A common problem for authors who are ready to submit to agents/publishers is the necessity (usually) to supply a synopsis. They’ve done all the hard work, written the book, gone through repeated revisions and rewrites, given it to beta-readers, got some feedback and revised further, and hopefully had some editing done. Now the industry throws this last hurdle in front of them. It doesn’t help that writing a synopsis demands a totally different skillset and approach to the book, and is notoriously difficult.
Here are some techniques for writing a synopsis, and tips for taking the sting out of this task.
What is a synopsis?
A synopsis is an outline of your entire novel, from beginning to end, summarising the narrative arc of the book and one or two of the major characters in it. It does include the end (any twists or climactic revelations), but doesn’t include details of every sub-plot and minor character—it doesn’t need to be comprehensive. The aim is to give the reader a thorough understanding of the outline of your book, without going in to too much detail.
When should I write it?
Writing a synopsis is a great exercise to undertake after you’ve finished the first draft of your book. Because it encourages you to look more analytically at your book’s structure, it can suggest to you at an early stage of the rewriting process that there are perhaps flaws in your plot or character arcs that otherwise might remain until a developmental editor points them out. It can be used as a great tool, therefore, for kicking off a round of self-editing.
How long should it be?
Most synopses are one single-spaced page (about 500 words). If querying an agent or publisher, check whether they have any specific length or format requirements in their submission guidelines. Do not submit a two-page double-spaced synopsis in Comic Sans to an agent asking for a single page in single-spaced Times New Roman. Yes, you’re trying to sell your book, but also to sell yourself as a competent author who is going to be a pleasure to work with, remember. If you can manage it, write a single page synopsis. You can always expand it if given the leeway.
Where do I begin?
It’s a good idea to start with a strong paragraph that outlines the entire story in essence. For plot-driven books, that’s a thumbnail of the whole plot. For character-driven novels, it should be a summary of the main character arc. Most people know the story of Star Wars: “A cruel and evil Empire dominates the universe. Luke Skywalker, a farmhand on a remote planet, joins the rebellion to overthrow the Empire and restore freedom to the galaxy.”
What am I trying to do with a synopsis?
Don’t forget what you’re trying achieve. There are four key elements. You’re trying to show that your story has an original and entertaining premise, and/or a compelling main character, the subject matter is interesting (and perhaps topical), and that you can structure a good plot that doesn’t rely on insane coincidence or Acts of God for its resolution (and he woke up and it was all a dream!)
What should I include?
- • You need to include the main character(s)
• What their opening situation/problem is
• What inciting incident happens to start the ball rolling
• What they need to achieve as a result of this event
• What the forces or characters opposing their aims and ambitions are
• How the crisis is resolved
• How the characters have changed by the end of the book
What should I not include?
- • Much description at all
• Any dialogue, unless the understanding of a key plot point depends on it
• Sub-plots that don’t really determine the progress of the main plot
• Minor characters’ names and backstory
• Sub-headings – this isn’t a management summary or a powerpoint presentation
• Unanswered or rhetorical questions. The aim with a synopsis is not to entice a reader to buy your book, but to explain to an agent why they might be able to sell it. They won’t know if they can sell it if they don’t know what it’s about
Any stylistic tips?
- • The temptation might be to create not much more than a bullet point list of plot points. “This happened, which really ruined Hero’s day. Because of this, Hero had to try and do this, but Bad Guy wasn’t having any of that. After a fight with Bad Guy, Hero eventually won out and managed to do what he needed to do.” No. Although it’s just a synopsis, it still needs to show that you’ve some talent as a writer. Unless the characters are bland and emotionless (in which case you have other problems), you need to convey some of the emotion that drives their thoughts and actions to do the things that they do.
• It’s an idea borrowed from screenplays to include the name of main characters in caps on the first instance, identifying that character as significant to the story.
• Don’t try and explain the underlying theme to the story, if there is one. The agent should, hopefully, be literate enough to recognise that your book is a light-hearted but profound examination of the human condition, as told through the eyes of a one-legged, transsexual ferry captain on the Dover-Calais route.
• In a synopsis, you can throw all that “show, don’t tell” advice out of the window. Showing is wordy. Telling is economical. If your main character has a problem with authority, say exactly that in eight words. Don’t describe a lengthy 50 word scene where they ‘disrespect’ the headmaster.
• Synopses don’t need to be written in the past tense, even if your book is. A synopsis written in present tense can be more vivid and compelling in many ways. At any event, use active language, not passive, and keep sentences punchy and informative, not long and rambling.
I’ve read all that and I’m still stuck.
Perhaps an example might help. Most people know the story of Star Wars, and it breaks down very neatly into a classic Hero’s Journey plot:
“A cruel and evil Empire dominates the universe. LUKE SKYWALKER, a farmhand on a remote planet, joins the rebellion to overthrow the Empire.
Luke, a bored fly-boy on a remote planet on the outer rim of the galaxy, dreams of being a space pilot and exploring the universe. He discovers a secret message, inside a salvaged ’droid, from PRINCESS LEIA, one of the leaders of the mysterious Resistance. The ’droid’s message needs to be delivered to OBI-WAN KENOBI, a loner Luke knows of who lives alone out in the desert.
Luke is told to get rid of the message by his stepdad, but in the night, the ’droid makes its own way out to Obi-Wan. Luke goes to recover it, but Obi-Wan tells Luke of the significance of the message (Empire plans for a new planet-destroying super-weapon, the Deathstar), and also of Luke’s real parentage, and his connection with the Jedi knights who are leading the Resistance against the Empire. It’s too much for Luke, and he heads home, only to discover that his step-parents have been killed and their farm destroyed by Empire soldiers looking for the ’droid. Vowing revenge, he returns to Obi-Wan. They hire an amoral space pilot, HAN SOLO, who agrees to take them and the ’droid to Alderaan to get the plans to the leaders of the Resistance. Emerging from hyperspace amidst a field of stellar rubble, Solo’s ship is captured by the Deathstar, piloted by DARTH VADER, a Jedi knight who has turned to “the Dark Side”, and who has just destroyed the rebel home planet.
Trapped on the Deathstar but evading detection, Luke finds Princess Leia imprisoned in a cell and frees her. Drawing the attention of Darth Vader, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself so that Solo, Luke, the ’droid and the princess can escape and find the last rebel base and what’s left of the Resistance.
Although they deliver the plans, and Resistance scientists uncover the fatal flaw in the Deathstar’s construction, Solo’s ship has been tracked, and the Deathstar emerges from hyperspace, ready to destroy the planet and annihilate the rest of the Resistance. The rebels launch a brave attack with tiny fighters that seems doomed to failure, but, just as all seems lost, Luke, whose days as a bored fly-boy back on Tattooine are put to good use, delivers the missile to a tiny exhaust port leading straight into the Deathstar’s central reactor. It explodes, and the Resistance can live to fight another day, rewarding Luke, Solo and his crew with medals for bravery in a triumphant victory celebration.”
That’s only 424 words, so could be expanded upon. The nuances of Han Solo’s character are not mentioned, neither are lesser characters like C3PO or Chewbacca, or The Force, or minor dramas like the escape from the refuse chute on the Deathstar, but the gist of the story, space opera on a grand scale, is pretty much all there. If this was put in front of a sci-fi agent back in 1976, you’d like to think they might at least be interested enough to read the manuscript!
Any further questions on synopses, please ask!
A version of this post was published on the Alliance of Independent Authors blog, https://selfpublishingadvice.org/alli-blog/