The Alexander family announces Goldie’s passing, who died peacefully on August 3, 2020.

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The Difference Between a Synopsis and a Plot Summary

9 June, 2014 | By Goldie Alexander

A friend asked me to explain what a synopsis is. So here is one clever exlanation by a prestigious Amercian author.

 “My friend MW, asked on another listserve for someone to define the difference between a synopsis and a plot summary to go along with several chapters when trying to interest an editor in a book.

I answered this way (somewhat altered and enlarged here) and thought it might be something my THT readers might be interested in reading. In the first three paragraphs, I am speaking as an author. The last four, I speak as an editor, which I was for a number of years, first at Knopf and then at Harcourt with my own imprint.

Plot summary can either be a chapter by chapter summary, or a more generalized summary of the plot. But it is pretty thorough, down to the basic plot twists in each chapter while not neglecting the overarching movement of the entire story. If you are a careful outliner, this may be the way to go for you.

A synopsis would read more like this: The Devil’s Arithmetic takes a modern-day child back through time by the magic of the seder and Elijah’s open door, whirling her into the time of the Holocaust when Jews in great numbers were being rounded up and put into concentration camps. Finding herself in Poland in 1942 is enough of a shock, but when American Hannah discovers she is now Chaya, a girl from Lublin, Poland, living with an aunt and uncle she has no knowledge of, and they all go off to a wedding where the entire population of two towns is hauled away by the Nazis, Hannah/Chaya must learn to first save herself before she can possibly save anyone else. This is made more difficult as she loses her memory of being Hannah, the girl from the future, when her hair is shorn in the camp and a number–the devil’s arithmetic of the title–is tattooed on her arm. It is a journey charged with peril, with fear, with love, and with memory.

Now you will notice a lot of weasel words in the last sentence–large words promising a lot but not giving away plot because if I am sending out a synopsis I DON’T KNOW THE PLOT YET! And things change as I write the book anyway so how can I say what is and isn’t going to happen on the minute scale? I–at least–can’t do plot summaries unless I have already written the danged book. But I CAN write a synopsis with only a few chapters and an idea in my head.

What do editors want to see? They are as various as the grains of sand on a small beach. Small bcause the children’s book world is small.

Recently I asked an editor of graphic novels what he wanted to see from me to make a decision. He said, “From you–one page.” He knew my writing and trusted me, you see. He also didn’t want me to spend many hours trying to write something tailored to his needs if he wasn’t interested in the idea to begin with.

Some editors today are like movie moguls. They can get by on a single sentence concept: “21st century New Rochelle Jewish girl opens the door at the seder for Elijah and lands in a concetration camp in 1942.” “Sloppy first from the point of an Indian immigrant being prepped for life at Harvard.” “Romeo and Juliet in a Shaker community in the 1840s.”

Some editors need a great deal more. I liked to see 3-5 chapters (from the start, not from somewhere in the middle, thank you) and a two-page synopsis. Though most of the ones that came into me, I only needed to read a couple of pages to show me the book was not for me: wrong kind of book, too similar to one I was already publishing, or–more often–sloppy writing with little or no texture and slim to missing characterization that did not pull me in. If I got past the first chapter and into the next, that was a very good sign.”

© Jane Yolen 2006



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