By Michelle Barker
Many authors would rather write a whole new novel than cram the one they’ve already written into a five-hundred-word summary. If I wanted to write a short story, I would have written one. Right?
The reason we hate writing synopses is because they’re hard. The reason they’re hard is because, more than any other tool available to us, they show us what’s wrong with the novel we’ve labored over for months, if not years.
The synopsis is the equivalent of a house inspector—that man or woman who walks around with a clipboard and goes through the house you thought you were ready to sell, pointing out all the structural issues you either didn’t know about or pretended weren’t a problem: roof damage, termites, a saggy bearing wall, you name it. You can do all the fancy writing in the world. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with your novel, it will come out in the synopsis.
That’s why we hate them.
That’s why most agents ask for one.
Reading a synopsis is the quickest way to know if a novel will work or not. It’s also the surest way to find out if the author knows what they’re doing when it comes to things like structure, causality, story arc and characterization—you know, those critical developmental issues you hoped wouldn’t matter.
Guess what? They do.
If your plot is anecdotal, it will show up in the synopsis. If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal that they’re actively pursuing throughout the story; if there are no stakes, a weak antagonist, a plot that’s bursting with too much superficial business and no depth—yup, the synopsis will reveal all of that.
If you, the author, are willing to see it, the synopsis will be that heart-sinking moment of truth where you can no longer deny that this house is not ready to sell, not by a long-shot. It needs help. It might even need to be razed to the ground.
Too extreme, you say? Well. Most published authors I know (myself included) have had to do it on numerous occasions. If you believe John Green, he does it with every one of his first drafts, throws out ninety percent, right down to the foundation, and starts over.
What do most new authors do? Close their eyes and send out the query as is, along with that stinky synopsis, hoping no one will notice.
If you wonder why your novel is getting rejected time and again, now you know. Even if the premise is great—which it may well be—if you can’t execute it because of developmental issues, forget it. No one will ask to read it.
This is harsh. It’s not what writers want to hear. But it’s the truth.
So…what to do about it?
Learn About Novel Structure
There are many great craft books that can teach you novel structure, and numerous workshops, classes, and conferences you can take. You can also hire an editor or even a writing coach to sort through these issues with you. In all of these cases, you’ll come away with skills that you’ll be able to rely on for the rest of your career.
Here are tons of tools to strengthen your plot and structure…including step-by step help while you plot with the Storyteller’s Roadmap.
Reverse the Process
Write the synopsis first.
In case you’re wondering: no, writing the synopsis first isn’t much fun, either. It’s way more enjoyable when you have that first ping of an idea to sit down and start writing the novel right away. I know. I’ve done it. And then you hit ten thousand words or so and suddenly it’s not so fun anymore. You’re stuck. You’ve written yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of because you haven’t thought about structure, or goals, or stakes.
The trick is to think about these things before you start writing.
How detailed you get about this pre-emptive synopsis is up to you. Personally, I like to know the big plot points but allow the finer details to emerge in the creative process of the novel itself, but there are writers who take a scene-by-scene approach. There’s no wrong way to do it. What you want to make sure you do, however, is list the essential structural elements of a novel and make sure you know what each of them will look like in your story. You’ll also want to make sure your protagonist’s goal is clear, specific, and quantifiable, and that the reader knows in the end whether the protagonist got what they wanted.
If your great idea turns out not to work at the synopsis stage, all you’ll lose are a few pages of work—as opposed to a three-hundred-page clunker of a novel. It’s also far easier to pinpoint where it’s not working at the synopsis stage and figure out how to fix it. When you’re deep into the novel, that’s a much more difficult thing to see. Usually by that point, you’ll need a dev editor to see it for you—and by then you’ll be so attached to your work (and all the time you’ve sunk into it), that you’ll be less inclined to listen to them when they tell you you need to start over.
Save yourself the heartache of rejection. Start at the end and give yourself a solid foundation to work with. Then, when it comes time to send out the synopsis, you’ll already have it done and will be confident that your house is sound and ready to sell.
Here are two posts to help you write a great synopsis:
Synopsis Writing Made Easy
A Cheat’s Guide to Writing a Synopsis
Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at darlingaxe.com, a novel development and editing service.
Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, was released in 2020 with Annick Press. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
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Raymond Walker says
Hi, Michelle, I agree completely, in most cases what you suggest is a particularly clever idea. One I often follow. I just wished to point out that in some cases (genres) it is difficult or impossible to follow.
Scott J. Stoops says
Excellent post, Michelle. It is much easier to judge how well a short story will work without outlining or writing a synopsis. When looking at the novel, having a clear understanding of what the story is about can guide that story’s development. I have two short pieces that I and others feel deserve full-length treatment. I had already planned to work out the story before taking on the larger project of developing these stories. Your suggestion to write the synopsis first makes a lot of sense.
Michelle Barker says
Yes, I agree about short fiction. I rarely if ever plan out a short story. Less investment of time if it all goes wrong. Good luck with your projects. I hope the synopsis plan works for you.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I love the idea of a synopsis upfront to test the story idea. While I know pantsers might resist that as they don’t tend to do as much up front planning, even creating a “light” synopsis to help them ensure the story is there and save them a lot of grief later.
Michelle Barker says
Definitely! That’s the great thing about this exercise. You can be as detailed as you want. Even if all you do is pin down the most basic aspects of novel structure, it will go a long way to easing the process down the road.
Raymond Walker says
I agree but think that this piece suits only specific genres. For example, in historical fiction it could be impossible. Whilst you are playing only with the facts of what happened and simply putting words in existing characters’ mouths. Also, In Hard Sci-fi, the protagonist may not even exist. Fantasy may hold multiple protagonists and scenarios all vying with one another.
That said this is a great post, and I agree completely it is good advice if you hover around mystery, romance, detective or general fiction and we all tend to author articles about what we know.
Good rules for the right genre.
I would like to say, however, were you to follow these rules when writing Sci-fi (other than YA) high fantasy or certain types of horror novel (again, other than YA) then you would fail.
Michelle Barker says
Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I write historical fiction, and while such novels are bounded by what really happened, there’s still a fictional story that needs to be planned. I used this method for my novels and found it worked very well. But of course, what works for one person might not necessarily work for others.
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
This post is going to help so many writers, Michelle. Thank you so much for sharing your synopsis tips with us.
It can be hard to write a strong synopsis, but this shows exactly why it’s so important…and that doing our homework before writing the manuscript could make the book and synopsis stronger. 🙂
Michelle Barker says
Thank you, Mindy. I hope it does help people. That was my intention.