Premise Me This, Synopsis That

24 Jun

by Vanessa Di Gregorio


Since our 3-day-long query critique week is over, I thought that now would be a good time to talk about writing synopses and figuring out your premise(s); because they can really help you when it comes to writing your query.

See, the problem people have when it comes to writing queries is that it’s difficult summing up your 60,000 word manuscript (or however long you MS is). Heck, summing up a short story isn’t much easier! So what’s the best way to go about summarizing your novel-length work into the few paragraphs required for your query? Write a synopsis (which Savannah talked about here). Okay, so Savannah does say that using what you wrote for your query letter can help you write your synopsis; but who’s to say that you can’t use a synopsis to help you write your query letter? They’re both similar in that you need to somehow narrow your story into very few sentences. Which is hard, right? That’s why your manuscript IS 60,000 words long, after all! But though difficult, this is a skill you need to work on as a writer. And writing a synopsis is great practice for summarizing your beast of a manuscript.

It can also really help you figure out where you want your story to go, and figure out what your story really IS about. I mean, with all the sub-plots that might be lurking around in your manuscript, you need to still be able to clearly decipher what the main plot is. And sometimes, when you’re THAT into your story, you can’t differentiate. You probably tell anyone who asks that your story is about a girl falling in love with a boy, but with an epic battle between good versus evil and a long and dangerous quest involving needing to find all the pieces of the Triforce in order to save the Princess of Hyrule. And that the young hero travels back in time with a magical Ocarina and needs to go from dungeon to dungeon in order to obtain grappling hooks, and boomerangs, and all sorts of other gadgets in order to continue on his quest and overcome the obstacles in his path. And then there are zombies inhabiting the future, which is the future that will come to be if the evil isn’t stopped. And the other young man who is helping him turns out to be a woman who turns out to be the very Princess whose kingdom he is trying to save. And he wears green and lived in a tree before all of that happened. And there is a little blue fairy that follows him everywhere. And so on and so on. See, we can get a bit lost in the details of our own work. Every word and every action and every minor character is significant in our minds. Now, my reference to the Legend of Zelda aside, you need to be able to sum up your story into a cohesive and easy-to-follow synopsis. Which the above clearly wasn’t.

But aren’t queries shorter than synopses? Well, yes. But why not take small steps towards your query? Condense your manuscript into a synopsis (which, in itself, will be challenging). And then, take your synopsis and condense it into your query.

Now that I’ve talked about why switching it around and writing your synopsis before your query might be helpful, let’s move onto the dreaded one-sentence pitch. Yes, I know; no one likes summing up their story into one-sentence. It’s blasphemy, using only one sentence to sum up the entirety of your 60,000 word manuscript. BUT! Working out this pitch is your premise.

If there is one thing that I learned from my fiction editing class, it’s that your story needs a clear premise. And here’s the thing. Your premise often starts off as that initial idea, that spark that sets you writing that manuscript. Even if you don’t realize it, you probably started writing after thinking up a premise in your mind. Mine, for example, began with the idea, “What if there was a young girl who had never seen the sky?”; and sure enough, my manuscript started to form. Of course, as you build on your premise (and often, as you write and take that initial idea in new and different directions), your premise changes and grows. So now the main premise for my story centers around Danae, a young woman who risks everything she knows by leaving the caves she calls home in search of a friend in a dangerous new world, where she meets new people but finds herself the enemy. Of course, my manuscript is about more than that; but so far, the main premise is that. And while I, as you no doubt, have sub-plots and secondary parts to your premise, your main idea isn’t that much different than your one-sentence pitch. And this one sentence pitch is great practice for not only understanding your story better, but for being able to pitch it in your query. If you can sum up that monster of a manuscript in one sentence, what CAN’T you do?

Queries are often difficult, because it tends to be the first time you try to sum up your story. So if you start with writing a three-page synopsis first, you’ll have a much better understanding of the key points of your story. And while a synopsis is chronological in order (which I’m sure you know from Savannah’s post here because you’ve read it, right?), your query doesn’t necessarily have to be. But at least you know what the main events in your story are, and what happens that is useful for a hook. The one-sentence pitch will also help in your query writing, because you’ll have been able to sum it up in one sentence; so summing it up with a few more sentences, while still challenging, won’t be as daunting as it was prior to the one-sentence pitch. Because really, what’s scarier than that?

If you had asked me about what my manuscript was about a few months ago, I would have gone off into a long-winded explanation about how Danae’s people are called the Ane’a, and how they had fled to the caves years ago. And how they had once upon a time lived up in the trees, and had once been great. And how now they were forced to live hidden from the entire world, underneath the rocks in the Fog Lands, where nothing but a dim grey light shines through the cracks. And I would’ve gone on and on about all the details in my story that make it what it is. But really, the point of the query is to entice the reader enough for them to WANT to read about all the little details. Your query is a teaser. If you asked me now, I wouldn’t mention any of that. I would sum it up very shortly; I would mention my premise (with a bit more detail), and that’s all. Because really, when someone asks what your story is about, they don’t want an in-depth, scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter explanation. They want the general gist of things.

So, embrace the synopsis and the one-sentence pitch! Your query will probably look better after you practice condensing your story a few times. And then try verbally explaining your manuscript to someone. You might actually find yourself better at putting your manuscript into words.


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.


14 Responses to “Premise Me This, Synopsis That”

  1. Mac_V June 24, 2010 at 1:24 AM #

    Thanks. This is really pertinent to me at the moment– I’m in a summer writing workshop with a few people from a Spring Class and our teacher, who has backed out from the past few meetings, is coming to this next one for a synopsis of each of ours stories. My story is still in progress (it is by no means a manuscript yet) but in creating a synopsis of what’s going on so far and perhaps what is to come, I’ll have a much better hold on where I’m going and how to explain the forever-asked question– What is your story about? Because mine does end up being ridiculously long-winded, and I know no one wants to hear that much about it, but it is so difficult to sum it up! Starting off with my premise and going from there is fantastic advice. Thanks you so much!

    Mac 😀

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 11:12 AM #

      Hey Mac! I’m so glad this was helpful! My story is still in progress as well, and I’ve found that even though I’m not the type to outline my work, having a general idea of where it is headed is great (and that’s what my synopsis does!)

      It’s funny how often people forget about their premise after they’ve begun writing, myself included. When people would ask what my story is about, I’d start by saying, “It’s hard to explain”. But really, I should’ve given them my premise. Of course it’s hard to explain; but once you’ve said that, it sounds as if you’re not sure of yourself or your work.

      Best of luck in your class, and with your writing! I hope your synopsis kicks ass!! 😀

  2. Sandra June 24, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

    So what I learned, other than how to better condense my story, is that I seriously want to read your book. And your right about what people want to hear when they ask about your novel, but those details you mentioned at the end solidified my interest and rather made me react like this: 0.0
    (Pray tell, what is it called?!)

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

      Thanks so much Sandra! You’ve seriously just made my day! 😀

      Unfortunately, my WIP is still untitled (I’m absolutely TERRIBLE with titles sometimes… and this is just one of those times!)

  3. svonnah June 24, 2010 at 2:15 PM #

    Right on target, V. I did say that the synopsis could be built off the query, but that was back when I wasn’t into synopsis-writing… now I have to have it before I work on something!

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM #

      Thanks Savannah! And I think synopses are GREAT. Once people get over their initial fear of the synopsis, it becomes a great tool.

  4. Kat Zhang June 24, 2010 at 3:36 PM #

    A young woman who has never seen the sky? How cool!

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 4:30 PM #

      Haha, thanks Kat! :p

  5. Jennifer June 24, 2010 at 5:30 PM #

    Not gonna lie, I lol’d at your recount of Ocarina of Time.

    My own WIP is about a girl who has never seen the sky because she lives at the bottom of the ocean. Your novel sounds awesome, and I do hope you finish/get it published.

    I went and did one-sentence pitches for all my story ideas, and for some it made them sound cool. Others just sounded depressing, but it was a lot of fun to do!

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 5:38 PM #

      Haha, I’m glad you liked my Ocarina of Time reference! (It’s one of my fave games of all time)

      And thanks! Your WIP sounds so interesting as well! Bottom of of the ocean? That’s such a great idea! I have another idea for a story that involves a lot of water as well, but not with girls living in the ocean! Best of luck with your WIP too! 😀

      Yeah, sometimes the one-sentence pitch is too difficult to do with some stories. But I’m glad some ended up sounding awesome! I definitely think that it’s good practice in summing up your work as concisely as possible.

  6. jenn fitzgerald June 24, 2010 at 8:00 PM #

    Great article V! Also, I totally loved the Ocarina of Time ref, I loved that game so much 😀

    • Vanessa June 24, 2010 at 9:56 PM #

      Thanks Jenn!

      And Ocarina of Time was so great! I have this urge to play it again!

      • jenn fitzgerald June 25, 2010 at 9:08 AM #

        I’ve played it so many times I think I know the whole thing by heart, lol.


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