Synopses: Don’t got time for ‘boring’

I just discovered that Penguin Publishing UK have opened their e-doors to unsolicited manuscripts until the end of October. Limited time only, etc.

This got me thinking about synopses. The process of writing one is torturous if you’re trying to write one for your own manuscript. Not so difficult – but should be the same process – when looking at someone else’s. This reader has looked at quite a few in her time.

Tell it to the kid

I gather the general idea is to tell it as though you were truncating the story for someone with the attention span of a few minutes. Tell it like you’d tell it to a child, and I don’t mean dumb it down. In my experience kids aren’t dumb: they just don’t have time for ‘boring’. You’ll need all your wiles and ways to engage them in … wait for it … the story.

Having said that, one approach is to start by asking yourself the Robert McKee Big Five:

  • Whose story is it?
  • What’s the story about? (the plot)
  • What’s the central dramatic question?
  • What’s the prize?/the price?
  • Why should we care?

I’ve heard people argue that McKee writes primarily about screenwriting, so what would he know about literature? But even the most internal, prosaic literature still needs a backbone, and understanding how plot works can only add to your arsenal. (Not only that, but plenty of screenwriters kick some real prose butt when it comes to words on page.)

I particularly like the final question: Why should we care? (Ms11’s mantra.) Because this is where it gets fun.

This is where prose matters. This is where themes and the world of ideas matter. This is where character matters, and it gets personal. It’s where you get to answer all those Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Things That Matter. Because, after all, why else do we read if not to engage with these questions from time to time?

On a podcast from the ABC’s The Book Show (broadcasting from the Melbourne Writers Festival), Val McDermid and Ramona Koval were chewing over the question of whether crime fiction has become more literary in the past decade. McDermid says (full transcript here):

I think in a funny kind of way what made it change was what happened to literary fiction. Certainly in the UK and in Europe and to a degree in America in the 1980s critical theory became very important in the world of literature, and it seems that literary novelists were more interested in the theory of writing rather than actually engaging with readers, and they lost the sense of telling stories that had a beginning and a middle and an end. […] So when literary novels became the repository of something other than telling stories, the storytellers among us had to go someplace else, and genre fiction offered the perfect escape, if you like, for would-be writers who wanted to write proper stories.

And the rest of us? We might like to try our hand at writing a synopsis.


  1. The re-badged, revised and nuanced W-N is ever more engaging and interesting, thank you.The Big 5 are great, and No 5 certainly active – I cannot say how many books I've picked up only to lose interest and discard. It can't all be my fault can it? Having thus excused myself, however, audience/reader issues do get in the way, don't they? External influences du jour, internal moods or attitudes and even in extremis some kind of revenge against an author whose work you appreciate but whose personal life rankles.Best advice? Spin your tale and keep writing, word-nerds of the world; at least a synopsis.

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