I. What is a Synopsis?
A synopsis is a brief summary that gives audiences an idea of what a piece is about. It provides an overview of the storyline or main points and other defining factors of the work, which may include style, genre, persons or characters of note, setting, and so on. We write synopses for all kinds of things—any type of fiction or nonfiction book, academic papers, journal and newspaper articles, films, TV shows, and video games, just to name a few!
The amount of detail and information revealed in a synopsis depends on its purpose. For instance, authors often need to provide a lengthy synopsis when proposing a book, article, or work to potential publishers or editors —in that case, a synopsis will include a full plot overview (which includes revealing the ending), signs of character progression, detailed explanation of theme and tone, and so on. This article will mainly focus on the short synopses you see every day on websites and other media outlets.
II. Example of a Synopsis
Here’s an example of a short synopsis of the story of Jack and Jill:
Jack and Jill is the story of a boy and a girl who went up a hill together. They went to fetch a pail of water, but unfortunately, their plan is disrupted when Jack falls and hits his head, and rolls back down the hill. Then, Jill falls too, and comes tumbling down after Jack.
As you can see, the synopsis outlines what happens in the story. It introduces the main characters and the main plot points without being overly detailed or wordy.
III. Importance of Synopses
Synopses are extremely valuable and necessary pieces of writing for authors, film makers, TV producers, academic writers, and many others.
- On one level, it’s what actually helps a book get published or a film or TV series get made—a successful, well-written synopsis can convince the person in charge of publication or production to bring a work to life
- On the other hand, synopses grab the attention of potential audiences and can convince them to read, watch, or listen
- Also, they help researchers find what they are looking for and decide if a piece is relevant to their field
Without them, audiences and readers would never know what something was about before reading or viewing it! Thus, the importance of synopses is twofold: it both helps works get made and then helps them reach the right audiences.
IV. Examples of Synopses in Literature
Example 1: Synopsis of a Novel
When we want to choose a novel, it’s a common practice to read a synopsis of what it’s about. A short synopsis will give us just enough details to draw readers in and hopefully convince them to read the book! Here’s a brief synopsis from Cliff’s Notes of The Hunger Games:
In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the Capitol forces each of Panem’s 12 districts to choose two teenagers to participate in the Hunger Games, a gruesome, televised fight to the death. In the 12th district, Katniss Everdeen steps in for her little sister and enters the Games, where she is torn between her feelings for her hunting partner, Gale Hawthorne, and the district’s other tribute, Peeta Mellark, even as she fights to stay alive. The Hunger Games will change Katniss’ life forever, but her acts of humanity and defiance might just change the Games, too.
Example 2: Synopsis of an Academic Paper
Sometimes, teachers, professors, publications, or editors want a synopsis of an academic paper, lecture, or article, which is more formally called an abstract (See Related Terms). Like with a work of fiction, it gives a summary of the main points of the papers or article and provides a snapshot of what issues will be discussed. Synopses of these types of work are particularly important for scholars and anyone doing research, because when searching, they need to be able to know what an article is about and whether it is relevant to their work.
During his career, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture on the classic Beowulf, which became one of the most respected and most-consulted academic sources on the poem to date. Here is a synopsis:
Before Tolkien, general scholarly opinion held…that while the poem might after all be unified, it was nevertheless unfortunate that the poet had chosen to tell stories about a hero, ogres, and a dragon, instead of detailing the wars in the North to which he often provocatively alludes. Tolkien’s lecture strongly and sometimes ironically defends the poet’s decision and the poem itself. The poet had every right to choose fantasy rather than history as his subject; in doing so he universalized his theme; his many allusions to events not recounted gave his work depth; most of all, the poem offered a kind of negotiation between the poet’s own firmly Christian world and the world of his pagan ancestors, on whom he looked back with admiration and pity.
This synopsis shares the main focus of Tolkien’s famous lecture and outlines its purpose for those who may be interested in it and can benefit from his research.
V. Examples of Synopses in Popular Culture
Example 1: Synopsis of a TV Series
Giving the audience a written preview of a subject or storyline is a standard practice for TV producers. Before the series Gotham premiered, Warner Brothers released a detailed synopsis of exactly what the show would be about, which was particularly important because the audience would want to know how it would be placed amongst other Batman storylines. Here is a selection from its official synopsis:
Gotham is the origin story of the great DC Comics Super-Villains and vigilantes, revealing an entirely new chapter that has never been told. From executive producer/writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome), this one-hour drama follows one cop’s rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil and chronicles the genesis of one of the most popular super heroes of our time. Brave, earnest and eager to prove himself, the newly minted detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is partnered with the brash, but shrewd police legend Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), as the two stumble upon the city’s highest-profile case ever: the murder of local billionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne.
This is only one piece of the synopsis provided by Warner Brothers, but it’s a good sample of the bigger picture. It introduces the main theme and major characters, giving us a taste of what the series has in store.
Example 2: Synopsis of a Film
The job of a film synopsis is to build excitement and anticipation in the audience. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a long-awaited addition to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe and the release of this synopsis and trailer was big news in the world of popular culture. Here’s the synopsis:
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in 1926 as Newt Scamander has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident…were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
When a new film is announced, producers usually release a written synopsis like this, as well as an official trailer. Truly, a movie trailer is just a visual form of a synopses. But, a trailer builds even more anticipation in the audience than a written summary, because it gives a true peek at what will unfold on screen.
VI. Related Terms
An abstract is a brief summary of a scholarly work. It does the same things as a synopsis, but goes by a different term—“synopsis” is the preferred term for creative writing, films, and television, “while abstract” is the preferred term for formal or academic works. Overall, they have the same purpose.
An outline is shorter, less defined plan of what you’re going to include in a piece of writing. It’s usually written in the brainstorming phase, and just “outlines” general things that the work will include, and may change as you get farther in your work. An outline comes before a work is written, and a synopsis is written after a work is complete.
In conclusion, synopses are useful summaries that are written for the benefit of a potential reader or audience. It gives an overview and a “sneak peek” at a work, which lets them choose things that are interesting or useful to them personally and/or professionally.