move directly from a mental summary of the major events in a chapter to the sentences of the synopsis.

A variant to this approach is to use the scene breaks in your chapters to identify the sub-items. In other words, one scene will become one sentence in the synopsis.

2. The Post-it Note approach.

Some writers do not feel comfortable with outlines, either when creating their stories or afterwards. Yet a synopsis is, structurally speaking, an outline. For non-linear thinkers, the scene-based strategy, in particular, may feel terribly artificial. For these authors, the Post-it Note approach may be more natural.

Sit down with a pad of Post-it Notes. Start thinking about your novel. On each Post-it Note, write down one story point that you think is important to your novel. Don't worry about temporal order; just jot down your first impressions. However, you should try to focus on actions or events rather than characters or setting.

Continue until you have twenty or thirty items on your Post-It Notes. Then go back and arrange them into the time sequence in which they occur in your novel. Next, survey your notes and satisfy yourself that all items are equally important. Try to remove items that are not critical to the plot, even if they illuminate the characters or perform some other narrative function.

Finally, turn each of your notes into a sentence or two. Fill in transitions as necessary. The result should be a reasonably coherent summary of the major happenings in your book.

3. The dictation approach

You've lived with your novel for a long time. Now, tell the story of to someone else. Record your narration. Then go back and transcribe your oral recounting of the tale.

When they tell a story out loud, people often discover a natural ability to select relevant detail and to focus attention on the essentials. A real audience will provide feedback, in their expressions and body language, that will help you to realize when you're getting into too much detail and when you are missing connections.

This strategy is particularly appropriate for unfinished novels. As you tell the story, you may find yourself making decisions about the course of the plot.

Some Common Problems in Creating Synopses

There are a variety of issues that can arise when following the strategies above. Some of these are general, while others are specific to writing synopses of erotica or erotic romance.

1. The plot is not linear in time.

Some novels contain frequent flashbacks that reveal information important for future events. Other novels (particularly in the science fiction or paranormal genres) may include parallel timelines. The guidelines above suggest that the synopsis should be linear in time; how can you deal with these aberrations?

My recommendation is to linearize as much as possible. Describe the prior events that are contained in the flashback before the events that they influence. For parallel timelines, try to deal with each one as a separate thread, and then include coordinating information that helps the reader to relate them. This approach can also be applied to novels in which several characters pursue separate activities which ultimately connect.

Remember that your goal is to explain the events of your plot, not to build suspense or gradually reveal the nature of the truth. The sequence in which you describe events in your synopsis does not need to match the exposition in the novel itself.

All this being said, there are certain novels - for example, Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE - which can be extremely difficult to linearize. Even this novel, though, could be summarized by breaking its narrative into several phases: Claire's childhood, Claire's married days; Claire's life after Henry's death.

2. Many characters need to be introduced.

In presenting the strategies above, I haven't said anything at all about characters. Yet characters are responsible for most of the events in the plot; where do they fit in to the synopsis?

Typically, a novel will have a few major characters. Your synopsis should introduce them as early as possible, as soon as they begin to act or affect others' actions. You will need to provide some description for each character; try to focus on the attributes and historical information that is critical for the story. Usually, you can sum up a character in a phrase or clause. Once you've introduced the character, get on with the action.

If your novel has many characters, you may not need to mention them all, especially not by name. Restrict your introductions to the characters who serve as the engine for your plot.

3. Most of your novel is sex scenes.

In many erotic novels, the primary action occurs in bed (or on the kitchen table, in the shower, in the back room at the office, and so on!) Clearly you can't summarize the details of each scene, and probably you wouldn't want to:

"Lisa sucks George's cock until he comes. Then Roger comes out from the broom closet and takes Lisa anally while George jacks off"...

So, if you don't want your synopsis to read like a list of body parts and sex acts, what do you do?

For each sex scene, ask yourself: what changed because of this scene? How did this scene modify the relationship between the characters, or a character's self-image? This is what you need to describe in your synopsis; the sex itself should get no more than a mention.

You may want to highlight salient points. If this is a character's first experience with BDSM, for example, the audience may need to know. However, it's better to say too little about the sex than too much. Once again, you're not trying to arouse your reader; you're trying to convey information, as succintly as possible.

4. Your novel isn't finished.

How can you summarize a novel that doesn't yet exist? Clearly, you as the author must have a plan for the plot, even if you haven't yet implemented it. This plan should be what you describe in the synopsis.

Don't worry too much that you may change your mind later about the details, or even about major issues like the ending. Your synopsis is not a contract or a commitment. Publishers understand that writers sometimes have new ideas.

Editing Your Synopsis

Like anything you write, your first draft of the synopsis will probably need work. My synopses are always too long; I need to go back and consider what can be cut. Another common problem is lack of coherence. You need to communicate not only the story's events but how they are connected.

Get someone else to read the synopsis, then find out if he or she has any questions. That will help you identify points that you might have omitted, or areas that you have not clearly explained.

Obviously you want to spell check your synopsis and make sure that your grammar is correct. With the synopsis, you are not trying to dazzle the publisher with your literary brilliance. However, you do want to impress the reader with your basic competence.


This article is already much longer than it should be. However, if you'd like to see some examples of synopses which have actually sold books, click here. And if you have questions or comments, please feel free to email me or add a comment to my blog on MySpace.

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