Writing a synopsis is one of my least favourite activities and I’ll do almost anything to avoid it. But a well written synopsis is essential if you want to sell the book you’ve been working on for months/years.
A synopsis is the sales pitch for your novel and it’s designed to entice an agent or publisher into reading your complete manuscript. It’s usually sent out with three sample chapters, but if the reader doesn’t like your synopsis, they won’t even look at your beautifully crafted chapters. So it pays to spend some time honing your synopsis, no matter how excruciating that may be.
Hook, Line and Sinker
A good way to start your synopsis is to look at the blurb on the back of novels similar to yours. Notice how they hook the reader and make you want to find out what happens next. It’s the age old rule of storytelling – hook them and then keep them reading.
Imagine you’ve just seen a great film and you want to tell your friends what it’s about. You don’t trot out a boring list of: this happens, then this, then this… You dramatise it and make it exciting. You want to show just how good this movie was and how much you enjoyed it. You want to make them want to see it too.
A synopsis is written the same way.
Rather than just summarising the plot, a good synopsis will include characterisation and theme. It will reflect the tone and pace of the book, and give a taste of the setting. If your novel is funny, the synopsis should make the reader laugh; if your novel is a thriller, the synopsis should be thrilling; and so on.
What to include
Synopsis length varies depending on how much detail you want to include. It’s a good idea to check the submission requirements of agents or publishers, if they have them, so you can tailor your synopsis accordingly. Lengths can be anything from a tight one page synopsis to a more involved 10 (or even 20) pages. But the general consensus for an ideal synopsis is around 1 to 2 pages.
To begin with, summarise what happens in each chapter in a couple of sentences. This will give you the basic building blocks of your story. Include only the main characters and main plot points or events. Start with the inciting incident, the act turning points, climax and resolution, then link these together using the main story points along the way following the emotional arc of your main character.
Use strong active nouns and verbs, and avoid too much description. Keep the synopsis focused on character and make sure we feel what’s at stake for the protagonist at each point in the story. Show your main character’s motivation, conflict and goal(s). An agent or publisher uses your synopsis to see if your plot makes sense.
- Start the synopsis with the main character.
- Write in the present tense in the third person, regardless of how the novel is written.
- Capitalise each character’s name when they first appear, but not subsequently.
- Use strong, evocative adjectives to describe the characters.
- Use active nouns and verbs to tell, as well as show.
- Don’t use rhetorical questions.
- Always include the ending.
Ask yourself: what is unique about my story? Imagine your ideal reader standing in the bookstore surrounded by piles of pristine, exciting novels. What is going to make them pick up your book and read it? Why choose your book over another? It helps to think about how your book will be marketed, even if that makes you shudder and groan. Why put all that work into your masterpiece just for it to sit unloved on a shelf?
It’s often said that what publishers (and for that matter, production companies) are looking for is product that is ‘uniquely familiar.’ It’s a hideous oxymoron that makes me want to rip out my own teeth, but let’s look at it from their point of view. They have to work out how to sell their products (your book or film) and so they must identify which market each product fits. This is the ‘familiar’ part of the term – if you’re selling a thriller, you know exactly who is going to like it and how to flog it to them.
But what they also want (and what everyone ultimately wants) is something they haven’t read or seen before – the ‘unique’ part of the term. No-one wants to keep reading the same book over and over. It gets boring – fast.
So this is how you sell your book. Give them what they want (familiarity) in a way they don’t expect and couldn’t think up for themselves (originality).
Your synopsis should reveal how your story is uniquely familiar.
To read some examples, visit Writer’s Digest. Most of these are film synopses, but there are also links to some useful advice.
The Literary Consultancy has some great advice on writing a synopsis and how to approach agents. Note that they suggest starting with a short statement of your premise, which includes the genre of the novel, and then writing 350 – 450 words about the whole story. Read it here.
It’s not easy to condense a 90k manuscript into one or two paragraphs and you’ll probably have to keep rewriting it until it works. I usually start by writing a longer synopsis and then gradually cut it down and down and down, until I have the right length.
Synopsis writing is a horrible job but one that’s worth practising because it could be the thing that stands between you and a publishing contract. So get editing, and good luck!