Synopsize Me

Scissors for CuttingLately, I’ve been reading a lot of TV.

Sure, I watch the stuff, too — the riveting go-go-go travelogue of “The Amazing Race” as it airs, the soapy drama of “Nashville” on DVR, the gone-too-soon cleverness of “Veronica Mars” on DVD — but there is way more content out there than my eyeballs or my schedule can handle. Still, I’m curious. So I’ve gotten into the habit of regularly reading online recaps of a few shows that I’ve never actually watched, like “Boardwalk Empire”, “The Walking Dead”, and “American Horror Story.”

And it occurred to me, these little recaps are very similar to one of the novelist’s most dreaded nemeses: the synopsis.

Online TV recaps come in many flavors, but the most common versions are a page or two of text summarizing the main action of one episode of a show. And while there are obvious differences between describing what happens in a novel the reader has not yet read and bringing a TV show’s fans up to speed on one episode’s worth of action, there are some definite lessons from TV recaps you can use to guide your synopsis-writing (and -rewriting, and -rewriting) process.

First of all, something has to happen. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying. More than one of us has written a book scene by painful scene, only to arrive at the end of 80,000 words, look back, and realize that there is little to no external action. Your book is your book, and a quiet, reflective book isn’t going to have a bang-zoom-kapow synopsis, but if the verbs in your synopsis lean less toward “escapes” and “confesses” and “dies” and more toward “realizes” and “reflects” and “decides not to”, you may have a problem in book and synopsis alike. If it’s just “thinks about” over and over and over, you definitely have a problem.

Voice matters. You’re probably already sick of hearing people talk about the important of voice in a novel, but now you’re getting a double barrel: yes, voice is important in a synopsis too. A synopsis of a thriller should be thrilling; a synopsis of a comic novel should be funny. A recap of “The Walking Dead” is not going to use the same language or tone as a recap of “The Office.” Recounting events will get the job done, of course, but if you want a next-level achievement, infusing your synopsis with the same flavor and spirit as your novel is a real coup.

Too much is too much. I love an epic tale with a sprawling cast of characters, but if a synopsis asks me to remember more than 10 key characters, I’m probably going to drop a stitch here or there. (“Now which one was Carol again?”) A recap doesn’t describe every single minute of the episode; your synopsis doesn’t need to address every single scene in the book. A good way to test this is to read Television Without Pity, which posts “recaplets” the day after a show airs and then full “recaps” a couple of days later — they’re summarizing the exact same material, but the first time it’s a couple paragraphs and the second time it’s pages and pages. You’re going to leave things — a lot of things — out of your synopsis. You have to. Otherwise your synopsis would be 80,000 words long, and it would be the book itself.

Of course reading TV isn’t quite like watching it, and it’s the rare reader who would rather have the synopsis of a novel than the novel itself, for enjoyment’s sake. But both the synopsis and the recap have their place in the world. There’s an art to either.

(image via Flickr by lollyknit)


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    I think I’ve finally managed to focus on the most important aspects of my plot in my synopsis, but getting the voice is the hardest part. Summarizing the key events of the book seems to have sucked the life right out of it, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to get it back in without turning my two-sides-of-a-page summary into three or four.

  2. says

    Great way to illustrate the synopsis. It’s a good exercise to dissect what about the TV summary catches your attention and piques your interest to watch more– just like our synopsis. Thanks for the reframing.

  3. says

    I have the same problem as jeffo, losing my voice in the synopsis. It’s tought figuring out how to get all the major plot points in, maintaining your voice and keeping it all under three pages. Thanks for sharing tips on getting it done.

  4. says

    These were all excellent points, Jael. It took me too long to start reading the backs of paperbacks and flaps of hardbacks and studying TV recaps. I’m starting to wise up.

  5. says

    As much as writing a synopsis is like having a tooth pulled, I’m glad you’ve helped put it in perspective for me! The last one I constructed was definite a matter of art – strange to say it, but isn’t everything in this business art? i think of a synopsis as a matter of orbiting a planet, seeing things in basic detail and basic blocks of color – continents instead of city blocks. It’s not pleasant to write it and to have to shave off sentences until it’s the right length, but I’ve gained a valuable skill in the process… and really, it wasn’t that bad. It helped me see what were the most important aspects of my novel – which aspects would be most likely to grasp an agent/reader/prospective person.


  6. says

    I find the synopsis to be one of the hardest things about writing! Especially with an action-packed, twists-and-turns plot. That synopsis could almost be the length of the book!
    I think you’ve boiled it down to three excellent points, and I love the idea of reading tv recaps to help with synopses!
    Thanks for a great article.

  7. says

    Great post, and awesome advice.

    Writing synopses is really hard, I believe even harder than queries and blurbs, where you can be tantalizing and mysterious. With synopses you have to be concise and wrap up the entire story, including the end, in a single page of your most brilliant voice. It’s a nutbreaker, and any such great advice as yours, Jael, is very welcome!

  8. says

    I love reading a TV recap and then watching the episode only to find out how much BETTER it was… hahaha. I guess that must be how an agent or publisher feels when they read a synopsis and think, GREAT, and then get the manuscript and it’s even better than they thought it would be… if that actually happens anyway. Hahaha :)

  9. says

    I never considered the similarities between the TV recap and a synopsis. I will be looking at recaps more closely and getting some ideas. Thanks for this post. It was short, sweet, and simply perfect.