What is a synopsis actually used for?

What exactly is a synopsis for? Mechanics aside, what do you look for in one? How does it help you, and the editors you send it along to? Obviously not as a writing sample, since no one can write a good one, and it can't convey much if anything about character, atmosphere, etc. So I'd imagine it is to give you a sense of the plot. But can you tell from the synopsis whether the plot is likely to hold up?

Lucienne Diver, who is a very good agent, once said "synopsis tell me if aliens arrive out of the blue in chapter 12". I thought she was kidding. She was not.

Synopsis tell you if the plot fails. It gives you an idea if the requirements of a genre are met, or played with in an interesting way.

Synopsis, when they are well written, give you a sense of character development and where the plot turns. Badly written, they tell you "what it's about" but not why you'd want to read it.

I have synopses for all the books on my list. When I'm placing projects, I read the synopsis before making a sales call. When you're shopping five books at the same time, details like names can get jumbled even in Miss Snark's well organized mind.


MissWrite said...

Miss Snark, thank you. In my short time reading your blog, I've read many helpful tidbits. Even though I can occassionally comment in a snippy sort of way, I'm not really that much of a biter. It's just kind of been fun to play with a hidden character. Anyhow, this particular little piece of info has really turned on a little light for me.

Synopsis, for me, like most, is a dreaded word. Although I've begun to play nicer with them, I still didn't like them. Your explaination above really did help in explaining something that was, until now, rather vague. (And hey, great news, aliens never land in chapter twelve in my novels... thirteen, maybe, but never twelve.)

I've always wondered exactly the same thing this questioner has, and never really read anything that was a good answer. Yours did.

Long winded way of saying thanks, huh? I'll send a bottle of cyber Gin, maybe that will make up for all the wordy fluff.

Anonymous said...

Synopses also tell the agent or editor if the book is actually about what it appears to be about based on the partial manuscript. I have read plenty of "first three chapters" that end up having nothing to do with the story once you read the synopsis.

Rick said...

Thanks, Miss Snark! This explanation makes perfect sense.

if aliens arrive out of the blue in chapter 12

That cracks me up, even though it's scary that she's not kidding.

quanty p biederman said...

By George, I think I've got it! It's not a book report--it's a tool of industry.

Thank you, Miss Snark!

Linda Adams said...

Synopses can also be used as a tool to tell the writer the story is working--or not working. Co-writer and I had a horrible time doing a five page synopsis that made sense, and it turned out that a lot of why it was so difficult was because the story had problems we needed to work on.

Brady Westwater said...

After spending years refusing to do film treatments and refusing to even consider doing more than a three or four paragraph (and still unwritten) synopsis of my novel, you made an argument for the synopsis that actually makes sense. You also demonstrated, to me at least, how a well written, detailed synopsis will make it easier to get a request for a full rather than just a partial.

Alas, that means I now have to write the damn thing! Particulary after a certain suspicious 'suicide' on the north rim of the Grand Canyon increasingly seems to have the fingers of more than one culprit on it. And I'm not talking about... Killer Yap.

Anonymous said...

In my synopsis, can I use some of the sentences and wordings from the pitch in my one page query letter or does that look lazy?

Obviously the synopsis is longer, but I would like to at least use the first two sentences of the pitch as the first two sentences of the synopsis.

Gros bisous to you and Killer Yap too. xxx Beth

Anonymous said...

What is the "outline" that some agents request? Is that the same as a synopsis or is it standard outline format?