When Is a Synopsis Not a Synopsis?

Just over a month ago I took part in a meeting with agents and editors organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. We had to submit the 15 first pages of our completed novel and a synopsis for individual consultations. I had been sick and tired of Novel No. 1 for months by now and was raring to get going on Novel No. 2, but I dutifully sent out No. 1. But I had somehow never quite cottoned on to what a synopsis is supposed to be: a chronological description of everything that happens in the book, including giving away the ending. So, instead, what I sent was this:

‘Beyond the Woods’ by Marina Sofia

‘You think Eastern Europe is still part of Europe… but it’s an entirely different world. None of your rules or your notions of right and wrong apply here.’

Matt Johnson is content with his life: he has a promising scientific career ahead of him in London and a glamorous Romanian girlfriend, Cristina, whom he intends to marry as soon as she secures a divorce from her estranged husband back home. But suddenly his world collapses. On her trip home to see her parents, Cristina has a fatal car crash. Her friend, Eli, doesn’t believe it was an accident – she suspects that Cristina’s husband, Luca, now a rising star in Romanian politics, killed her. Matt is disinclined to believe conspiracy theories, but agrees to join Eli in Bucharest and figure out what happened.

As the mismatched pair trace Cristina’s last steps and conversations, Matt finds out things about his girlfriend’s past that he hadn’t known or wanted to believe before. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic local policeman, Matt and Eli begin a game of cat and mouse with Luca, who thwarts their efforts to find proof at every turn.

This is not just a simple whodunit. 1990s Romania is a society on the brink of collapse after the fall of Communism, where uncertainty is rife and no one seems able or willing to give straight answers in a murder investigation. How can you ever hope to uncover the truth or punish the perpetrators in such a place?

The comments I received were that it sounds like a good hook, but it’s not technically a synopsis. However, I now feel free to share it with you, because I have moved on to Novel No. 2 for the foreseeable future. How does it strike you? Would you want to read more? And what has your experience been with synopses?

38 thoughts on “When Is a Synopsis Not a Synopsis?”

  1. I agree that it reads like a hook or a back cover blurb. That said, it’s an exceptionally good hook! 😀 I would definitely want to read it, and I’m not into the thriller/mystery/crime genre, so that’s saying something.

    I think the main thing that keeps it from being a synopsis is that you didn’t reveal the ending, which as I understand it, is pivotal for a synopsis.

    I’m going through the same thing at the moment. i’m writing a synopsis for my first novel in order to start sending out queries and it’s definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to write.

    Good luck!

    1. Yes, I probably have done too much book reviewing and do the book blurb thing automatically, without revealing the ending… Good luck with your synopsis and query letters. Maybe tell us the hook for your novel?

  2. I’m going to be completely honest here, because I think that’s what you want – I would be on the way to the till/the one click Kindle thing right away! The main reason would be – it sounds like a great book, and I think it’d be intriguing (and possibly, in parts, amusing!) to see them negotiate their way round Romanian bureaucracy. It’s got that insider-looking-in feel Snowdrops had. Secondly, I’ve a bit of an obsession with Communism, and what it must’ve been like behind living “behind the wall” – not knowing who you can trust, or what you can talk about – I’m not sure how bad Romania was, but you’ve intrigued me enough I’m going to look into it when I get in! And I hear there’s still corruption in many of these states, with gangsters having a lot of power. So, absolutely, I’d buy it, 100%. I think on Rebecca’s site someone did a feature on synopses – it may or may not have been Helen Giltrow, don’t know if it’s worth a look…Now I’m going to go out utterly intrigued by a book I can’t read or buy! ARGH!

    1. Wow, thank you, my dear! That’s high praise indeed from an avid reader of crime fiction such as yourself. I’m still attracted to the story, so I may return to it after I finish No. 2 (provisionally entitled ‘Something’ as I can’t think of a title yet). So in the future, hopefully, you will get a chance to read it and perhaps even let rip reviewing it!

  3. This sounds really pretty good! I think that writing a synopsis (or a treatment, which is what I am wrestling with at the moment) is far harder than the book itself. There is definitely a certain art to it. Not one I have mastered, but you are clearly on the right track. All the very best with it!

    1. Treatment – am I right in thinking that would be for a TV series or drama? Fingers crossed for that. It’s hard, isn’t it, because you want to do the work justice without regurgitating the whole thing.

      1. Yes, that’s right – a pain in the bum it is! It’s enough to make a girl hang up her pen for good. But we push on, don’t we, hoping for the best. Thank goodness for tea and cake!

  4. It would certainly make me want to read more but I suppose it depends on who the synopsis is for. An agent/publisher would want to know more that a prospective reader. It may make it harder to write a fuller synopsis because you’re a reviewer/blogger and none of us wants to give too much of the game away for fear of spoiling the book for other readers, particularly with crime novels. Anyway, I do hope Novel No 1 is published – you’ve thoroughly whetted my appetite, now!

    1. Yes, that’s exactly what happened: I didn’t stop to consider that an agent/publisher wants to know the full story. To my mind, the synopsis was just the hook to make them want to ask for the rest of your manuscript.

  5. It reads great to me, but probably closer to a blurb – and a damp good blurb! I’d definitey read on. I’ll email you my synopsis for This Beautiful World for an example 🙂

    1. Thank you, Jo, that would be tremendously helpful. It’s the sort of thing you can’t really do online, because you don’t want to spoil the book for future readers, but agents/publishers seem to require it. I think I’m more familiar with blurbs than synopses.

  6. Marina Sofia it has certainly caught my attention. As far as synopsis is concerned I check in a dictionary the following definitions:
    1. a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject.
    2. a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole.
    3. a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.
    And your synopsis certainly fits the first two in my view.

    1. Aww, thank you, you’re so kind! I guess it just shows my lack of experience, but most people seem to know and agree that a synopsis involves full disclosure of the plot. Ah, well, just as well it’s set to one side for now…

  7. Oh, Marina Sofia, I would definitely, definitely read this! I’m intrigued and the premise is great. My experience with synopses, for what it’s worth, is that they actually tell the whole story – how it all works out. That is, it’s not just a sort of blurb; rather, it outlines the plot for the publisher. That’s really hard to pull off in a page or so – trust me!

    1. Clearly I somehow missed that piece of knowledge about synopses – and yes, I can see how it can be a challenge to resume the whole story in one page.
      Thank you for all your kind encouragement – gives me hope to go on!

  8. I’d read it! As for synopses, I’ve always been told to avoid writing them–the hazards of being an English major. Best of luck with Novel 2.

  9. I wan to read more for sure! GREAT blurb–almost perfect for Amazon and the book jacket. As for synopses… yes. It’s the whole shebang, in order, with ending. Hate hate hate them. But you’ll ace it, I know you will. Keep going and can we have Novel 1 soon, please? LOL! XX

    1. No, sick to death of it. Maybe I can face tweaking it after I’ve finished No. 2. But thanks for your encouragement – really looking forward to your book too!

  10. Oh, writer, I am hooked for sure!!

    Others have said what I will say- you have part of a query letter here, which is a very different from a synopsis, though they may contain similar elements, such as your hook or logline.

    You are smart to start this now, but know that you will rewrite your synopsis again and again until the book is finished, because the synopsis must contain the complete narrative arc of the main plot. It’s a pretty cut-and-dried rundown of the plot, whereas the query is a pitch—the first thing a prospective agent will look at-—the teaser, which is what you have, above. Some agents may also require a synopsis with the query letter. Others will want to see it only if they are interested in reading a partial or full ms.

    The synopsis should provide a snapshot of what your book is about, the major plot points, internal & external conflicts and main character arcs. It does not need to be chronological, nor should it mention every character or subplot. The ending must be clear. And 1-2 pages, max.

    You are smart to start this now, but know that you will rewrite your synopsis again and again until the book is finished.

    Keep going- do NOT give up on this novel!!

    1. Thank you for a very helpful and comprehensive answer. It’s an art, isn’t it, and will require quite a bit of thought, I can foresee. I’ll start working on the synopsis for my second novel right now (although I don’t quite know the ending). And I won’t give up completely on this first novel, just need to set it aside for a while, to regain some enthusiasm for it.

  11. I’d like to read it too. As others have commented, it does sound like a blurb rather than a synopsis but a very intriguing one (I think it’s the setting and political context). A few years ago my book group read The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness and it really got under my skin.

    Wishing you all the best with both novels.

    1. Hmmm, interesting – I haven’t read that book yet. It’s a period I recall very clearly, so should be intriguing to see the outsider’s perspective (sigh, there you go adding to my TBR pile again!). If you want an insider’s perspective (and beautifully written too), I recommend Carmen Bugan’s ‘Burying the Typewriter’.
      I am actually talking about a later period, after the fall of Communism, but just as the rosy idealism of free markets and democracy were beginning to get a bit tarnished…

  12. I would want to read more! Sounds intriguing. I hate writing a synopsis or elevator pitches! Or a query letter. Best of luck

  13. Go on… Finish writing it! You must! There is an awful lot that appeals about this book Marina – reading that as a blurb I’d definitely pick it up.

    As others say doesn’t qualify as a synopisis as such but certainly sells it 🙂

    1. Thank you, you’re too kind! I’ve finished writing that one (3-4 drafts done already), but it probably needs some editing and tweaking to make it publishable. I’ve been writing it on and off (OK, mostly NOT writing it) for over 5 years now, so I think it’s time to let it lie fallow.
      Besides, No. 2 is what I breathe and dream now…

  14. I hate writing synopses but they have to be done. My technique is this imagine a doppelganger who is your best friend, adores your book is extrovert and a fantastic salesperson. This is the person who is going to write the synopsis. Put on a loud song. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Put aside all feelings of doubt and go for it. Imagine that whoever buys the book is going to be bloody lucky. I think your synopsis sounds interesting but for example when you say ‘This is not just a simple whodunit’ why not say It’s a unique/original take on the crime novel … don’t tell me what it isn’t tell me what it is i.e. great! And I’d like more about Romania in the 1990s. I suppose I’d sort of like you to let rip a bit more on your own behalf. I tend to write mine over about a month or so and I tinker, tinker, tinker… and I sulk quite a lot as well! Basically they’re a monumental pain in the a**e and incredibly hard to do.

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