Crafting The Synopsis

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week I sent my agent a synopsis for my new WIP – a proposed YA novel that blends history, fantasy and suspense. I haven’t actually written it yet but I crafted a synopsis to achieve two things: First, to get feedback from my agent on my idea for the book and second, to focus my own mind.

The concept of writing a synopsis of a book that has yet to be written may seem strange to many people but I find it an invaluable first step. For me the synopsis precedes a more detailed chapter outline (as you can see I’m a planner) but also provides a global view that helps solidify in my mind the key elements for the novel: the tone, characters and setting for the book. Though my synopsis provides an overview of the plot it doesn’t go into any more detail than the summary you might find on the dust jacket of a book. In the case of my YA novel, I found I could craft the synopsis even though, as yet, I have no real idea how the problem presented is actually resolved.

In many ways I find writing a synopsis harder than writing the book itself – for it has to be a succinct encapsulation of all the facets of the story and should also be a vehicle for presenting the ‘hook’ or premise that will (hopefully!) generate excitement for the project. I spent many, many hours tearing my hair out over my first synopsis (for Consequences of Sin) which I was going to use at a (helpful but horrific) speed dating for agent session. I ended up handing it over at lunch to the woman who would go on to be my first agent and I truly think it was the synopsis that ‘sold’ her on the idea for the book. Though producing that first synopsis was a stressful experience it taught me the value of the exercise and now I prepare a synopsis before I write each book.

To me the value of the process is threefold:

  • It forces me to compress my ideas into one or two unifying themes that give an overall flavor for the tone of the book.
  • It provides me with the one to two line ‘hook’ that I can then use when pitching the idea and which my agent can also use when talking to editors and others about the project. I also send my agent multiple project synopses to get input on which is the best, strategically, to work on next.
  • It already starts me thinking about how I will frame the book – and by this I mean in marketing terms: What kind of book is it? How would a publisher categorize and market it? What other books is it likely to be compared to?

Now this may all sound very anal and weird but I find the exercise to be a critical first step for me. It comes after I’ve done my initial research and once the idea I have for the book has crystallized in my own mind, even if the details of plot still remain unknown.

So how about you? Does anyone else put together a synopsis at the beginning of a project? How difficult is it for you to distill down your book into a one page description? What elements do you think make a synopsis compelling?

10 thoughts on “Crafting The Synopsis

  1. I begin with the concept, which may be the same thing–three or four sentences that gives the book’s main characters and conflict. I also write a detailed outline so I’ll know where I’m taking the characters and how they will be getting there.

  2. I’ve always felt that writing a 100k-word novel is a cakewalk compared to writing a 2-page synopsis. But I also feel it’s a good exercise for any writer to do. It’s especially important for me since I collaborate. My co-writer and I must know where we’re going, even in the most general terms. For us, that starts with creating the synopsis. Before beginning our latest thriller, we spend over a month constructing a 10-page synopsis. We then circulated it around to our fellow writer friends for reaction. As we progressed through writing the manuscript, we revised the synopsis many times. That way, by the time we finished the book, the synopsis was not only compete but accurate.

    Most publishers require a synopsis before considering an author’s next book even if they’re already established with the pub. And your agent must have a solid synopsis if she’s going to pitch you book to a new pub.

    We work just like JRM—start with the concept or hook and build from it. It can be painful but well worth the time in the end.

  3. I call a synopsis “dust jacket copy on steroids.” I counsel new writers to study dust jackets of books in their genre, then write a 2 page synopsis in that style. Doing a longer synopsis, like Joe and Lynn, is good for the story muscles, too. At a minimum, I need to be excited about my short synopsis or I’m not ready to proceed.

  4. I had to write a synopsis for each book in my series before signing the contract with my publisher–it was required. Mine aren’t long–about a page, max. I got into the habit of writing synopses when I was writing YA detective novels. The book packager had us write a synopsis for each book, followed by a simple chapter outline. It was a neat way to learn the craft of mystery writing, and I acquired some good habits that have stuck with me.

  5. Thanks everyone – it’s good to know that other authors adopt a similar approach – and after having to do a synopsis and outline for my publisher it now feels like second nature – even if the synopsis feels way harder than the book sometimes!

  6. My publisher requires a synopsis, or proposal, for each book. For me, it’s like pulling teeth and I usually start by writing a first chapter to get a sense of where the story starts. The rest of it usually is very forced, and the books have not ended up looking like the proposals except in the most basic of ways. Fortunately my publisher doesn’t care. They just need to know I have an idea.

  7. I had to write a synopsis before the book for the first time recently. My agent, in haggling my already completed mss said she wanted ammo to show I could do it again and asked for a synopsis for the as yet unstarted sequel. I found the process of doing it both daunting and rewarding, especially now that I am working on the draft of that novel. I have constraints to keep me in the story and the knowledge that someone is expecting it go a certain direction, thereby keeping me on the path.

    First time for everything, and this is the first time I am going into a novel with a solid idea of how it ends before putting word one on the page. That way, when I spend a week fishing (last week was dip netting on the Kenai river, google it…nothing like it in the world) I can come back and know pretty much what is needed without having lost too much data while grunting and huffing in the surf.

  8. Interesting idea. I just finished the synopsis for my novel after a request from agents at Thrillerfest, and found them very hard to do. But I agree with you. If I had done them first, it would have provided me with a plan of where I was going.

    I usually have the opening scene, and the ending. All I need to do is fill in the middle.

    I might try writing a synopsis first, on my next one. Good insight.

  9. My entry is my first attempt at writing a synopsis first. I’m really quite enjoying it – whenever I feel like I’ve run out of ideas I check the synopsis and realize I’ve missed something. Great cure for writers block.

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