I know at least one writer who thinks that writing a synopsis of her novel is a form of torture. The trouble is, though, that writing synopses is one of the things writers need to do in order to bring their works to the attention of the greater world. Most publishers and agents request a synopsis as part of a submission package, along with the first few chapters of a novel and a covering letter.
It’s important to emphasize that a synopsis is not the same as the “blurb” found on the back or inside the front cover of a published novel (or in the brief description of an ebook). The blurb is a teaser, intended to provoke a potential reader’s interest and turn him or her into an actual reader or (most important) a purchaser of the work.
A synopsis, on the other hand, is intended to summarize the novel for someone who will engage with it in a role different from that of an ordinary reader — an agent or publisher who must decide whether or not to represent or publish the work, or a member of a critique group who needs a context for the excerpt from the middle of a novel they are expected to read closely and critique. The synopsis must lay out the entire plot and present the main characters, the setting and the flavour of the novel.
A synopsis a distillation of a novel. Distillation can be a tricky operation, and so is writing the synopsis. For one thing, there does not seem to be a universally agreed upon length — I have seen anything from one to twenty pages recommended. Knowing the current preference for brevity in everything from covering letters to novels themselves, I would say the shorter the better — one or two single-spaced pages, 500 to 1,000 words. If a detailed synopsis is specified, something longer would be in order — up to 5,000 words, perhaps.
Novels with complicated plots, multiple narrators and symbolic overtones are perforce more difficult to summarize than those with simple, linear plots and few or no subplots. Authors of complex works may benefit by writing two or more synopses, each with a different degree of detail — sort of like zooming in on the novel and presenting more details each time. That way you end up with a synopsis for every situation in which one may be needed. In fact, it’s good to have a whole range of descriptions of your work, from a single sentence to a jacket blurb to synopses of varying lengths.
Still, it’s tricky. You can’t write the synopsis in the same voice that you wrote the novel, but you don’t want to present it in such a detached way that all the life is sucked out of it, turning it into a dried specimen. Some writers may do well to write their synopses at leisure, in the interval between novels, when there isn’t much creative ferment going on. Others may do better under pressure, when an agent or editor has expressed interest in a face to face meeting at a writers’ conference, and you want to get your offering into their hands before that interest cools. For those who really hate synopsis-writing, it might be an idea to ask a fellow writer who has read the work in question to draft a synopsis of it. That gives the author of the work something with which to get started.
Critique groups are good venues for testing synopses and blurbs. When you join a group, or a new member joins your group, a synopsis is a good instrument to introduce a novel. Ask for comments or suggestions on your synopsis as well as on the real work. Since synopses are short, they are easy to read and comment on. My critique group has just had a flurry of synopsis writing. In fact, I’m about to send one to the group myself, for the first volume of my forthcoming novel, Islands of the Gulf. Having written several synopses, I can say with confidence that it does get easier with practice.