Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Novelist: Why Write a Synopsis?

This post is the first of a series on writing the novel. I'll be drawing from my experiences and providing advice on a range of topics that might interest you.

When I was just beginning as a writer, the publisher guideline request “submit a synopsis and sample chapters” struck fear into my heart. There was something terrifyingly daunting about writing and sending a succinct compelling summary of my novel packaged in just a few pages. As author Katherine Eliska Kimbriel said, “The instinctive response [of the author] is to clap on a helmet and start digging a trench.” I had a right to be terrified. In some ways the synopsis is the hardest thing for a novelist to write. Yet it is the first thing most publishers and agents want (and have time) to see of your cherished project (aside from those sample chapters, of course—more on that later).
Every fiction writer who wants to sell in the current market must know how to write a synopsis because that’s what an editor wants to see first. Most editors (if they’re good) are overworked with scarce enough time to answer their phones, much less their mail.

I’m not going to describe how to write a synopsis in this post. If you want to see an excellent summary of what a good synopsis should look like, take a look at Tricia Ares’s excellent post in the Modern Matriarch. There are many excellent descriptions by professional editors, agents and other writers who describe what a synopsis is and even give examples. Instead, I’m going to give you some very good reasons WHY you should write that dreaded synopsis, and way before you finish your book, too.

First of all, I’d like to dispel some common misconceptions about synopses:

  1. A synopsis is NOT an outline. Both are useful to the writer, yet each serves a very different purpose. An outline is a tool (usually just for the writer) that sketches plot items of a book. It provides a skeleton or framework of people, places and their relationships to the storyline that permits the writer to ultimately gauge scene, setting, and character depth or even determine whether a character is required (every character must have a reason to be in the book, usually to move the plot). For writers just beginning, this is an excellent tool to keep the narrative spare and compelling and to remove superfluous characters and other things (a common beginning writer inclination). A synopsis, on the other hand, is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. This is usually what an editor wants to see, although I have seen them request an outline as well. To put it basically, the outline describes what happens when and to whom, while the synopsis includes the "why" part.
  2. There is no such thing as a “Killer Synopsis”; a synopsis that is so good it will sell the book outright. However, stories of such “fairy-tale” occurrences do continue to abound. I know of one about a fantasy writer who supposedly landed an agent then a three book deal for her first novel trilogy with a large publishing house on the basis of a cover letter and such a synopsis. This just isn’t so. Other factors were in play here. Like the myth of an “overnight success” (in which the author’s hard work in areas related are somehow overlooked), no publisher chooses to buy a book on the basis of a synopsis only. Such an event could only result from a combination of serendipitous factors, one of the most important ones being timing (luck) and what an editor is currently looking for in an imprint.
“Killer synopsis” aside, what a synopsis does (along with the sample chapters and extremely important query letter) is get your manuscript read by an editor. That’s the real purpose of a synopsis. An editor makes his/her decision to look at your manuscript based on these three items: query letter (intro to you); sample chapters; synopsis. And, remember that, ultimately, their decision resides with whether your project fits their own imprint at the time.

If that isn’t reason enough to write a synopsis of your novel, here are two others:
  1. A synopsis of your novel goes beyond the outline to help polish elements of story arc, characterization with plot and setting with story. The synopsis can answer questions perplexing the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. For this reason, it makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.
  2. Lastly, your well-written synopsis is often used internally by the publishing house staff (e.g., by artist, copywriter, and sales department) once your novel has been accepted.
So get going on it now. Don’t wait. Make the synopsis work for you throughout your novel’s journey.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Unknown said...


Thanks for your insight - it does help de-mystify the beast...

Nice job!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That's a good guide for all wood-be writers, Nina.

Nina Munteanu said...

thanks, Karen and Jean-Luc. Hope it helps some in the thicket... :)

Max-e said...

I followed the link from WalksFarWoman's blog and glad I have. I have been working on a novel for more years than I care to remember and have put it on ice. The idea of writing a synopsis or outline never occured to me - its all been sitting in my head. This has been a light bulb moment. Thanks, the creative juices are flowing again.

Nina Munteanu said...

Very cool, Max! It's so neat that you are writing again. Honestly, doing a storyboard/outline/synopsis can really help those creative juices going by forcing you to look at the whole story in ways you hadn't before. Good luck and if you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask me. I've been around this merry go round a while... :)

Nina Munteanu said...

p.s. Now, isn't that WalksFarWoman something wonderful?

Anonymous said...

Hello Nina,

I just stumbled across this excellent post. Better late than never.

Thank you for sharing what you've learned. I applaud you and celebrate your continued success.


Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Manchild! I wish you the same. Success is, after all, a gift. It isn't something we "find" but something bestowed upon us ... like serendipity.