So, maybe you sent a query letter off to an agent or publisher, and the news is good: they want to see a full synopsis and a few sample chapters of your book!
An author creating a book synopsis is a lot like a marketing writer tasked with putting together an advertisement or online landing page. Both messages are usually short, sweet, and designed to spur interest and action in the reader. Where new authors tend to fall down, though, is in knowing their audience.
For this article, we’re talking about a synopsis in the strictest sense: a complete, condensed insight into your story. Think of it as a snapshot of your book – it’s the trailer you’d watch if your novel were a movie, except the ending is revealed.
And who is the intended audience? Prospective agents and publishers.
When preparing a synopsis for these prospects, many authors believe they need to leave the reader with a cliffhanger and keep them in suspense – after all, this is all about getting them excited and willing to take the next steps, right? Well, the truth is quite different.
Because in reality, no one is going to financially back a piece of work when they don’t know how it ends.
So what goes into the nuts and bolts of preparing a synopsis that’s more likely to grasp the interest of those on the business side of publishing?
Step one in creating a strong synopsis might surprise you: it’s writing the book first.
Writing the synopsis before you begin isn’t technically writing a synopsis – it’s writing a rough outline. Things change as you go through drafting and editing your story – characters decide to do things you didn’t expect, and what you thought were going to be explosive plot points turn out to be duds that demand removal for the sake of the story.
So, for a synopsis that clearly reflects your work – and is empowered with enough detailed insight to present an intriguing overview – you really do need to have the completed manuscript ready to go. Few publishers are interested in helping you bring an idea to market (unless you’re already signed on a multi-book contract). They’re looking for product they can bring to market, and the product you offer should be in a shape that allows them to do it quickly.
Next up is to follow correct synopsis formatting – and you can rarely go wrong with using the standard manuscript format. A caveat there, however, is to always keep an eye on the publisher/agent’s specific demands. If they ask for something different in their guidelines, then that will trump any standard conventions for the industry.
Be sure to write in the third person, using the present tense, regardless of what POV or tense the book is written in. Also, put the first occurrence of each character’s name in all caps so they can easily be picked out as the reader skims the page.
Moving on to the meat of the content, you’ll need to boil the beginning of the book down into just a couple of sentences. You have pages and pages to introduce characters, setting, and conflict in the actual novel, but you’re going to have to pick out what’s essential and present the bare facts. Don’t go for atmospheric vagueness as much as a concrete foundation for the reader. You’ve reached a pure business stage of the communication between publisher and writer, and your synopsis is a functional outlay of your story’s plot – it isn’t the blurb on the back of your book, and therefore isn’t meant to act as an end-user sales piece. Teasing the twists and turns and speaking directly to the reader aren’t techniques that fit well, here.
Stick to a direct and professional method of revealing your story’s structure, leaving out any details or subplots that aren’t essential to the main narrative(s). Focus more on chapters than individual scenes: this is a concise breakdown (often no longer than 800 words), so always keep in mind that you’re providing an overview rather than a blow-by-blow account.
In the beginning, constructing your synopsis will feel like a clunky and awkward process – but once you’re finished, it’s time to bring it all together and make it sing.
Do this by reading through and looking out for unintended plot holes and missing information. These plot holes may not exist within the novel itself, but when you’ve worked diligently to condense down for a synopsis, it may appear as though they do. Make sure to quickly fill those gaps or you run the risk of your prospective publisher assuming that your story is indeed a hole-ridden mess.
On top of that, think about whether the sentences flow logically. Imagine beginning each sentence with ‘because’ or ‘then,’ and insert further explanation or motivations as you see fit.
Read through your synopsis once more with your eye on character arcs, and make sure you’ve included your protagonist’s journey from the person they were at the beginning to who they become at the end (this is where you’re most likely to realize you’ve accidentally created a plot hole by omission). Show off your protagonist’s goals and actions, and your villain’s counter-actions. Look for defining moments in your characters’ journeys, and highlight how they change the course of the narrative.
When you’re done with that, read through again for clarity, flow, and rhythm, and then just one last time for spelling and grammar. (You’ll probably be sick of reading over it by this point!)
Trim as many words as you can. Use descriptive phrases sparingly, and choose words that carry a lot of weight instead of packing your synopsis with fluffy filler.
In the end, you’re likely to have roughly a page to a page and a half of synopsis – a hard-fought distillation of your entire novel, ready to hit the desk of an agent or publisher with professional, no-nonsense aplomb.
How have your experiences been with writing novel synopses? Do you enjoy it, find it a chore, have to struggle your way through, or even hire someone else to do it for you?
Share your methods, and any tips we might have missed, in the comments below!