What is a synopsis?
Does anyone even use the term synopsis anymore?
Because what I was taught is a synopsis is now called everything from a “blurb” to a “summary” to a “sales pitch.” And all of these words effectively convey what a synopsis is.
A synopsis is the paragraph on the back of a book that is designed to tell the reader enough to make them want to buy the book. Anymore, it’s also the description on Amazon or the summary on Chegg.
Every published piece of writing could use a synopsis.
If you ever consider publishing your book or novel, you need a synopsis. If you’re writing fanfiction, you need a synopsis. If you publish short stories, they need synopses.
Instinctively you probably know this. So in this post, we’re gonna talk about how to write the kind of synopsis that will help you accomplish your goals with your writing.
No, a synopsis isn’t the missing ingredient to a successful career as an author. But it is a useful tool that you might be missing out on.
A synopsis as a blurb or summary
Write your synopsis so that it introduces some themes or elements to the reader. For a work of fiction, you might want to use the synopsis to introduce the main character, the main villain, the main premise, or an interesting element of the world.
For a work of fiction, you might want to use the synopsis to introduce the main character, the main villain, the main premise, or an interesting element of the world.
Sanders had never really considered that he would succeed in overthrowing the government. Now that the New Party has done just that, there is a lot of civilian problems that he is suddenly in charge of fixing.
In these two sentences, I introduced the main character (Sanders), a possible main villain (the New Party), the main premise (Sanders has to fix civilians’ problems), and an interesting element of the world (the government was just overthrown).
With a couple more sentences, you could introduce more characters, more problems, and more world-building suggestions.
For a work of non-fiction, you might introduce the main idea, some main vocabulary, or the main questions that your piece answers. What problem are you solving? What spin are you putting on the issue?
Just as Latin is considered a dead language, so we pronounce the Roman religion dead. But the worship of gods and goddesses—specifically those of Jupiter and Juno’s circle—remains in modern society. How did a dead religion revive? Did it ever really die? Why are people serving such deities?
Notice that you can actually put real questions that you’ve answered in a summative synopsis. I’ve shown the main idea (“dead” religions are still alive), introduced some vocabulary (Jupiter and Juno), and shown some of the problems that the book intends to contend with (how to dead religions survive—or do they even die?).
You don’t want to necessarily answer any questions in your synopsis, just pose the kinds of questions you want your readers to be asking. The book should answer all of the questions you pose in your synopsis—whether it’s fictive or non-fictive.
A synopsis as a sales pitch
More than anything, your synopsis should demand your potential reader buy the book and read it. And a good way to think about that is by thinking of it as a sales pitch.
And this is how I’d suggest you go about writing a sales pitch:
- Write to your reader. Who is your audience? Urban teenage readers have different questions and concerns than rural, middle-aged ranchers. Decide who you’re writing to, and then write to them personally.
- Introduce credibility. Use your synopsis to show your reader that you are a good writer, and know your stuff. Do so by showcasing strong writing, demonstrating the important questions you want them to ask, and come off like you have a great answer to that question (without answering the question).
- Ask the question your reader is asking. Or at least create a question that your reader wants answered. A question your reader really, really wants answered.
- Promise a ____ answer. Choose the adjective that fits your genre and audience. If you’re trying to sell a cookbook to single moms, promise quick recipes. If you’re trying to sell celebrity photos to the media, promise revealing photos. You get what I mean?
For the fiction example above, I was probably writing to middle-aged readers who enjoyed reading fantasy and sci-fi in their youth and are now ready to read about the fallout of the exploits they’d have read in their childhood. I might add another sentence to that synopsis to incite a stronger question and provide a more exciting answer.
For the non-fiction example above, I was probably writing to academics interested in history and religion, or specifically the history of Roman’s religion. I might add another sentence promising answers to the questions I posed, and possibly re-work the phrasing to create more compelling questions.
On being concise
Synopses are, above all things, short. You may have as few as 150 to as many as 500 words to summarize and pitch your story to curious potential readers. Every word has to count—a good synopsis may sell more books than the best advertisements you can put on Facebook.
Many books have resorted to putting praise for the content on the back of the book instead of a synopsis. While it feels good to have quotes from critics elaborating on how awesome your book is, reviews are not synopses. I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t bought because I couldn’t tell what they were about or if they were right for my problem because they didn’t even have a synopsis.
Don’t sell yourself short. Decide what burning question you want your readers to be asking, and make it singe their eyebrows in your synopsis.
If that means you select an excerpt from the book itself, that is fine. Excerpts can be exceedingly effective at posing questions that need answering—plus, it can save you the brainpower of having to come up with new material for your synopsis.
But please, do have a synopsis.
What do you think—what should a good synopsis do for the reader? Has a synopsis (or lack thereof) ever convinced you to buy (or not) a book? Share in the comments!