What Is a Synopsis and How Do You Write One?

What to Put In and What to Leave Out

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In the 19th century, a synopsis was a classroom exercise used for teaching traditional grammar but today, the accepted definition of a synopsis is a general overview of an article, essay, story, book, or other written work. 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 polemic argument or event. You might also find a synopsis included in a review or report.

Fast Facts: Synopsis

Pronunciation: si-NOP-sis

Etymology From the Greek, "general view"

Plural: synopses

Adjective: synoptic

Synopsis vs. Outline

Some people use the terms outline and synopsis synonymously and they really are very similar. When it comes to fiction, however, the distinction is more clearcut. While each may contain similar information, a synopsis is an overview that summarizes the main plot points of the work, whereas an outline functions as a structural tool that breaks the plot down into its component parts.

If you think of it in terms of a novel, the synopsis would be similar to the book jacket copy that tells you who the characters are and what happens to them. It usually also gives readers a feeling for the tone, genre, and theme of the work. An outline would be more akin to a page of chapter listings (provided the author has titled the chapters rather than just numbering them) which functions as a map that leads the reader from the beginning of a literary journey to its final destination or denouement.

In addition to crucial information, a synopsis often includes a thematic statement. Again, thinking in terms of fiction, it would identify the genre and even subgenre, for example, a romance Western, a murder mystery, or a dystopic fantasy and would also reveal something of the tone of the work—whether dark or humorous, erotic or terrifying.

What to Include and What to Leave Out

Since a synopsis is a condensation of the original material, a writer must be sure to include the most important details so that the reader will be able to fully comprehend what the work is about. Sometimes, it's hard to know what to put in and what to leave out. Writing a summary requires critical thinking. You're going to have to analyze the original material and decide what the most important information is.

A synopsis isn't about style or details, it's about supplying enough information for your audience to easily understand and categorize the work. A few brief examples might be permissible, but numerous examples, dialogues, or extensive quotations have no place in a synopsis. Do, however, keep your synopsis true to the plot and timeline of the original story.

Synopses for Non-Fiction Stories

The purpose of a synopsis for a work of nonfiction is to serve as a condensed version of an event, a controversy, a point of view, or background report. Your job as a writer is to include enough basic information so that a reader can easily identify what the story is about and understand its tone. While detailed information is important when telling the larger story, only the information crucial to comprehending the "who, what, when, where, and why" of an event, proposal, or argument is necessary for the synopsis.

Again, as with fiction, the tone and the eventual outcome of your story will also likely come into play in your summary. Choose your phrasing judiciously. Your goal is to use as a few words as possible to achieve maximum impact without leaving out so much information that your reader ends up confused.

Sources

  • Fernando, Jovita N., Habana, Pacita I., and Cinco, Alicia L. "New Perspectives in English One." Rex, 2006
  • Kennedy, X.J., Kennedy, Dorothy M., and Muth, Marcia F. "The Bedford Guide for College Writers." Ninth Edition. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011
  • Brooks, Terri. "Words' Worth: A Handbook on Writing and Selling Nonfiction." St. Martin's Press, 1989