THE BLOG
01/07/2013 06:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2013

Writing a Synopsis for Your Novel: A Scary But Useful Exercise

I've been writing fiction for a long time. As in, forever. I was one of those kids who read novels inside my regular textbooks in school, and by college I was sending stories to magazines.

Despite deciding to become a doctor and majoring in biology, I kept writing, until finally I chucked all other career plans and said those startling words aloud: "I want to be a writer." More specifically, "I want to write a novel."

Many years later -- after two marriages, five children, two cross-country moves, trekking the Himalaya, and forging a career as a freelance writer -- I finally sold a memoir to Random House. I still couldn't sell my novels, which by now numbered six, so I self-published a novel.

Two weeks later, my agent sold one of my novels to New American Library/Penguin. Success was sweet, yet I still had never written a synopsis for any of my fiction.

Why not? Because I'm not a methodical writer. I don't outline or use index cards. Nor do I follow the example of a friend of mine, who literally tapes pages of his novel to the wall of his office so he can literally "see" the scenes and move them around.

And then, one day, the inevitable happened: My editor at NAL, who I adore, asked for a synopsis of my next novel, so they could decide whether or not they wanted to look at the first three chapters and consider buying it. As it happened, I had a new novel, one I'd been working on for over a year, so I thought I it would be easy to tap out a synopsis.

What is a synopsis, anyway? Just a summary, right?

Wrong. Oh so wrong. Sure, a synopsis is a summary of your novel's narrative arc and describes the main characters and conflicts. However, a synopsis must also be its own entity, with dramatic turns and a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Writing the synopsis of that novel-in-progress took me a week and left me parched, diminished, and terrified. The thing is, as I wrote the synopsis, I realized the novel had more holes, cracks, and missing shingles than I'd realized.

And guess what? The editor thought the same thing. She turned down the book. I was heartbroken.

"Do you have anything else?" she asked.

Um, no. Nope. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Between writing that novel in my usual fiction-dream-state and working on my typical roundup of paying nonfiction projects, I was empty-handed.

But, after so many years of having fiction rejected, here was an editor asking me -- actually asking! -- whether I had anything else to show her. What could I say?

"Of course," I said. "Give me a couple of days."

And with those brave words, dear readers, I tackled another synopsis, this time determined to get it right. I did have a vague plot line, thanks to a story my mom had told me recently, so I decided to base the novel on that. I grumbled and sweated, cursed and, most importantly, Googled every example of a novel synopsis I could find on the web. (They exist, believe me.)

Along the way, I read this reassuring line from an agent that I kept like a hot potato in my pocket on an icy morning: "When you write a synopsis, it will be some of the worst writing of your life, but don't worry about that. Just tell the story."

The next day, a writer friend said, "Tell the story straight, like you're telling it to me over dinner."

"Think of it as the plot of a movie," another writer friend suggested. "Hit the highlights."

Suddenly, the exercise made sense: All I had to do was pitch a story with believable characters, a visible plot line, a few surprises, and a lot of emotion along the way. I wrote the synopsis, five pages where I told the story from the beginning, moving through the best scenes in the middle of the book to the lovely end of the novel. I could almost see it unfolding in my head.

I emailed the synopsis to the editor. Then Hurricane Sandy hit and I didn't hear a thing for three weeks.

As it happens, I was headed for a week-long writing retreat, a retreat where I had intended, originally, to finish the novel I'd been working on. Now I was confused, forlorn, and depressed.

"What are you going to do?" my husband asked.

"I guess I should start that new novel, the one I describe in my synopsis," I decided. "That way, I'll be prepared to show some chapters to the editor if she wants to see them."

So that's what I did. And in one week, I wrote six chapters.

I had never written a novel that fast before. The book came out almost fully formed, as if I'd literally turned on a faucet and was pouring ink out of my mind and onto blank pages.

How could this be happening? Where was the sweat and pen-chewing?

And then I realized what was different. Duh, I had a synopsis. I knew where to start the book and who the characters were. I knew their inner demons and outer conflicts, what jobs they had and what clothes they wore, and why the events in their lives were going to take them by surprise. And, lovingly, I accompanied them now on their journeys. Yes, they surprised me here and there, but for the most part I saw the path ahead, as if somebody had used a big machete in the usual forest of words ahead of me. The exercise of writing a synopsis for my novel proved to be the most useful fiction-crafting tool I'd ever used.

If you want to try writing a synopsis for that novel in your head, or for the one stuck in your computer, here's a rough how-to guide:

1. Don't worry about the writing. Keep your language clear and active, and focus on telling the story.

2. Start the book in-scene with one of the main characters: "From the moment she woke on that chilly February morning, Savannah Smith knew without a doubt that she would divorce her husband."

3. Each time you introduce a character, give a quick character sketch: "Burly Jones is a 36-year-old workaholic whose biggest joys in life are horseshoes, women, and his motorcycle, not necessarily in that order."

4. Don't get bogged down in details. Stick to a few main characters and make their core conflicts clear.

5. As your plot unfolds, relay it the way you would relate a movie to your friends over dinner, skipping the dull parts and just hitting the highlights.

6. Include a bit of dialogue to liven the tone: "I want you to know the truth before you see him." Those were the last words her mother spoke, but Trish didn't know what she meant. What truth? And who was she supposed to see?

7. Be sure your plot has a true arc with a beginning, middle, and end -- i.e., the main character conflicts have to be clear, as do the resolutions of those conflicts.

8. Keep your synopsis short, typically no more than five or six pages.

Many agents and editors will ask for a synopsis of your novel if they like your query letter, and they may even ask for it with the first chapters of your book, so it's worthwhile to learn how to write one. And you may discover, as I did, that having the synopsis in front of you will keep your words flowing when it's time to actually write.

In my case, the synopsis did a surprising thing: it sold my next novel for me. The editor called while I was in an airport, returning from my writing retreat. I nearly fell off the moving sidewalk when she said they'd decided to buy the book based on the synopsis alone, without ever seeing the chapters. Yes, this is something that usually only happens in movies, but it happened to me. So get busy and start writing your synopsis now!