Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dreaded synopsis

with 2 comments

If finding a title is often the most excruciating moment in a novelist’s life, writing a synopsis can’t be far behind. Everything in a writer’s body rebels against the idea: after all, if it were possible to sum up your book in five pages, you’d have written a short story, not a novel, right? (Which is exactly what Borges so shrewdly does.) The thought of writing a synopsis brings back unpleasant memories of high school essay assignments (“Please write five double-spaced pages on the plot of Heart of Darkness“) that you thought you’d left behind forever. And there’s also the unfortunate fact that even the greatest novel of all time sounds insipid when reduced to summary form. Yet a synopsis remains a valuable tool, and it’s one that every writer should know how to use, although not for the reasons you might suspect.

First, a dirty little secret: I’ve never used a synopsis to sell a novel I’ve already written. Years ago, when I was going out to agents, I dutifully put together a detailed synopsis of The Icon Thief, and nobody asked for it. These days, a short query letter with a single paragraph of plot summary, along with a few lines about your own background, is all most agents need to decide whether or not request the full manuscript. And much later, when the novel went out to publishers, nobody asked for a synopsis, either. To this day, I don’t think anyone has seen that summary except for me. So is a synopsis a waste of effort? Not necessarily, as long as you write it at the right time—which is before you’ve written the underlying novel. This may sound like a huge pain in the ass, and it is, but there are still good reasons for doing it first.

I discovered this while working on the novel that eventually became City of Exiles. The Icon Thief had been picked up as part of a two-book deal, which was great, except for the fact that I had conceived the first book as a complete story in itself, and didn’t have any ideas for a sequel. To get my advance for the second book, which was money I needed, I had to write up a detailed proposal, much against my will. Among other things, knowing how much a story can evolve during the writing process, I was afraid of getting locked into a plot I wouldn’t want to write six months from now. But as I grudgingly began to write the synopsis, working from a rough outline I had prepared earlier, I realized a number of things:

  1. A synopsis only needs to be really detailed when it comes to a novel’s first act, when the premise, setting, and conflict are introduced. The second and third acts can be described in fairly general terms, which leaves you with some flexibility in case your plans change, as they almost always do.
  2. When you’re writing a synopsis, you get new ideas. The simple process of turning an outline into clear sentences for another person to read, as well as the physical act of typing, has the effect of clarifying your own thoughts and taking the story in unexpected directions. In other words…
  3. A synopsis helps you see what the novel is really about.

In short, a synopsis is just another creative tool, as useful, in its own way, as an outline or a mind map, which means that a working writer at least needs to consider it. And as annoying as it may be, from now on, I intend to prepare a synopsis during the planning stages of every novel I write, both as a selling tool to publishers and as a way of organizing my thoughts. Once its purpose has been served, of course, the synopsis can go into a drawer, its important points internalized. And it can be a startling experience to go back and reread the synopsis after the novel has been written and say to yourself: “Wow. Is that what I thought I was writing?”

But how should a synopsis look? At some point, I may post the synopses for my own novels, but since they aren’t scheduled to be published at all until March and December of next year, that probably isn’t a great idea yet. In the meantime, you can find plenty of boring examples of the synopsis form online, but for my money, you’re better off looking at the masters: Borges, whose short stories, like “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” are often brilliant synopses of imaginary novels, and Tolkien, whose synopsis of the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, included at the beginning of The Return of the King, is a model of how a conventional synopsis should read. I’ll be reading them endlessly over the next few days, as I prepare to write a synopsis for my third novel. You’ll be hearing more about this soon…

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting. Synopses are pay-points in my book contracts, so I find myself writing them with horrid frequency. I’ve always loathed them–the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even–but about two books ago, I developed a new method: I consider the synopsis as an entirely separate work, designed to entertain my editor and not necessarily bearing more than a few chromosomes of the future book. It’s worked well from a purse-loosening standpoint, but I think you’re probably right about the long-term navigational value of doing a real synopsis, and your idea about the detailed first act, followed by the sketchier second and third, would allow sufficient leeway for invention, which is the only reason I write anyway. Annie Barrows

    Annie Barrows

    October 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  2. @Annie: I agree completely. Your thoughts are nicely timed, in fact, because I’m just starting work on a new project, and about to gear up for the usual outline and synopsis. Despite my own advice, I was tempted to skip the latter this time, so I appreciate the reminder of why a synopsis can be so useful. (And your idea of a synopsis as an entirely separate work between you and your editor is exactly right.)

    Thanks so much for dropping by—and for a welcome Duchamp reference. :) I hope to see you around!


    October 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm

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