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The synopsis #amwriting

On Monday, we covered the query and cover letter. Today we are going over the synopsis, which is a short summary of your story or book. Indies will occasionally have to write a synopsis if they submit their longer work to contests, agents, or publishers.

When a contest or publisher asks for a synopsis, they don’t want a book blurb, which is a “this is why you should buy my book” teaser. They do want a short description filled with all the spoilers so that the work goes to the right editor or (in the case of a contest) reader.

Most submissions are electronic. I’ve mentioned before how important naming your files is. You want your work to be easily found, so don’t label your synopsis file “synopsis.doc.” Be specific and include the book title: Don_Quixote_Synopsis.doc

Try to be brief. For an average 300 – 400 page novel of less than 100,000 words, 500 to 800 words is good and won’t frighten off your intended editor/publisher. Length can vary—some agents and editors will want a longer synopsis, so be sure to check their website for their guidelines.

For a short story, a paragraph or so in the cover letter is usually all that is required for your synopsis.

Why do agents and editors want a synopsis when they can have the whole manuscript? They will ask for the first two or three chapters but are subject to time constraints. They don’t have time to read and judge an entire novel, so if they are interested at that point, they turn to the synopsis.

The synopsis, with its recounting of the events, will tell them if the rest of the book will keep the reader hooked. If they like the way the plot evolves, they will ask for the entire manuscript.

Your synopsis is not intended to entertain the editor. Your first few chapters should have done that. It is meant to be a brief, dry recounting of the who, what, where, when, and why of your entire novel.

If we are boiling a 350 page novel down to 500 – 800 words (which is only around one page), what do we include in our synopsis?

Harry Bingham of the UK’s largest literary consultancy, Jericho Writers, says:

A synopsis is a 500-800 word summary of your book that forms part of your agent submission pack. It should outline your plot in neutral non-salesy language and demonstrate a clear story arc. Every major plot twist, character, and any big turning point or climactic scene should get a mention. [1]

In other words:

  • Summarize your novel and include all the twists.
  • Don’t give it the hard sell.
  • Start at the beginning and hit the high points of the plot all the way to the end.

In this, as in most things, the internet is your friend. For a great article that includes both an excellent example of a synopsis, a good template, and many more details of how to write a synopsis, go to https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.

The following synopsis is of a book published in 1605, and which is 1,072 pages long. A book of this length would require a 2,000 word synopsis to cover the high points.

400-word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is a metafictional account of the mid-life crisis and adventures of a nobleman (hidalgo) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano. The first chapters are taken from “the archives of La Mancha,” and the rest is translated from an Arabic text by the Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli.

Nearing 50 years of age and living in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper, Quixano is usually a rational man. He is obsessed with reading tales of chivalry and knights-errant. However, by not sleeping adequately because he was reading, Quixano is easily given to anger. He believes every word of his fictional books of chivalry to be true.

While he is asleep in his bed, his niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate, and the local barber burn most of his chivalric and other books. The priest must decide which books are bad for morality, so he can know them well enough to describe every naughty scene.

After the books are burned, the niece and priest seal up the room which contained the library, later telling Quixano that it was the action of a wizard.

The loss of his books causes him to lose his mind. Quixano decides to become a knight-errant. He will revive chivalry and serve his nation, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha.

After a short period of feigning health, Don Quixote requests his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising him a governorship. Sancho is a poor and simple farmer but is far more practical than Don Quixote. He agrees to the offer, sneaking away with Don Quixote in the early dawn.

They begin their quest to revive chivalry, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants.

The two next encounter two Benedictine friars traveling on the road ahead of a lady in a carriage. The friars are not traveling with the lady but happen to be on the same road. Don Quixote believes the friars are enchanters who hold the lady captive. He knocks a friar from his horse and is challenged by an armed Basque traveling with the company.

As he has no shield, the Basque uses a pillow from the carriage to protect himself, which saves him when Don Quixote strikes him. The combat ends with the lady leaving her carriage and commanding those traveling with her to “surrender” to Don Quixote. [2]

I do recommend you go to the Jericho Writers site and follow their guidelines if you are asked for a synopsis. The article there is one of the most comprehensive and useful ones I’ve read anywhere. Again, that article can be found at https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] How To Write A Novel Synopsis: Includes Template & Example, © 2019  by Harry Bingham, https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/ (Accessed 03 Mar 2020).

[2] 400 word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, condensed from Wikipedia.  Wikipedia contributors, “Don Quixote,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Don_Quixote&oldid=943081150 (accessed 10 Mar 2020).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Don Quixote in the Library, by Adolf Schrödter, 1834 PD|100, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Wilhelm Marstrand, Don Quixote og Sancho Panza ved en skillevej, uden datering (efter 1847), 0119NMK, Nivaagaards Malerisamling.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Wilhelm_Marstrand,_Don_Quixote_og_Sancho_Panza_ved_en_skillevej,_uden_datering_(efter_1847),_0119NMK,_Nivaagaards_Malerisamling.jpg&oldid=376321256 (accessed March 10, 2020).

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The Synopsis #amwriting

If your publishing path is the traditional route, you must attempt to get an agent. It’s a rare thing for an author to get a book published traditionally without an agent. Agents want to sell your book, and they love to read. So you must first sell the book to an agent, and to do that, you must know how to write a synopsis.

The synopsis is not a blurb.

It is a short description of your book, hitting the high points and it does give away the ending.

The synopsis should only be one page long, written in third person, present tense. Many agents say three to five paragraphs will do it. So how do you fit a novel onto one page?

You give the agent the bare bones of the book.

Things they want to see detailed in those paragraphs:

  • Genre
  • Setting
  • Protagonist and major characters
  • What the conflict/major goals are
  • Character arc (how the characters grow/devolve throughout the book)
  • Resolution

Things you should leave out at this point? Don’t wax poetic on specific descriptions of

  • setting,
  • side characters,
  • sub plots, and
  • specific, highly detailed descriptions of plot points and the resolution.

You start with a statement that describes the books premise: A young man abandoned by his wife and left with a terminally ill child must find the one healer who can cure his son.

Introduce the protagonist and his/her problem:

Janse, a young water-mage, has been tapped to be his clan’s shaman. His wife who is not of the clan doesn’t understand the demands that responsibility places on him, and deserts him, leaving him to care for an infant with a terminal heart condition. His clan’s healer is young and untrained, but Janse’s grandfather tells him of a healer in a citadel far to the south, a journey of many months.

The next paragraphs should detail the bulk of the story. What does the protagonist do in reaction to the inciting incident? What obstacles does he/she face, and who helps or hinders them along the way?

Janse and his cousins, one of whom, Landry, is the clan’s healer, set out, taking the baby on the perilous journey. Many times on the journey, Janse must use his magic or his wiles to extricate them from trouble. They must pass through dark forests and travel through high mountain passes. Along the way, they are robbed. When they seek shelter at the first village on their route, they are turned away. No one will sell them supplies. Desperate to make it to a friendly village, they keep going but make a wrong turn and enter the lair of the Griphon. Using guile and magic, they escape from the beast. Just when it seems they will make it, the baby has a crisis. Landry is able to get the baby through the crisis, but now they know time is short. When they arrive at the citadel, they are at first turned away. Then they are directed down dangerous streets to an obscure address in the worst part of town.

Give the resolution in a nutshell. Detail isn’t important.

The elderly woman who opens the door welcomes them. She immediately takes the baby to her daughter, Ethella, who is the healer they have been seeking. Using her magic, Ethella is able to heal the baby, teaching Landry the skills he needs.

Janse and his cousins make ready to return to the clan, feeling confident. Janse has grown as both a mage and a shaman and now feels able to take his grandfather’s place and lead his clan with wisdom. Landry has grown in his abilities and is able to be the healer his clan needs.

The synopsis is only difficult because we have the urge to put all the details into it.

Being able to put your book into four paragraphs is a trick all authors need to know, whether we go the traditional route or not. People always ask you what the book is about, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell them?

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