It’s time we talk about the difference between a synopsis and marketing copy, because I’m sensing some confusion out there. When your editor asks you for a synopsis of your novel, what do you send her?
There are lots of good reasons to have a polished synopsis of your story on hand (actually, you should have two versions: a short one and a long one). For example, sometimes I’m asked to work on a first chapter, and to do that I request a synopsis so I can understand how that first chapter fits in with the whole story and where it’s supposed to lead. The best reason, of course, is you’ll need it for the book proposal you’ll use to seek an agent or publisher.
My fave dictionary defines synopsis like this: “2a : a brief outline summarizing the action of a proposed screen play or television script.” Good enough. Pay attention to that part about the outline. A synopsis should outline the major events in your story, from beginning to end.
So why is it, when I ask for a synopsis, I often get something similar to this?
In a galaxy far, far away, the evil Galactic Empire is engaged in a civil war with a ragtag band of heroes who long to restore peace, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Now the Empire has a new weapon—a heavily armed space station so powerful it can destroy an entire star with one blast. This “death star” has already been used to eliminate the home planet of the rebels who have been waging war against the Empire for a generation; soon there will be nowhere for them to hide.
Light years away from the civil war, Luke, a simple orphan farm boy, discovers a lost robot projecting a hologram message of a beautiful princess repeating a desperate plea for help. Who is she? Intrigued, Luke seeks the help of Ben, an old hermit, and learns the little robot contains valuable information that could turn the tide of the rebellion. It must be delivered to rebel forces elsewhere in the star system as soon as possible.
It is a dangerous journey for an old man and a boy who’s never been off his safely remote planet. There are spies and bandits everywhere—not to mention Imperial stormtroopers—and time is running out. Will Ben and Luke find the last of the rebels before the Empire does?
No. This is not a synopsis, kids. It’s marketing copy, all 217 words of it. You know this story, and you know what’s been left out of it here. That’s because copy intended to sell a book should make a reader long to know what happens next—quickly. (Picture yourself in a bookstore, browsing. How long do you give a book to grab you before you set it down? OK, OK … how long do you think most people give it?)
The marketing department only has twenty seconds to make that pitch. You’ve heard it called teaser copy, maybe. And it’s fine for the back of a book,* or your website, or a press release about a book signing or any other event involving you or your book.
But if your editor asks for a synopsis, don’t send her marketing copy. She needs to know what happens in the story—even the ending. Don’t be coy; this is business. You need an editorial synopsis.**
Simply, a synopsis starts at the beginning and introduces the protagonist and the event that sets him on his journey. (Always, always, introduce your main character first. Seriously: don’t name or even mention anyone else before him.) It briefly describes how the plot moves forward, including all the pivotal plot points; key characters should be introduced, and their relationships and conflicts should be correlated. You should spell out the “moral of the story” (the message or theme). And this should all happen in a well-written, well-ordered manner. In other words, an agent or editor reading your synopsis should have all the pieces of the puzzle so she can understand how it all works without having to read the entire manuscript.
Here are a couple of short (and less short) and sweet articles about writing synopses from Jane Friedman for Writer’s Digest. You can read them if you want more specifics. But there are two last things I want to draw to your attention.
There’s a place for a good, detailed, multipage synopsis (the long version; let’s say five to eight pages single-spaced). Keep that short one polished up, though—let’s say one to two pages, single-spaced. Always send it first; if the agent or editor wants more, she’ll ask.
And write your synopsis in third person, present tense. The tense adds to the immediacy and intimacy of the synopsis; it places the reader right there in it. And it’s standard industry practice.
Got it? You need to know the difference between a synopsis and marketing copy. They are not interchangeable.
UPDATE: There’s more information on this here.
* I’ve been writing book jacket blurbs for twenty years, but I don’t really feel like writing that post. Here’s an article about it from a source I trust.
** I’m not going to write the synopsis for the story above; you probably know it already anyway. Have a look here for one example.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”