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pathways to publishing > publishing tips > writing a synopsis

 

Writing a synopsis

Writers often moan and groan about writing a synopsis. But there's no escape – if you want a literary agent to represent you or a commercial publisher to consider your manuscript, you're going to have to do it. Many writers find a 500 word synopsis more daunting than an 80,000 word manuscript. Here are some tips to help.

THE ESSENCE SENTENCE

Somewhere in your synopsis you should identify the essence of your story in one sentence. This is not what happens in your manuscript, this is what it is about. You'll find an 'essence sentence' in most back cover blurbs. For example, Marele Day's The Sea Bed (literary fiction): 'The Sea Bed is an illuminating story of love, family and change.' And from Tarab by Carl Cleves (travel memoir): 'From the Sudan to Northern New South Wales, Tarab is an epic, mesmerizing tale of high adventure and the search for meaning.' Or Lisa Walker's Sex, Lies & Bonsai (romantic comedy): 'A tender and witty tale about finding your voice, falling in love ... and crab sex.'

Your essence sentence may take a while to hone, but it is very useful, not only for your synopsis, but for your own understanding of your work. Consider the themes at play in your manuscript. If you're feeling stuck, try 'This is a story about...' or 'This is a story of...'

David Roland, who pitched his memoir How I Rescued My Brain at last year's Byron Bay Writers' Festival, was complemented by several of the publishers on the panel for his excellent synopsis. (He now has an agent and a publishing contract.) The 'essence sentence' in his synopsis, which comes towards the end, is: 'This is a story of survival, recovery and revelation.'

THE STORY LINE

The professional reader considering your work may have a few sample chapters as well as your synopsis, but they will want to know what happens in your book through to the end. This is where the synopsis differs from the back cover blurb. In both cases you want to entice the curiosity of the reader, but in the synopsis you need to give the game away so that the agent/editor can consider the viability of the story as a whole.

But remember you only have around 500 words. And in that space you need to introduce the key characters. Think of the key events and turning points, stripping away minor plot lines or minor characters. Dive straight in. David Roland's 427 word synopsis begins: 'With his brain gone haywire from trauma, grief, financial ruin and a stroke, a clinical and forensic psychologist embarks on a personal quest to understand and heal his brain.'

Lisa Walker's synopsis for Sex, Lies & Bonsai (445 words) begins: 'Dumped by text message, Edie flees Sydney for the refuge of her childhood home, taking only a wilting bonsai as a reminder of her failure.' This sentence survived not only numerous drafts of the synopsis, but is on the back cover blurb and opens the description of the book on the HarperCollins website.

YOUR STORY IN THE MARKETPLACE

An agent or editor wants to know that you are a reader and aware of the business of publishing. They want to know where you think your work will fit into the marketplace. Make sure you mention what your genre is, and your word length. You may also want to align your style to published writers (successful ones, of course) or your topic to other books available. For non-fiction, you will need a detailed marketing proposal in addition to the synopsis – but that's another story. Be careful about pushing your work as unlike anything else published. On the one hand publishers are looking for new voices, but on the other, there may be a good reason why work like that hasn't ever made it to the shelves!

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Your synopsis is not a sample of your prose style, it is a working document to enable an agent or editor to decide whether to look at more of the work, or not. Trim away adverbs and adjectives where possible. Keep it simple and direct. And don't, under any circumstances, write how wonderful the book is. A synopsis is not a review and the agent or editor is certainly not looking for your judgment of the work, you are looking for theirs.

EVERY STORY IS DIFFERENT

There is no one way to write the perfect synopsis. Every story is different. A memoir synopsis will need a strong sense of the main character and what makes their story extraordinary. A crime thriller synopsis will need to be strong on characters. For non-fiction you will need to explain why you are the best person to write such a book. Literary fiction writers will need to show a beguiling story line and well thought-out structure; romance writers will need to show the shape of the plot and the obstacles the characters face.

Like writing the manuscript itself, the only way to arrive at a great synopsis is to practise: hone, rewrite, revise, and do it all again. You may end up with dozens of versions of your synopsis written at different stages of the manuscript's development. That's okay. The challenge of distilling your work into 500 words is an important part of the process of understanding and shaping your manuscript. It may give you insights into what is and isn't working. Go on, give it a go.