from the mixed up files of Agent Manners – the dreaded synopsis

Dear Agent Manners,

I’m preparing to send out my novel, which is complete, and I also have a query letter I’m pleased with. My problem, however, is the summary. I’m having difficulty writing a summary I’m happy with that is both contained on one page and also includes all of the pertinant information.

I’m wondering how crucial the summary is when an agent is considering a project. How much weight does it carry? Should I spend a lot of time on it and delay sending out the project? Or should I go with what I have or skip it altogether?

Thanks so much for your time.

Stuck on the Summary

Dear Stuck:

Agent Manners sympathizes. The synopsis has seemed to generate an incomparable amount of dread among submitters. But Agent Manners fears it may be a necessary evil because it can also be a helpful tool. While many agents (including this one) may read sample pages or partials first, turning to the synopsis gives an opportunity for the author to communicate the balance of the story in a situation where the entire manuscript may not yet have been requested. Still, it seems that many find this laborious task of summarizing their novel even more difficult than finishing the manuscript to begin with. Step back and remember what the synopsis is supposed to accomplish. It should tell the conflict points of the story and relevant details about the characters and setting in such a way as to augment the pitch in a query letter and/or the hook of the sample pages.

Perhaps it might help to think of the synopsis as similar to the cover copy that compels the reader in the bookstore to take a further interest in the book rather than just taking a quick glimpse at the first few pages and putting it back on the shelf. Except for the fact that a synopsis should include all the spoilers. And definitely the ending. (A synopsis that ends with — “but to find out what happens, you’ll have to read the manuscript” — is bad form.)

Agent Manners advocates against “skip[ping] it all together” — it is one more lens with which to view your work and may give the agent valuable information in deciding whether they will request a submission. Give it your best effort and view it as one more piece of leverage in having your book stand out from the many.

26 responses to “from the mixed up files of Agent Manners – the dreaded synopsis

  1. A group of authors put together a “Plot Synopsis Project” that might be of help to your stuck writer:
    Roughly twenty-five authors offered up their thoughts (with examples).

  2. and remember… don’t use crayon or the Star Trek font!

  3. *nods* It also, should the agent be inclined to give feedback, gives the agent a chance to quickly review the shape of the plot and see where you’re off the rails. (At least, my four-page synopsis wound up being handy for that.)

    • It is also very helpful to let *you* see where you go off the rails – ‘erm, I cannot summarize this entire chapter because nothing happens’ is quite useful to know *before* you submit….

      • Ehhh, I don’t do so well there. “Character development and foreshadowing” is a perfectly valid chapter “job” — but isn’t always needed. *hacks at the manuscript with a machete*

  4. *seconds the LJ synopsis project* everyone who is about to write their synopsis should check it out πŸ™‚

  5. synopsis
    Like all writers, I too struggled with the synopsis and hope I never have to write another one now that I have an agent. That’s probably not true, but one can hope. What helped me was this. I went chapter by chapter and wrote down in one or two sentences the main action of the chapter. Then, in third person, keeping the voice of the character in mind, I tried to turn it into a narrative. Then, and most importantly, I think, I had my critique group have a look at it. It probably wasn’t the best synopsis an agent ever read, but I don’t think it totally sucked either. Good luck!

    • Re: synopsis
      I too struggled with the synopsis and hope I never have to write another one now that I have an agent.
      I can promise that’s not going to happen. πŸ™‚ You will need to write them to sell books on spec, if nothing else, I’m afraid. πŸ™‚
      But congrats on having an agent!

      • Re: synopsis
        Yeah…I know…but a girl can dream! At least I have done them already for the manuscripts I have finished! Of course, there’s always the variation. My former agent once had me write a synopsis for the whole book after the first fifty pages so she could sub only fifty pages plus the ten page synopsis. Boy, that wasn’t any fun!

    • Re: synopsis
      Thanks for this tip. I think I will give it a try. It sounds kind of like writing a little mini-novel. And yes, I don’t know what I’d do without my critique group. Thanks again.

  6. Synopsis
    Thanks for your reply. It gives me a new way of looking at it and lets me know I just need to roll up the sleeves and get it done. At least I know that it is time spent on something that may truly help me.
    Also thanks for the replies pointing me to the synopsis project. It looks like quite a useful tool that will help me get the thing done.

  7. It’s like showing somebody how you do the magic trick before actually performing it for them–I can’t help but feel that some of the novel’s magic is lost as a result.

  8. Oh synopsis, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.
    Strangely, while I find the writing of a synopsis somewhat exhausting (all the thinking… and the… compressing and the…. brainsplode), once I’ve conjured something I’m happy with that fits, I love the synopsis. Reading over the synopses of mine and other’s work I can appreciate its effectiveness as a tool, because let’s face itβ€”a 2-page break down of a 400 page novel is a pretty handy whatsit you’ve got there if you’re looking for an idea of the plot and direction.
    I wish I could re-locate the incredibly helpful site that finally broke me through the difficulty I was having writing a synopsis. I think the trouble with them is that I never really understood how they worked. I still loathe them, but this one page of tricks and tips was more helpful than a fleet of St Bernards in a snowstorm. There was a mention of Robert McKee, I remember that much.
    Blimey, I remember strange things.
    Dang, now I’m going to go away and it’ll bother me for days D:
    In any case, what I do is I take my focus character and write the synopsis around that character. I target only the key plot points, the catalysts, the points-of-no-return. I start with a rough play-by-play that is a few pages long, then slowly break it up and break it down. I’ll get it from ten, to seven, to five, and then finally I’m able to get it to exactly 2 double-spaced pages. And then I fix it for flow and add a little style, and voila! A synopsis that doesn’t stink as badly as all the ones that came before it πŸ™‚
    Haa, don’t mind me πŸ˜€ I shouldn’t be writing comments at ten to five in the morning!

  9. I don’t think anyone ever wants to write a synopsis. After I was finally pleased with mine and had gotten positive feedback, my betas pointed out some major problems with the book. >:*/

  10. I’ve spent a lot of time studying structure lately and found that doing a beat-sheet like screenwriters use tends to lend itself to writing a synopsis really easily. I recommend Blake Snyder’s because his is pretty much the same but less cheesy than Chris Vogler’s version. (You can adapt it for novels.) If you can identify the beats, you’ve got the high points that need to go into the synopsis, and chances are, part of the character development and stuff that spices it up as well.

  11. Try the AbsoluteWrite Query Letter Critique forum – despite the title, they also do synopses, pitches and other meta stuff, plus they have sticky threads full of information. The forum is here and the password is “vista”.

  12. Interesting stuff. Glad to hear it, though I kind of gave up and just put my novel out there myself…
    I had quite a problem giving any kind of synopsis, as I wrote an absurdist Douglas Adams-like novel of chance encounters and spiraling weirdness. When every chapter runs off in another madcap direction, it’s hard to write that all out and make it sound like you’re not an idiot.
    Perhaps if I ever do it again, I’ll have a much better shot at it.

  13. I hate to say this, but I wrote my best-ever synopsis while drunk.
    I don’t recommend that as a method, however.

  14. The dreaded synopsis
    Thanks for all the helpful information. I’m giving a talk to a romance writers’ group next week and I plan to quote you.

  15. Synopsis Guidelines
    I recently came upon two great guides to writing Queries and Synopses on Absolute Write Water Cooler under the Share Your Work Forum.
    They are not “Answer to all your questions” articles but give one some great tips on putting them together to make life easier for an agent to determine what’s good and what isn’t.
    I am still batting my head against this wall but am going to keep at it until they are professional enough to send to someone like you.
    Writing the novel was a whole lot easier than the Query and Synopsis even though I have editted, revised, editted and revised so many time I lost count of them months ago.
    Dale Day
    Las Vegas, Nevada

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