Synopsis (composition and grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris, The Weekend Novelist, rev. ed. (Billboard Books, 2005).

A synopsis is a brief outline, abstract, summary, or general overview of an article, essay, story, book, or other work. Plural: synopses. Adjective: synoptic.

A synopsis may be included in a review or report. In the field of publishing, a synopsis may serve as a proposal for an article or book.

In feature writing and other forms of nonfiction, a synopsis may also refer to a concise summary of a controversy or event.

In the teaching of traditional grammar in the 19th century, a synopsis was a classroom exercise that called for detailed identification of the forms of a verb. Consider, for example, this assignment in Goold Brown's Grammar of English Grammars (1859): "Write a synopsis of the second person singular of the neuter verb sit, conjugated affirmatively in the solemn style." (A sample grammatical synopsis appears below.) 

Examples and Observations

"A summary is a brief or compressed restatement of a piece of writing. It is also called a digest, precis, synopsis, or abstract. It condenses the original material, presenting only the most important points stripped of details, examples, dialogues, or extensive quotations.

"In college, you can expect to have to summarize information written by someone else, like summaries of reports, meetings, presentations, research projects, or literary works. A condensed version is not a substitute for the original work. When you put the main ideas of a passage into your own words, you lose the style and flavor of the original work. You also leave out most of the details that make the ideas worth remembering. . . .

"Writing a summary requires critical thinking. You analyze the material you are condensing. Then, you draw conclusions about what should be included in the summary and what should be left out."
(Jovita N. Fernando, Pacita I. Habana, and Alicia L. Cinco, New Perspectives in English One. Rex, 2006)

Writing a Synopsis of a Story

"Whenever you need to understand a story or recall a lot of stories, writing a synopsis can help you review a story's specifics. Keep your synopsis of the plot true to the original, noting accurate details in time order. Condensing a story . . . forces you to focus on what's most important, often leading to a statement of theme."
(X.J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Marcia F. Muth, The Bedford Guide for College Writers, 9th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011)

A Sample Synopsis of an Essay: Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal"

"A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick (1729), a pamphlet by [Jonathan] Swift in which he suggests that the children of the poor should be fattened to feed the rich, an offer he describes as 'innocent, cheap, easy and effectual.' It is one of the most savage and powerful tracts, a masterpiece of ironic logic."
(The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., edited by Margaret Drabble. Oxford University Press, 1985)

A Sample Synopsis of an Essay: Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance"

"'Self-Reliance,' essay by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, published in Essays: First Series (1841).

"'Trust thyself,' a central doctrine in the author's ethical thought, is the theme developed here. 'Envy is ignorance . . . imitation is suicide'; a man 'must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.' 'Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. . . . Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.' The two terrors that discourage originality and creative living are fear of public opinion and undue reverence for one's own consistency. The great figures of history have not cared for the opinions of their contemporaries; 'to be great is to be misunderstood'; and if a man honestly expresses his nature he will be largely consistent. Deference to authority, to institutions, or to tradition is disobedience to the inner law that each of us must follow in order to do justice to himself and to society. We must speak the truth, and truth, revealed intuitively, cannot be achieved except through the development and expression of one's individual nature.

'Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.'"
(The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 5th ed., edited by James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, 1983)

Planning and Proposing

"In the early stages of your development as a writer you need to plan by writing things down. But as you become more experienced you can hold the equivalent of plans in your mind. Let me give an example from my own development as a writer. As part of the process of getting the contract for this book I had to write a synopsis of the content. Here is the summary I wrote for this chapter:

5. Planning
The merits of planning writing will be discussed. Suggestions will be given on possible formats for planning including keyword paragraph plans. The concept of retrospective planning will be explained and examples given. Examples of professional writers' ways of planning will be discussed.
Not much detail. But the reason I am able to write approximately 3,000 words from such a basic plan is to do with my experience and knowledge as a writer."

(Dominic Wyse, The Good Writing Guide for Education Students, 2nd ed. SAGE, 2007)

"One simple but important point about writing a synopsis is that it should be written after all other sections of the proposal have been constructed. Lefferts (1982) has warned us that writing a summary before writing the proposal is like naming a baby prior to its birth; we may end up with a girl's name for a boy." (Pranee Liamputtong Rice and Douglas Ezzy, Qualitative Research Methods: A Health Focus.. Oxford University Press, 1999)

A Film Synopsis

"So, you have done a lot of research and have a sense of the story you want to tell. Can you tell yours in a paragraph? What about two sentences? Before filmmakers write the script, they write a synopsis (summary) of the story they have discovered. It's like telling the entire story in a couple of sentences or a paragraph, but with language that hints to the style of your documentary." (Making History: How to Create a Historical Documentary. National History Day, 2006)

Synopses in Feature Stories

"The synopsis is a condensation of a controversy, a viewpoint, a background report on a public or private event. In a complex story, condensation of lengthy information becomes essential. . . .

"After researching a story, the writer should be awash in information. It has usually come in dribs and drabs, unclear, incomplete, often redundant, sometimes superfluous, exaggerated, or misleading. It is the writer's job to sift and winnow it, and then compress it into some palpable shape--the briefer the better--that the reader can swallow painlessly. The longer the feature, the more often a writer will have to stop the story for a synopsis. . . .

"Here is a synopsis of a battle in Robeson County, North Carolina, over construction of two toxic water-treatment plants, one of them for radioactive waste:

The residents contend that their area was selected for the plants because it has a median family income about half the national average and has historically wielded little political power, and because more than half of the people are black or American Indian.
Spokesmen for GSX and US Ecology say the area was selected because it provided the best facilities for their plants. They both insist the plants pose no health threats to the area and categorically deny that the sites were political choices.
[Philip Shabecoff, The New York Times, April 1, 1986]

In this example, . . . the writer then goes on to analyze the problem in depth. . . .

"With synopses, writers rely on their skills as linguistic surgeons to excise the excess verbiage and get on with the story."
(Terri Brooks, Words' Worth: A Handbook on Writing and Selling Nonfiction. St. Martin's Press, 1989)

A 19th-Century Grammatical Synopsis: Second-Person Singular of Love

"IND. Thou lovest or dost love, Thou lovedst or didst love, Thou hast loved, Thou hadst loved, Thou shalt or wilt love, Thou shalt or wilt have loved. POT. Thou mayst, canst, or must love; Thou mightst, couldst, wouldst, or shouldst love; Thou mayst, canst, or must have loved; Thou mightst, couldst, wouldst, or shouldst have loved. SUBJ. If thou love, If thou loved. IMP. Love [thou,] or Do thou love."
(Goold Brown, The Grammar of English Grammars: With an Introduction, Historical and Critical, 4th ed. Samuel S. & William Wood, 1859)

The Lighter Side of Synopses

"There was a session in progress when Rhodes stopped at the college, so he sat out on the porch of the main building and talked to Chatterton.

"'What are they talking about?' Rhodes asked.

"'How to write a synopsis,' Chatterton said. 'It's very important to be able to write a good synopsis, they tell me. They even have contests to see who can write the best one. They charge a fee to enter and get some writer to be the judge. That's how they help pay for conferences like this one.'

"Rhodes didn't quite understand why anyone would want to write a synopsis.

"'Why not just write the whole book?' he asked.

"Chatterton explained that professionals never wrote a book unless they were certain that it would sell. Only beginners wrote the whole book.

"'You seem to know a lot about it,' Rhodes said. 'Why aren't you attending any of the sessions?'

"'Because I don't want to write a book. I might be the only person here who doesn't, though.'"
(Bill Crider, A Romantic Way to Die. Minotaur Books, 2001)

Pronunciation: si-NOP-sis

From the Greek, "general view"|