The Synopsis for Editing and Writing

Those who are heading down the road toward traditional publication will be familiar with a beast known as a synopsis. Many agents and publishers require that you submit a 1/2-page synopsis with your submission materials. The chore of writing a synopsis that length is a frightening task. Many writers have been known to run away from it, screaming. So, when I mention that writers should write synopses as an editing tool, it’s not surprising that many look at me like I’m crazy.

In a querying synopsis, you include only the main plot thread, ignoring ALL subplots. The only characters named are your protagonist, antagonist, and often a love interest; everyone else is irrelevant. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s completely disheartening to see this complex masterpiece whittled down to a few short paragraphs, but for the querying synopsis, that’s what you need to do.

However, for editing purposes, that short, main-plot-only synopsis is useless. You need to create an entirely different beast.

As mentioned in an earlier post, a synopsis is really for the benefit of the editor. It is a reference sheet used during the editing phase, detailing what is meant to be happening in the story and in what order. For the writer, a synopsis can also be a plotting tool, helping the writer to shape their story.

In the past, for every 40 pages of manuscript, it was expected that you write one page of synopsis for the editor. If your manuscript was 400 pages, then your synopsis would have been 10 pages long. (BTW, 400 pages equates to approximately 100,000 words when using standard manuscript formatting.) The editorial synopsis included everything about character development and subplots. It contained everything that you felt was important to the story. However, in today’s electronic era, this amount of detail can be considered overkill.

The level of detail in an editorial synopsis will depend entirely on the type of writer you are. If you are a full-out plotter, then you’ll likely feel compelled to write that 10-page synopsis for that 100,000 words. If you’re a pantser or hybrid writer, then you’ll likely have 2 – 3 pages for your synopsis; in fact, it might be only 1 page. (If you are confused by the terms of plotter, pantser or hybrid writer, then check out this post here.)

An editorial synopsis is as detailed as you need it to be.

When creating an editorial synopsis myself, I aim for the shorter synopsis, but I tend to write the beast only after I’ve written some random scenes and have developed a sense for the story.

I’m a hybrid writer. I often find myself pantsing it big time in the early stages, trying to work out exactly where the story is going. Some scenes come clearly to me, while others are only bullet points. I write story plots out of order, rarely able to see the full sequence of events until they find the page. It’s not until after this initial plotting/pantsing phase that I’ll actually write the first version of my editorial synopsis. For me, the editorial synopsis is an organic process.

I whittle the ideas down to what are the most important aspects of the story. Then I shuffle them around until I have a story structure that actually works. I rewrite my manuscript (restructure and reshape), then I’ll revisit my editorial synopsis, going through the whole process again. Often I find that while writing, the story will deviate slightly from the editorial synopsis, simply because that was the way the scene wanted to go. However, having that editorial synopsis there means that when I’m done, I know I have a complete story.

The aspect of this organic, editorial synopsis process that I find alluring… By the time I finish editing/revising, I often have a synopsis that is 1/2 pages, perfectly suited to be used as a querying synopsis.

The plotters will likely have an editorial synopsis written before they start, although they won’t call it as such. They’ll call it character description sheets, location description sheets, and plot summaries. However, we hybrid plotters/pantsers tend to find this full-out plotting as stifling to our creativity. Instead, we might have a few notes sitting around on piece of paper somewhere with some random ideas and no real order; occasionally, we’ll have a bullet list of key events, but the details elude us until we actually write.

There is no right or wrong here on how that story finds the paper. You can’t edit a blank page.

I write my drafts using Scrivener. One of the features of Scrivener that has me hooked on the program is the ability to add a 1/2-sentence summary in the Synopsis Index Card on the Inspector window for each chapter. Although these are included primarily to remind me of the key events in the chapter, I use these notes to generate the various synopses that I might have for a given manuscript.

Visit Tips and Tricks for Scrivener

Once I have a full draft, not just bullet points, I’ll compile the Synopsis Cards into a Word document (which I often import back into Scrivener to work with — I hate writing in MSWord). This is a special compile feature built into Scrivener that will take only the notes you added to the Synopsis Index Cards on the Inspector window and lists them in order. It is a rough output, often with sentences that have no connection with the next. I’ll deliberately take the time to turn the output into something that is a bit more cohesive and flowing, looking at the connections between sections. In doing such, I can see exactly what is important and what is just padding. I can see where a story is thin and has jumped to the next section with no logical progression. However, I can also see when a story has completed its arc and just needs to be rounded out.

If you don’t have Scrivener, you can still generate this rough synopsis output by putting your 1/2-sentence chapter summaries in a separate MSWord document.

While this editorial synopsis process is beneficial for revising and editing, writers that use this process should be advised that just because a scene isn’t mentioned in the synopsis doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary. It doesn’t mean that you should keep it either. It’s important that you look at each chapter on its own merits. Ask those nasty questions about whether a passage is necessary to understand.

In using this editorial synopsis approach, one can assess whether the story has deviated too far off the beat and path, and how one might redirect it. You can determine exactly if a story is really multiple books and where it should be split.  If a story feels forced, an editorial synopsis can help you develop the plot threads needed to get the story to flow again. And for those suffering from writer’s block, an editorial synopsis can remind you of the joy in the story, helping you find your muse.

So, the next time you’re asked to write a synopsis for your story, just remember that a synopsis is really an editorial tool, meant to help you shape a story into that masterpiece that we all know is hiding somewhere.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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