The Synopsis: The Best Editing Tool You’ve Never Tried

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2023-05-09

A synopsis—what is it, really? Well, to put it simply, a synopsis is a brief overview of your larger work. For a nonfiction manuscript, a synopsis could provide a summary of the main points, or arguments, that you are making. For a fiction manuscript, a synopsis acts as a summary of the plot of the book and how the events unfold.

A synopsis can be used in a few ways. Usually the back cover of a book has a synopsis in some form, to give the reader an overview of the book’s contents. If you’ve ever submitted a manuscript to a publisher or agent, then you’ll know that a synopsis is often an important part of a submission package.

Writing a synopsis can often be quite difficult; even after spending months or years completing and perfecting a manuscript, you may struggle to condense your book into a bite-sized summary. And usually, you will write your synopsis after you finish your manuscript.

However, in this blog, we’re going to examine how you can use a synopsis before you complete the writing of your manuscript. That is, using the synopsis as an editing and drafting tool to help you finish your first draft or start your second draft.

Remember, the synopsis should be quite short. Usually a synopsis is just one page, or two pages, max.


Start with a List

To get your synopsis going, start by mulling on your manuscript. What are the major events in the book? If it’s a fiction book, what are the major turning points, or choices made, in the plot? What actions precipitate or act as a catalyst for those choice or events? Write down these details. Think about how these events and actions/choices connect to each other, one into the next, into the next. This is a great place to start a rough synopsis, because now you have your meat and potatoes, if you will. Connect your main points, and season as needed with extra information and details.


How a Synopsis Can Act as a Spotlight

Once you’ve finished your first draft, you might feel tempted to get right to editing and working with the text. Instead, take some time to attempt the first synopsis of your manuscript.

Why? Well, a synopsis should include the full narrative arc for your book, right? It needs to show how the story unfolds, how the plot or narrative structure resolves itself, and it needs to demonstrate your own voice. It needs to convey the engaging, intriguing nature of the events of the book, whatever they may be.

Writing a synopsis after the first draft, then, can act as a spotlight on issues in your book. Maybe the beginning is really intriguing. But as you try to summarize the middle of your book, it doesn’t quite come together. If the beginning starts off with a bang, but then the story starts to really drag after Event B or C, your synopsis can illuminate that there’s a problem here needing your attention.


Structuring Your Manuscript with a Synopsis

Using a synopsis to structure your manuscript can be especially helpful, for example, in memoir-writing as well as fiction. Your first thought might be to structure your memoir in chronological order, right? That’s the order of the events as they really happened, so that makes sense.

However, a synopsis can help show you where a different approach might be more engaging. If you finish your synopsis and it looks like “I did this, THEN this happened, THEN this other thing happened, so I did this, and THEN this happened, etc.” then maybe it might be worth re-evaluating your structure to see how you can create more drama, more intrigue, more suspense.

If you can change it up a little so that your synopsis looks more like “I did this, BUT then this happened, SO I did this, BUT…” then you might find your book becomes more engaging to the reader.

“BUT” means something unexpected—a barrier, a twist, a fork in the road, a new perspective. If your book is just “Event A, THEN Event B, THEN Event C, etc.,” you might find readers just aren’t being pulled in.


What Didn’t Make the Cut?

Once you’ve finished your synopsis, take a good look at it. It’s impossible to fit every event in the book into a synopsis, and that’s okay, but make sure you really examine the events that didn’t make the cut, the ones that didn’t make their way into the synopsis.

Take a look at your original list of events/actions/choices/etc. If any of those points got cut out of the synopsis as you polished and revised to make it more concise, that’s something you need to pay attention to. What you need to ask yourself is, “Why didn’t this event make it into the synopsis?”

You’ve spent a long time working with your manuscript, and sometimes that means it can be hard to see the big picture of the manuscript. If you included something in your original list, but it doesn’t really fit into the synopsis, it can be a sign. Perhaps it’s a sign that you need to consider whether or not that point needs to be included in the structure of your book.

Sometimes a manuscript needs a good decluttering. For example, to remove events that don’t go anywhere, or bits of setup that don’t pay off, or characters that could disappear without any real change to the overall story. The length restrictions of a synopsis (you’ve only got one single-spaced page, two max) mean that you can only keep what is truly necessary. This will encourage you to evaluate everything that didn’t end up in that “keep” pile and really think about whether or not it’s needed.


Keep It Simple

Writing a synopsis can be a great tool to help you identify problem spots (or high points!) in your manuscript. Figuring out those problem spots early on means that you can make more informed choices when you’re revising, cutting, and editing. As a bonus, once those problem spots are removed, you won’t waste time editing and polishing parts of the book that don’t need to be there!

So, try writing a synopsis to help you as part of the drafting process. You never know, it might become your new favourite method to approach your second draft!



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