What to Avoid in Your Synopsis

Studying_Scott_AkermanPreviously, I’ve shared tips for writing a synopsis. Having a well-written synopsis is important for querying writers, as it is commonly requested by agents and editors. However, there are many pitfalls I regularly see in synopses. Here are a few mistakes to avoid:

  1. Only including the plot

Yes, a synopsis should include the plot of your manuscript from beginning to end. However, I don’t think it should include only the plot. A recitation of the events in your story will likely sound dry and mechanical: “This happens, then this happens, then this happens.” Instead, try to summarize not only what happens but also why it matters. Include your characters’ feelings and emotions about what’s happening.

For example, one of the middle grade projects I’m working on opens with the 12-year-old main character running away from an orphanage. I could state this dryly: “She runs away from the orphanage where she lives.” But instead, I’d rather include her thoughts and feelings about it in a way that makes it more compelling: “There’s no way she’s sticking around the awful orphanage and following its stupid rules. As soon as she sees an opportunity for escape, she runs for it.” Granted, this isn’t as concise as it could be. But see how much more voice and character it conveys? If your synopsis sounds too much like a dry recitation, look for places to include more of your character’s emotions and reactions in order to bring their actions to life.

  1. Mentioning too many names

I see a lot of synopses that get bogged down in unnecessary character names. Synopses should mention as few characters as possible and name them only if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it becomes harder for the reader to follow it and gets weighted down with the unnecessary information. Cut out characters who aren’t crucial to the synopsis, and look for ways to describe characters without naming them. For example, you can just say “the king” instead of his name.

  1. Discussing theme

The synopsis is not the place to include the themes of your work. This might seem to contradict my earlier point about including more than plot, but bear with me. If you’ve explained the plot in a precise and compelling way, the theme of your work will already be apparent to the reader. Stating it outright is unnecessary at best; at worst, it may come off as pretentious. Describe your story as clearly as you can and let the reader interpret what it means. Show the themes of your work through the story instead of stating them outright.

  1. Including character backstory

A character’s backstory may be important in the manuscript, but it’s rarely going to be important in your synopsis. Flashbacks almost never need to be included, and more than a line or two about a character’s past is probably excessive.

  1. Including dialogue

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a synopsis that absolutely needed to include dialogue. I’m sure there’s an exception, but in most cases it just isn’t necessary. When individual conversations are relevant at all, they should be summed up in a line or two. For example, you don’t need to write, “At the end of the fight, Jack yelled, ‘You need to leave, and don’t ever come back!’” when instead you can write something like, “They fought, and Jack told him never to come back.” Be concise.

  1. Asking rhetorical questions

As with query letters, don’t ask rhetorical questions in a synopsis. The purpose of a synopsis is not to entice a potential reader; it’s to summarize your story as succinctly and clearly as possible. Rhetorical questions are unnecessary and take up valuable space. Again, be concise.

  1. Splitting your synopsis into sections

Unless there’s something very unique about the structure of your novel that you need to convey, there’s no need to split the synopsis into sections or parts. You also don’t need to label plot points or to lay them out like an outline. Don’t use bullet points or lists or subheadings. Just tell your story as succinctly as possible, in simple paragraphs.

What do you think? Have you written a synopsis? Did you include anything on this list? What common synopsis mistakes did I miss? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your query letter, manuscript, or other submission materials? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to literary agents, publishing houses, and more, check out other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts.

Related Links:

8 Tips for Writing a Synopsis

Writing a Synopsis 101: Links and Resources

What to Avoid in Your Cover Copy

Helpful Writing Resources (Part 2)


One thought on “What to Avoid in Your Synopsis

  1. Ellie P. says:

    Good post, Cecilia! I actually wrote a one-page synopsis (as well as a longer one) for my memoir, and just posted it on my own blog. It’s here if anyone wants to take a look: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/synopsis-of-surviving-hollywood-north/
    I think it’s ok, what do you think? So far it got me one request from a publisher for my full manuscript, so maybe I’m doing something right, at least I hope so! :-)


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