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The general rule is that a synopsis should be written in present tense, third person, regardless of the tense/perspective of the manuscript. I sometimes hear that this doesn't apply to a synopsis for a memoir, which should be written in past tense, first person, just like the memoir itself.

Which of the following is appropriate, then?

A. The following spring, I enrolled at Frogparts Academy and met Joe Prince.

B. The following spring, Jen enrolls at Frogparts Academy and meets Joe Prince.

My thinking is that it depends on context. I should use A if I'm writing a synopsis as part of a pitch to a publisher, while someone writing a plot summary of my book for Wikipedia would choose B. Thoughts?

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2 Answers

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Sounds right to me. The pitch is a letter which you write to the publisher, and since the book is about you, the pitch should be from your perspective. Today, those events happened in the past, but they happened to you. So first person, past tense.

When summarizing a memoir for something like Wikipedia, the summary is not from you (even if it is, the narrative voice isn't). There's a name for "using present tense to describe past events, as if the reader had moved into the past and events were occurring at that moment," but I don't remember what it's called. Bill Safire discussed it once in the context of a subjunctive describing a baseball pitch (the game was long ago, but the discussion moved to the "present" of the ball game, and the subjunctive clause was from the perspective of the writer wondering what might happen to the ball, even though we already knew what happened).

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For fiction it is present tense, because that's the way we summarize stories naturally. You say:

The story is about a kind of dwarf who has to destroy a powerful ring.

You do not say:

The story was about a kind of dwarf who had to destroy a powerful ring.

But you have written a memoir, not fiction. There it is natural to tell it in past tense, no matter if it is the whole memoir or only a synopsis. So go for past tense.

For further references read the discussion on absolutewrite.

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