Blurb and Synopsis: What’s the Difference?
Many authors seem to get confused by the terms ‘blurb’ and ‘synopsis’. They see the words thrown about on forums and writing advice blogs, and never quite get the difference. They know they should have a blurb, or a synopsis, or maybe both, but they’re not sure how to write them. Here, I’ll summarise the differences between the two and offer some pointers towards writing each one effectively.
Lots of authors seem to find themselves all at sea when it comes to writing their blurb or synopsis – and some editors, including me, even provide this as a service for books they’ve edited – but come on! You just wrote a whole BOOK! If you wrote it well, you should have a pretty clear idea of what it’s about – the characters, the themes, the main plot points – and those are the building blocks you need to write your summaries.
The first thing to say is that the two things are written for different audiences. The blurb is for your potential customers – the people who will ‘buy your book’ in the sense of ‘buying a copy to read on the train’. It’s the thing that goes on the back cover, on Amazon, on Goodreads. It’s the thing that makes Janice, browsing Amazon in her lunch break, think, ‘Ooh, I fancy reading this one’.
The synopsis, on the other hand, is for the people who will ‘buy your book’ in the sense of ‘buying your manuscript; buying “the concept” of your book’ – the agent, the publisher, the commissioning editor. Those people don’t have the time to read the whole manuscript, but they want to know what it says. So the synopsis is your ‘Executive Summary’. It’s the thing you send with your enquiry/cover letter when you’re trying to convince an industry professional that your manuscript has something interesting to say.
Getting the distinction wrong – putting a synopsis where the blurb should be, or sending a 100-word blurb to an agent who specifically asked you for a synopsis – can mark you out as an amateur and can damage your sales, either directly or indirectly. Directly, because if a customer browsing a bookshop has just read the whole plot of your thriller and now knows who killed Sally, then what incentive is there for them to buy the book? And indirectly, because if an agent or publisher thinks you can’t follow a simple instruction like ‘send me a synopsis of your book’, then they’re unlikely to take your cause further, however great your book is. Remember: none of these people have read your manuscript. They don’t know about that amazing sensory description of a cooked breakfast on page 82, or Nigel’s musing about the meaning of life in Chapter 12. And if you don’t get this right, chances are they never will.
B is for Blurb and Beginnings and Back Cover
The blurb sells your book. It’s an advert, and it tells you the premise of the story – in other words, how it begins. It tells the reader who the book’s main character is, and what problem they have that drives the story. It doesn’t include the ending, the twist on page 163, or any major plot points beyond the ones you’d find in the first quarter or so of the book. It may well be written to include one or more questions that provide ‘cliffhangers’, making your potential readers want to know more. (The synopsis, as we will see, provides all the answers to those questions.) What’s your genre? Read some blurbs online for the same kind of book. Amazon is helpfully organised to facilitate just such an exercise! Notice how the language is structured. Are there more questions than answers? How much detail does the blurb give away about the plot? Does it, in short, leave you wanting to know more?
A blurb should be only about 100–200 words long; make all of them count! This might be the only chance you get to make a sale to this particular reader, so you need to hook them straight away. Attention spans these days are short, and there are lots of other things competing for your customers’ focus, whether in a physical bookshop or online. They’re reading lots of other blurbs in that bookshop, and chances are they won’t buy more than one or two of the books. Remember, too, that from a practical point of view, there’s a lot of other stuff – barcode, ISBN, that lovely moody author photo your friend took – that needs space on the back cover (this is obviously particularly important if you’re intending to produce print copies of your book).
S is for Synopsis and Summary and Spoiler Alert
The synopsis summarises the key points of your book’s main plot for an agent or publisher who won’t have time to read your whole manuscript due to the enormous pile of similar manuscripts on and around their desk. Unlike the blurb, it should be written in straightforward, non-sensational (i.e. not ‘salesy’) language. It should follow the general tone of the book – if your novel is a heavyweight political thriller, this is not the place for toilet gags. It should be longer than the blurb, but not too long. Don’t write more than 500–800 words. If you’re submitting to a particular agent or publisher, though, do check what their particular requirements are; this is not necessarily the time for a one-size-fits-all approach, and not following the rules can be an express route straight to the agent’s bin.
SPOILER ALERT! – or at least, there should be. The synopsis should contain all the spoilers. The person reading it wants to know if your book is commercially viable – and that’s all they want to know. They’re not interested in reading the book later for entertainment; they want to know that you’ve got a solid plot with an interesting premise, plenty of surprises, and a sound, satisfying conclusion. And you need to be able to convince them of all that within the ten minutes or so that they have to consider you as a possible Next Big Thing who will make money for their publishing house. It is, as I said, the Executive Summary for the Busy And Important People.
There are other advantages to writing a good synopsis. It can be a great way to gain an authorial overview of your book and its story arc – are there points where the plot is flagging a bit? Are there two or three chapters that you find yourself not including in the synopsis because nothing much happens? Might it be worth revisiting those chapters to see if you really need them in the book at all? It might also be a way of spotting inconsistencies or things that are missing – sometimes taking a ‘big picture’ approach to your work can be invaluable, getting you out of the trees so you can clearly see the wood.
Let’s Look at an Example
Here’s the Amazon blurb for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
‘I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.’
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon whom her future hangs.
And now here’s a synopsis (SPOILER ALERT!) of the same book (adapted from Wikipedia):
After a staged attack that killed the President and most of Congress, a radical political/religious group launched a revolution in the United States, forming the Republic of Gilead. The new regime has taken some Old Testament ideas, and reorganised society using a militarized, hierarchical model. Human rights, especially those of women, are limited; women are not allowed to read, write, own property or handle money, and they are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions.
The central character is a woman the regime has named Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’ – Fred being the name of the head of the household where she has been sent to live), who narrates the story. She is one of only a few fertile women remaining; these women are known as “Handmaids” based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. All women in Gilead are arranged in social castes and follow a strict dress code which denotes their position; there are Commanders’ Wives, Handmaids, Aunts (who ‘train’ the Handmaids), Marthas (cooks and maids), and so on.
Offred details her life, starting with her third assignment as a Handmaid. Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashbacks of her life before and during the revolution, including her failed attempt to escape to Canada with her husband, her indoctrination into life as a Handmaid, and the successful escape of her friend Moira. At her new home, she is treated poorly by the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, a former Christian media personality who supported women’s subordination well before Gilead was established. Offred is expected to participate regularly in the “Ceremony”, a euphemistic term for forced sexual intercourse with the Commander which takes place in the presence of his wife and is intended to produce a pregnancy.
Offred is surprised one day when the Commander asks to see her; they begin an illegal relationship, playing Scrabble regularly (in defiance of the ban on women reading), and Offred is allowed to ask favours of him. He gives her lingerie and takes her to a government-run brothel, Jezebel’s. Offred finds Moira there, her will broken, and learns from her that anyone found breaking the law is sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste, or can work at Jezebel’s as an alternative.
Offred’s shopping partner, Ofglen, tells her about the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the regime. Meanwhile, Serena begins to suspect that the Commander is infertile, and arranges for Offred to begin a covert relationship with the Commander’s personal servant, Nick. After their initial sexual encounter, Offred and Nick begin to meet regularly and Offred shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him.
Serena finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, which causes Offred herself to contemplate suicide.
Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterwards, men arrive at the house wearing the uniform of the secret police (“the Eyes”), to take her away. As she is led to their van, Nick tells her to trust him and go with them, but it is unclear whether the men are Eyes, or members of the Mayday resistance; Offred cannot be certain whether Nick is helping her or betraying her. Ultimately, she enters the van, her future uncertain.
Notice how different they are – and not only in length! The blurb is a ‘sales pitch’ that doesn’t give much away; the synopsis is a ‘factual’ summary of the whole story. The blurb tells you how it begins; the synopsis also tells you how it ends. Note, too, the similarities: both are written in the present tense, both include the name of the protagonist, both give a general sense of what genre the book belongs in, both match the general style of the book, and both (hopefully) provoke the reader’s interest in the book. But note that if you were to find that long synopsis on the back cover, you almost certainly wouldn’t buy the book. What would be the point? You already know what happens!
Putting It into Practice
So that’s a look at the blurb and the synopsis. Let’s end by writing one of each for this article.
Do you know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis? When are spoilers a good thing, and why should you think carefully before including your best toilet gag?
In the first part, Alison gives us a general introduction to the terms ‘blurb’ and ‘synopsis’ and outlines how and where each should be used in the production and marketing of a book. She provides some tips for writing each type of piece effectively, and offers a worked example, comparing the blurb and a synopsis for The Handmaid’s Tale. Finally, she includes a blurb and a synopsis for the article itself.
This is getting a bit too meta. I’m stopping right here.
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