Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis
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Note from Jane: The following post is an old favorite that I regularly update. I’ve also written a comprehensive post on writing query letters.
It’s probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare: the synopsis . The synopsis is sometimes required because an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, the synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, andit has to reveal the ending.
Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy—the kind of material that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.
Unfortunately, there is no single “right” way to write a synopsis. You’ll find conflicting advice about the appropriate length, which makes it rather confusing territory for new writers especially. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. Most agents/editors will not be interested in a synopsis longer than a few pages.
While this post is geared toward writers of fiction, the same principles can be applied to memoir and other narrative nonfiction works.
Why the novel synopsis is important to agents and editors
The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., the whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of god, a genre romance ending in divorce. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.
The good news: Some agents hate synopses and never read them; this is more typical for agents who represent literary work. Either way, agents usually aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language (Miss Snark recommends “energy and vitality”).
Synopses should usually be written in active voice, third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person).
What the novel synopsis must accomplish
First, you need to tell the story of what characters we’ll care about, which includes the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for her.
Second, we need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.
Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.
If you cover those three things, that won’t leave you much time for detail. You won’t be able to mention all the characters or events. You’ll probably leave out some subplots, and some of the minor plot twists and turns. You can’t summarize each scene or even every chapter, and some aspects of your story will have to be broadly generalized so as to avoid detailing a series of events or interactions that don’t materially affect the story’s outcome.
To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in generating conflict for the protagonist, or otherwise assisting the protagonist. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how they might change, too.
A good rule of thumb for determining what stays and what goes: If the ending wouldn’t make sense without the character or plot point being mentioned, then it belongs in the synopsis. If the character or plot point comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and increases the tension or complication each time, then it definitely belongs.
The most common novel synopsis mistake
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture; it will read like
a story without any emotion.
Think what it would sound like if you summarized a football game by saying. “Well, the Patriots scored. And then the Giants scored. Then the Patriots scored twice in a row.” That’s sterile and doesn’t give us the meaning behind how events are unfolding. Instead, you would say something like, “The Patriots scored a touchdown after more than one hour of a no-score game, and the underdog of the team led the play. The crowd went wild.”
The secret to a great novel synopsis
A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.
Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement)
Common novel synopsis pitfalls
Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of character names. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story only briefly, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say “Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.” That’s a huge and unnecessary tangent. When you do mention specific character names, it’s common to put the name in caps in the first instance, so it’s easy for agents or editors to see at a glance who the key figures are.
Don’t spend any time in the synopsis explicitly explaining or deconstructing the themes the story may address. This synopsis tells the story; it doesn’t try to interpret what it means. (But it does tell us the characters’ feelings or reactions.)
Avoid character backstory. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background; you should only reference it when it effects how events unfold. This may mean, if you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the synopsis. However, if the flashbacks are really about what happens in the book rather than why something happens, then they may belong in your synopsis.
Avoid including dialogue, and if you do, be sparing. Make sure the dialogue you include is absolutely iconic of the character or represents a linchpin moment in the book.
Don’t ask rhetorical or unanswered questions. Remember, your goal here isn’t to entice a reader.
Don’t split your synopsis into sections, or label the different plot points. In rare cases, there might be a reason to have subheads in the synopsis, due to a unique narrative structure, but try to avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play.
While your synopsis will reflect your ability to write, it’s not the place to get pretty with your prose. That means you should leave out any lyrical descriptions or attempts to impress through poetic description. You really can’t take the time to show things in your synopsis. You really have to tell, and sometimes this is confusing to writers who’ve been told for years to “show don’t tell.” For example, it’s OK to just come out and say your main character is a “hopeless romantic” rather than trying to show it.
Synopsis language has to be very stripped down. Here’s an example of what I mean.
At work, Elizabeth searches for Peter all over the office and finally finds him in the supply room, where she tells him she resents the remarks he made about her in the staff meeting.
At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter about his remarks at the staff meeting.
Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph. Then you’ll have to decide which major plot turns/conflicts must be conveyed for everything to make sense, and which characters must be mentioned. (You should not mention all of them.) Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula. The ending paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved—yes, you have to reveal the ending! No exceptions.
Also: I offer a synopsis critique service
I can help you improve your query, synopsis, and first five pages.