How to Write a Book Synopsis

By Anne K. Kaler, PhD

“Send me a synopsis,” says your literary agent or editor.

Anne Kaler Head Shot
Anne K. Kaler

“Synopsis,” you say, “Sure. I’ll get mine in the mail to you.”

“Just as soon as I figure out just what it is,” you add under your breath as panic scrambles the few brain cells you have left.

And you thought writing was easy?

Do you run to the dictionary to check the meaning of the word?  Do you Google it? Do you call up a writing partner to advise you? Or do you give up in despair because you know that you are going to have to venture into the major leagues of the craft of writing without a bat, ball, or glove.

Or hope.  Well, fear not.  Perhaps we can put a synopsis-monster in the dugout with you as another piece of equipment for your use.  Yes, it means learning and conquering a new skill when you thought you had them all at your command.  After all, you got an idea for a story, tossed it around the playing field, honed your writing style to avoid strikeouts, narrowed your field of vision, developed your ability of catching fly balls and turning them into double outs.  So here is your lesson on synopsis . . . from my point of view.

A change of view also means a change of metaphor here because the origin of the word “synopsis” translates into a visual metaphor resembling a telescope/microscope image.  When you are revising your written text, you are working on the microscopic level  —  that is, you are dealing with minute, tiny, effervescent words and phrases and sentences – the nitty-grit of style, the flow of the sound of individual words and sentences.  However, sometimes writers get caught up in this heady word-pursuit and lose the plot among the imaginary roses along the writing path.  This level is where pruning must take place to eliminate the words which distract from moving the plot forward to its conclusion. (And that process is another blog.)

A further meaning of synopsis is “to see it altogether at one time” or “a general view or overview.”  Such a synopsis is like the telescope which allows the viewer to see the whole instead of the part.  Notice that this is not the “point of view” in writing. POV is the physical perspective from which the author views his subject – the hero’s first person view or the heroine’s third person or the omniscient neutral third person view.

A synoptic view sees the entire plot line of the book as a guideline to the conclusion and mirrors the intent of the book.  It is a plain, explanatory, cool, unemotional outline of what happens in the book.  It serves as a map, a topographical map, which records where the mountains and rivers of the story are while, at the same time, suggesting how the characters respond to and are changed by the events in the book.

Such a synopsis tells the storyline and plotline of what the book is about so that an editor can see where the story begins and ends.  It is that simple . . . and that difficult to write.  It boils down precious phrases and clever dialogue into pure semi-historical fact of a story you created.

So, now you know what a synopsis is.  Telling you or showing you how to write one is the hardest part.  I suggest that you check out Anita Nolan’s fine resource on synopsis construction found in our Resources section of this blog.

Another way to look at a synopsis is as a pyramid, similar to that of a standard news article.  The headline equals the title of your book. (Here’s another blog for another day.)  Your title should be the top point of the pyramid because it is the sharpest point which attracts your reader’s attention.  Then comes the bold-faced subtitle, a short paragraph or phrase describing the most important fact in the major article.  This should command your attention even more strongly because it cites the most important fact to be developed later in the article.  See how this is following a rough outline, starting with the most significant fact of the story.  That paragraph is a synopsis of the longer paragraph which follows as the lead paragraph in a news article.

Once the lead paragraph establishes the base of fact, the article proceeds with an outline fleshed out by more facts (your actual writing or text) which becomes the base of the pyramid.  And the ending of the article often finishes with a return to the original problem or the restoration of order, some kind of order, just as your book ends on the upbeat.

Characteristics of a good synopsis contain the organized outline of the story without its many side notes or deviations or clever scenes.  It simply tells the story in its short form. Usually you should have handy a one-page or 250-word synopsis and a one-page more detailed synopsis and a five-page slightly expanded one. Believe me, this will be the most strenuous writing chore you will ever have  —  to cram all your beloved actions into a small space while discarding all your pretty phrases.

You may have heard of a “pitch” (see how cleverly we revert back to our baseball metaphor).  Sometimes referred to as an “elevator pitch”, this summary is a one-to-three sentence synopsis which can be delivered under pressure in an elevator when or if you can corner an agent or editor there. The pitch will often evolve into the blurb on the back cover so it must be succinct and seductive.

Oh, and by the way, synopsis should be done in present tense since, in the truest sense, your story is alive because you are telling someone about it.  In literary studies, the characters in stories are truly considered alive because, whether you have read them before or not, the characters are alive on the page waiting for the next read.  Sort of an immortality privilege of characters in stories. Neat thought?

A final comment from this blogger . . . when I first had to make a summary/precis/abstract/synopsis, I had great trouble doing so.  I finally figured out that, however clever my plot outline of my mystery was, no matter how detailed my scenes and dialogue were, I refused to have the murderer identified – because I had not figured out who he/she was. Once I realized that, I gave up on mystery for a while and stuck to romance.

If you have trouble with writing your synopsis, check out the many resources in our blog or on online. If all else fails, check with me . . . as long as you know who the murderer is.

Good luck and keep writing.

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