A synopsis is a plot summary written in plain, unbiased language that reveals everything that happens in the story, even secrets, plot twists, and surprise endings. This is different from a blurb, which only gives a glimpse of the book’s beginning to entice readers to continue reading. If a blurb is a sales pitch that plays up the book’s strong points, then a synopsis is pure what-you-see-is-what-you-get information. You often find synopses in online sites such as Wikipedia where people can look up movie plots to refresh their memories or satisfy their curiosity. In the publishing industry, synopses are written by authors to allow agents and editors to judge the strength of their ideas and decide how much work will need to go into making their books publishable. You usually send in your synopsis at the invitation of an agent or editor after you have managed to pique his or her interest through your cover letter, which functions as more of a blurb.
It sounds like writing a synopsis would be easy. You just summarize everything that happens in your story, right? However, you must keep your synopsis within a certain limit. It might be three pages or about 600 to 1000 words. (Check the specific guidelines for the agent or publisher you wish to contact.) This cut-off helps the agents and editors to manage the countless synopses they are required to read. It also forces you to prioritize which of your story events to include in the synopsis and in how much detail. The result should be clear, crisp language that wastes no words, and a strongly plotted storyline that doesn’t lose focus anywhere.
But how do you reduce something big that you have just spent a year or more writing? You are probably so emotionally invested in your story that you want to include every funny line or intriguing piece of backstory. But you need to gain some emotional detachment. Let your newly completed story sit for a week and do something else. Return to it with fresh eyes and write your initial summary as if you were telling the plot of a movie to a friend. Don’t worry about the word-count limit. You want to complete an initial synopsis that you can work with. Then start reducing your synopsis to fit the limit.
You do this in two ways, and the first is obvious: you cut extra words and tighten your language to squeeze the most description into the shortest document possible. This is similar to line-edits on a rewrite: for example, you trim “he shrugged his shoulders,” to “he shrugged,” to achieve the same meaning in fewer words.
The second technique to streamline your synopsis involves summarizing within your initial summary. Identify where you are still describing plot events to excess and cut out as much detail as you can while still indicating what the scenes are. Instead of deepening your synopsis to a finer level of detail, you are refocusing it to a more succinct level, trimming away its flesh to leave only its skeleton. With experience you will get an instinctive feel for the correct level of enough detail but not too much, and you will be able to write your synopsis this way even on your first try.
Until then, you have to practice. For example, say your novel opens with your hero Dave attending two parties before he drops out of school to go to war. Your initial synopsis describes how he glimpses a girl who will be his future wife at the first party, but at the second party, he feels disappointed by her absence. These are poignant details, and may even partially explain why he enlists on a whim, but are not important enough to include in a synopsis, especially if you are hurting for space to cram in some more crucial plot points.
You can take a few words to introduce the future wife later in the synopsis where she fully enters the story. For now, determine the point of your novel’s beginning. If it is to show some good times to contrast with Dave’s impending military experience, then express this in the first sentence of your synopsis: Carefree college student Dave attends two parties within a week, and then enlists. Chapter 2 has him arriving at Fort Polk in Louisiana. But you don’t want to summarize too much as you might in a blurb and reduce your first sentence to, Dave renounces his carefree college days for Vietnam via Fort Polk. Your synopsis must indicate the placement of major scenes to make clear how your storyline progresses. In the too-brief sentence, it isn’t clear what scenes make up your novel’s beginning. Do we start on a college campus or at Fort Polk or in Vietnam or what?
Struggling through your first few synopses may require extensive rewriting, sweating, and swearing to get everything summarized and yet properly represented within the word-count limit, but it is an acquired skill that you will soon pick up. Even better, it can give you the same insights into your novel’s strengths and weaknesses that it would provide to an agent or editor. Study your synopsis after you have written it, and decide where you could improve your novel. Tinker with both novel and synopsis until you have achieved your finest result.