13. What Is a Synopsis?

When it comes to preparing a book proposal, the biggest obstacle that many writers face is the dreaded synopsis. At BubbleCow, we hear on a daily basis from writers who just don’t know where to start when it comes to writing a synopsis. It is not uncommon to hear of writers who have struggled for weeks, or even months, to wrestle their story into some kind of meaningful summary.

I would like to say that this guide will make writing a book synopsis easy. I would also like to say that by following the lessons you will suddenly be able to knock up a winning synopsis without even breaking a sweat. I would like to say this, but I would be lying. Writing a synopsis is tough and there is no short cut!

This said, what the following lesson will do is teach you how to write a book synopsis. They will give you the tools and framework you need to construct a synopsis that fulfils an agent’s or publisher’s wildest dream. There may be no short cut for writing a good synopsis, but the following lessons will provide you with all that you need to ensure that you don’t waste time on a synopsis that simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

So What is a Synopsis?

In its most simple form a synopsis is an outline of your novel. It introduces all the key characters and events, whilst outlining the narrative arc from the start to the end. Perhaps the best way to understand a synopsis is to understand why agents and publishers insist that you include one in your book proposal.

The role of the synopsis is as follows:

  • 1. To provide a complete summary of your book’s narrative arc
  • 2. To reassure the agent/publisher that your book fits within their publishing portfolio
  • 3. To provide a document that can be used to secure a commission for your novel

A Synopsis Provides a Summary

Agents and publishers face a paradox. Though they are busy and their time is stretched, they still need new books and new writers to feed the publishing machine. The book proposal has been developed as a time-effective method of assessing new books. In many ways the book proposal is as much about removing books that are unsuitable as finding those that are suitable. The book proposal process means that unsuitable books are pruned from the proposal system as quickly as possible.

The first ‘gate’ is the query letter. Assuming that your letter is well written, it will show to the agent/publisher that your book is of the correct genre, has a potentially interesting narrative, and is written by an interesting writer who is aware of the market. Having progressed past the query letter stage, the next hurdle is the synopsis.

Your synopsis will allow the agent/publisher to confirm or deny that your book’s narrative has enough potential to invest further time assessing your novel. All without having to read the actual book! However, even if you have ticked all the boxes with the query letter, if your synopsis is not up to scratch then rejection looms.

A Synopsis Reassures

In previous lessons we have developed the idea that publishers are highly specialised in certain genres. In reality, the situation is far more complex and subtle than this. Many publishers will have their own publishing ethos and agenda. They will be looking to publish certain ‘types’ of books. This may not even be the same types of books as they have published previously. For example, you may come across a publisher that has had great success publishing ‘vampire’ novels. When you look closely at their recent publications you see vampire title after vampire title. Therefore, if you have written a vampire book, this publisher may seem the natural choice. However, behind the scenes, the publisher may have decided to move away from vampires and are looking for books about werewolves. This means that your vampire book, though of the correct genre, will not be suitable for their future plans.

This may seem depressing on the surface, since the general public often have little indication on where publishers are intending to go with their next books. The good news is that agents do! In the example above, a good agent will know the publisher in question is looking for books about werewolves and will be looking for novels about that topic. Should you have written a book about werewolves and submit to the agent, then bingo — right place at the right time.

Therefore, one role of a synopsis is to communicate the deeper narrative arc of a novel, without agents and publishers having to spend a whole day reading your manuscript. It allows them to quickly find and identify novels that are of potential interest. The flipside is that it also allows them to quickly reject novels with narratives that agents feel are not commercial (agent code for publishers are looking for something different).

A Synopsis Helps Secure a Book Deal

If you are able to secure representation by an agent, and if your book is submitted to a publisher who shows interest, then the synopsis is a vital part of the commissioning process. What tends to happen at a publisher is that an editor assesses your work in the first instance. If they feel your book has potential for the publisher, it is then presented to a committee of other, often more senior editors. It is these editors who assess the potential of your book. Should they feel your book matches their plans, then a deal is offered.

Part of this assessment process is your synopsis. Rather than each commissioning editor reading your book, they will often read just the synopsis, and you this to form an initial impression. This means that your synopsis is an essential document. It means that time invested in your synopsis now will pay off in the long term.