Saturday 9 June 2007

Lee Weatherly's Tips on How to Write a Synopsis

… I hate writing synopses because they are much more difficult to write than the novel ever was. It's not easy distilling 100,000-odd words into a few pages.

Author Lee Weatherly takes a completely opposite view.

"Hand on heart, they are really not that hard," she says.

And yet writing synopses is described by many writers is one of the most excruciating aspects to selling a manuscript.
What is it about this particular piece of writing that brings out more moans and groans from writers than a roomful of sixth graders getting a surprise math test?
Writers fear the act of writing synopsis because they cannot see themselves squeezing the best of their narratives into a few paragraphs.

But this is a misunderstanding of what synopses are for, says Weatherly. "The agent (or editor) does not want nearly as much information as we think they want. To write a good synopsis, you have to understand what it is the agent wants from the synopsis … don't lose sleep over it. At the end of the day it is just part of the package."

What does the agent want?

We must view the synopsis from the point of view of the agent, says Weatherly, who has worked for an agency as a slush pile reader. "The synopsis is not the place for stylistic writing, it is a functional document."

Agents are unlikely to read the synopsis unless they like the writing. If the sample chapters pass muster, they turn to the synopsis to find out if:

  • the story hangs together

  • there is a story arc
The synopsis must be a user-friendly document (so user friendly "you (the agent) can just glance through it and join your friend at the pub")

  • The header must have all the information the agent needs – the author's name, the number of words, contact details, genre

  • It must be easy to read: lots of white space with a readable font (as opposed to long blocks of text and tiny font sizes)

  • They want to get a clear sense of the plot main moments: how you set-up the situation > the inciting event > the high point > rug-pulling moment > climax >resolution

  • They want to know the ending

  • Focus on the action but give the agent a clue of the emotional threads

  • Don't hold back secrets

  • Is it hard to read? "This makes agents sound precious but keep in mind all the manuscripts they have to go through … you must make their life as easy as possible"

A Synopsis can expose weaknesses in your narrative

"If your synopsis is 14 pages long, (the agent) might assume that the story is over written … which is not fair because the synopsis is not the story."

And yet many problem areas do reveal themselves. The synopsis must highlight key plot turning points — the "cause and effect that drives a story forward" — and without the usual padding of words any weaknesses are easy to spot.

"If you have a problem," says Lee, "it is really going to show."

Lee Weatherly (Missing Abby, Child X) spoke to the British SCBWI Professional Series on 24 May 2007.


  1. Nice synopsis, Candy.

  2. Thanks, Addy! How's life now that you are famous?

  3. Brilliant! Thanks for letting us in - some of us don't get out as much!

  4. Great stuff, Candy. I just wrote what I think is my most perfect synopsis ever - trouble was, it wasn't for a book but for a 150 page report written for the local council! Now I wish I could apply the same principles to my manuscript synopses! :-)

    I think the trouble for most of us is overcoming the actual "fear" of writing the wretched things.

  5. The only problem with Weatherley's summary is that it assumes every novel adheres to a cookie-cutter plot structure.


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