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Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis


Writing a synopsis

The synopsis is a strange document; it is at once the dullest, and perhaps the most important, part of the submission package. It reduces your book, your creative project, to a few lines of plain, unadorned narration; yet it allows a publisher to see the book as a whole, to get a feel for the narrative arc and the development of the plot. In this article, I will examine the synopsis, and consider some of the problems in writing it.

There is a second element to the synopsis that occurs to me regularly when I am tasked with writing, rewriting or editing one: that is, it is a different, but equally formidable, test of your skills as a writer. If the book, like the sample chapters, allows you to show off your creative talents, the synopsis, properly done, demonstrates your competence. In some respects, this applies to the whole submission package, but it's especially important in the case of the synopsis. And competence, it transpires, is somewhat more difficult to achieve than creativity.

In fact, when I consider the kinds of mistakes that writers make with the synopsis, it occurs to me that most of them result from a lack of discipline; of authors not paying attention to the demands of the job at hand. That is what I mean by competence as opposed to talent. Too often, writers try to compensate for a lack of competence with an excess of creativity, and that can lead to a poor outcome.

So, how do you go about writing a competent synopsis? First, you need to change your point of view. An author sees the story from the inside out; she inhabits the heart of it, and that is how she knows the story - from its heart. The reader is in a rather different position; he wants to get to the heart of the story, but to do that he has to navigate using the flesh and bones of the story, the narrative and the plot.

And the synopsis is that skeleton, the framework of plot and narrative arc. When you look at it from the reader's standpoint, the story is a series of plot devices that lead him through the book. X happens, and the outcome is Y; A happens, and character B does C. I know, that sounds more like algebra than literature; but this is how the story emerges.

So your job, when you write the synopsis, is to identify the key elements of the plot - the parts that drive the story on, that make it plausible - and map them out. You need to understand your story as the reader understands it, as a structure of unfolding events from which the ethos of the story reveals itself.

I think this process is easier for some writers than for others. Genre writers are mainly concerned with plot, and its resolution; thus they tend to be more aware of the mechanisms that are driving the book. Moreover, they are generally less concerned with character development, at least as it is envisaged in literary novels. This means they are less encumbered by the more esoteric aspects of the story.

I say this because, in my experience, it is the authors of literary novels who tend to have the most problems with the synopsis. They often feel a need to interpret the book, to explain it, and this can interfere with the process of narration. And, often, the plot lines in a literary novel are - actually feel - subordinate to the overarching metaphor; in the text, they may be camouflaged, or even invisible, under the author's attempt to render the ethos of the story. However, if that's also true of the synopsis, you have a problem.

This doesn't mean that genre writers always get it right! The most common fault of these authors is what I tend to think of as ‘Jack Horner Syndrome'. This is where an author feels the need to show the reader/agent/publisher/bloke down the pub how clever they have been. It often occurs as a comment explaining the plot mechanism rather than simply narrating it: In an exciting twist, Eric reveals himself as Mercury. It also turns up as a kind of aside: Of course, Meredith doesn't know that Stanley is involved in the plot to assassinate the president.

So the task, the test of competence, is about simplicity and clarity - and, I believe, about humility. It is to set out the arc of the narrative, in the present tense, and in chronological order; no adornments, no jokes, no ironic postmodernist asides about the nature of the plot. Just the bare bones of the story.

I know; that doesn't sound like much fun. Such dull fare isn't why you signed up to be a writer. But when you decided to be a writer, you were envisaging publication. And publication is a process that matters. The true test of your commitment to your book, and to the profession of writing, is the ability to leave aside your muse and get on with the work that needs doing.

When you have finished, and assuming you got it more or less right, the resulting text will not feel anything like the book. It reads very plainly; it is perhaps slightly flat in its tone; it irons out the flashbacks and jump cuts and leaves a smooth, simple surface. It's not exciting. It is accurate. It is, in fact, everything it needs to be. And more to the point, you have shown that you are not just a talented, creative writer; you are also a competent exponent of the required form.

If you have any queries or suggestions for our new series, Ask the Editor, please email us.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

Ask the Editor 12: The limitations of editing software

Submission Critique service

Writing genre fiction series

The Pedant series

An Editor's Advice series