Let’s start by getting this out in the open: I’m not what one would call an especially fantasy-savvy reader. I like good stories regardless of the genre, but when my co-workers start throwing around fantasy references during our chats, I more often than not have to quickly google the author or character in question before saying, “ah, yes, I get it now! Good one!” Ahem.
Now that I’ve “outed” myself as being relatively clueless about fantasy, you might be asking, “So you expect me to listen to your advice because…?” Well, because I’m not the only one in this boat, and it’s important to keep that fact in mind when writing your synopsis. In fact, having an “outsider” go over your synopsis can be invaluable in helping pinpoint where you need to include more information.
If a synopsis is well written, anyone should be able to read it and understand the story, regardless of how well (or ill) informed they are about a particular genre. It’s dangerous to assume that the person opening the mail and reading submissions at an agency is as “fluent” in fantasy as you are. If the premise of your novel is dependent on what happens to your main character after he or she falls into a fae sleep, and if I don’t know what a fae sleep is, then the whole thing leaves me scratching my head. Head scratching is definitely not what we want the reader to be doing as he/she finishes reading a synopsis! We want the reader to say, “Wow, I want to read this manuscript now!” and not “Wait, huh?”
In addition to watching out for potentially confusing terminology, authors need to keep in mind that, as someone who is reading your synopsis for the first time, I have no background knowledge of how things work in the world in which your story takes place. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’m going to assume that we’re operating in the “real world,” and that your main character is going to be just as surprised as I would be when they find themselves standing on line at the grocery store behind a shapeshifter or a wizard. If the world of your novel works under a different set of rules, tell me! Things that are clear as day to you, as the author and someone who is intimately familiar with how things work in your story, may be mind-boggling to an outsider.
That said, be careful not to turn the synopsis into just a comprehensive guide to the ins-and-outs of the setting. The plot of the story should always be the center of the synopsis, but do try to give the reader the information necessary to understand what’s going on. Clarity needs to reign supreme in any synopsis, regardless of genre, but it’s especially important – and especially difficult – when working in a genre like fantasy or science fiction, where you’re not just introducing us to a character and a plot, but often to an entirely new world. As a reader, I want to come into your novel’s world and hear your (surely brilliant) story. But whether I’m the newest of the new or a legendary acquisitions editor who specializes in fantasy, I need you, as the author, to explain your story thoroughly so that I can do so.
- Author Robert J. Sawyer has a helpful list of outlines and synopses from his award-winning Science Fiction novels. His web site is also a great resource for writers in any genre.
- The absolutewrite.com forum also has many tips for creating an effective synopsis. This discussion is a good look at the process of revising a Fantasy-themed synopsis.
- Writing the Breakout Novel remains one of the best books for both the novice and experienced author, and covers outline and synopsis writing for authors of any genre.