What’s a Good Length for a Synopsis?


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There’s more than one kind of synopsis. An Early Synopsis is a summary of your book that you write before you start. It can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a short story. My short story Oliver Troubles is close to the form of an early synopsis. If I’d spent more time with the idea, added relationships and a police investigation, it might have been a novella. You can make your early synopsis any length you’d like. It won’t be a true synopsis of your finished book. Your outline will change the story and writing the manuscript will change the story.

I’d like to walk quickly through the steps that lead to the true synopsis, also called the presentation synopsis, before talking about it.

The Outline

Some writers create many early synopses before choosing one to move to the next step. The next step is an outline. It can be anything from bullet points created out of the early synopsis to James Patterson’s outlines of as much as 80 pages each. He says he has shelves full of outlines that are all active projects.

The outline plots your book from beginning to end. Smart writers put lots of time into revising their outline before using it to write a book. James Patterson isn’t the only one who creates many outlines before choosing which to turn into a book. He may be the only one who intends to turn every outline into a book. I know I trash a lot of my outlines. Maybe the trick is to trash a book idea at the synopsis stage so that the outlines are all good.

The Manuscript

When your outline has all the necessary details, you use it as a guide to write a fast horrible first draft. This step kills perfectionists. Try to write well here and you will get nowhere fast or somewhere slow. Perfectionism will make you give up. You need to just get the book written knowing that there are two more revisions. Writer’s block? No such thing. Let the boring chapter be boring. Let the stupid solution go in. Write that bizarre transition. It will all get fixed later.

Now that you have your book up to the right length, you can fix the problems created during the first draft. The boring chapter gets cut. Scenes and characters get better descriptions because you know them better. You work on dialogue and make the characters sound like the people they became by the end of the first draft. You think of new solutions and transitions. Your manuscript starts to look like something marketable by the end of the second draft.

In the third draft, you review your manuscript many times by reading it and putting in fixes. You fix spelling, grammar, and punctuation in this draft. If there were problems in the first draft that didn’t get good fixes in the second draft, you have many chances to fix them. You can read through your manuscript as many times as you need to in the third draft. Because you’ll go through it many times, you never need to get stuck on one chapter. That problem will still be there on the next read through. Eventually, you won’t find much to fix and you’re done. You’ve finished another book.

The Synopsis

Unlike the Early Synopsis, which was pure speculation, the Presentation Synopsis is based on a step by step walk-through of your finished manuscript. When people talk about synopses without saying whether it’s the Early or the Presentation, they mean the Presentation Synopsis. This is the one that gets sent to publishers in the hope they will want to see the manuscript.

You need to have your synopses and manuscript done before you send out query letters. The query letter is just a letter asking publishers if they’d be interested in your manuscript. Some authors send out many query letters because they won’t all get positive replies and some may get no reply. Do you want to risk several publishers asking to see a synopsis? Maybe only one will want to see your manuscript. Maybe of those who want to see your manuscript only one will want to buy it. Sounds like a bad risk. I’d suggest working your way through one publisher at a time while writing your next book. Not clear? How about if I say it with steps?

1. Send out a query letter to a publisher and wait for the reply. If the answer is “no”, repeat step 1.

2. Send the synopsis to the publisher who said they wanted to see it and wait for the reply. If the answer is “no”, go back to step 1.

3. Send the manuscript to the publisher who said they wanted to see it and wait for the reply. If the answer is “no”, go back to step 1.

What’s a good length for the Presentation Synopsis? That’s the question we’re trying to get to here.

The full length version of a Presentation Synopsis has come to be one page for every 35 pages of manuscript. You should definitely have a synopsis like that ready if a publisher just asks for a synopsis. That’s what they will expect.

Some publishers now demand short synopses. They may want one as short as two pages. You should have at least one short synopsis ready before sending out your first query letter. It will give you something to work with if a publisher asks for a six page synopsis, for example. It can take time to condense a manuscript into a synopsis. You might as well get the work done so you can focus on your next book while you wait on publishers.

What Goes Into the Presentation Synopsis?

Your synopsis needs to tell the big picture of your book from beginning to end. Plot, theme, settings, and characters all need to be set out. Avoid including dialogue. At any point where you must decide whether to write more or less, the answer is less. The shorter, the better.

The story in the synopsis must happen in the same order as events in the novel. You may choose to leave out sub-plots, but should ask yourself what those sub-plots were doing in your novel if they weren’t important to the story. The synopsis must also solve all the mysteries posed early on and give away the ending.

Now you know a good length for your synopsis. It’s easy compared to writing the manuscript, yes?

What about Self-Publishers?

You may think you don’t need a synopsis at all. If your book is going to sell, you’ll need to send your book to many reviewers. The book review process starts with querying book reviewers and most will want some kind of summary of your book. That would be a synopsis.

Synopses for book reviewers are usually short. They may ask for anything from a one paragraph summary up to several pages. The easiest way I’ve found for creating a synopsis quickly when I haven’t created any while writing a book is to first create a bullet outline using the outline and then write a synopsis following the bullet outline. My bullet outline summarizes each chapter of the outline in one or two sentences. Once you’ve made one synopsis, you can make a shorter one by cutting or a longer one by adding more details. By the time you finish your book and all those revisions you know it inside out anyway.

As with every step in the writing game, practice makes perfect and repetition makes it go faster. Keep up the good work and you’ll only get faster and better.

Article by Ivan Izo, author of Toe-Cutter and Homicidal Tendencies.


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