24 February 2020
Writing your novel synopsis presents writers with particular challenges. Here’s the advice you need to help you tackle them and get your novel signed by an agent or publisher
One of the hardest jobs facing new fiction writers is condensing the fictional world they’ve created in their 90,000 word novel into the 500- to 800-word synopsis that’s an essential component of their submission package.
The main thing to remember that this is a selling document: its purpose is to give agents and publishers a clear overview of the whole novel. It needs to show them that you have created a full and satisfying narrative arc in your story.
The trick is not to try to cram in everything. The most important things to convey are the main plot points that demonstrate the story’s dramatic arc: opening, inciting incident, developments, crisis, ending. Added to that you need to include the main characters in the novel and some information about why and how the plot matters to them.
TIP: Remember that characters and plot go hand in hand. Don’t just say that your novel Edie’s Race follows Edie’s solo adventures in a stolen car on a rally to Italy and then outline what happened at every stop on the route. Say why this rally is important to Edie and how her journey changes her as a person.
- Keep it succinct.
A 500-800 word (depending on particular requirements which you must check) summary of your whole novel.
- Remember it’s a business document. It requires different skills from creative writing. In a synopsis it is preferable to tell, not show. Write it in clear, neutral language without any stylistic flourishes.
- It is a summary of the book from beginning to end, including major characters and plot developments and twists.
- It shows you have narrative skills over a full-length manuscript: A good synopsis outlines plot, shows dramatic arc, and (hopefully) convinces agents/publishers that you can fulful the promise of the first three chapters.
- It does and should contain spoilers. Industry professionals reading your synopsis want to see you can handle plot developments from beginning to end.
- Remember that it is important to show (briefly) why your plot matters to the characters in your story.
How to write your novel synopsis:
- Make a note of the key plot points in your novel and concentrate on writing your synopsis around those. Introduce your main characters (no more than five) when they appear with a brief character sketch: name, age, what they do, what they want or their role in the story).
- A synopsis should follow your novel structure, so events should be in the same order as in the novel.
- Don’t go into unnecessary detail. The point of a synopsis is to give a clear outline of narrative developments in your novel. Think broad strokes and brief sketches. Make every word count.
- Bear in mind that a synopsis is a summary of your book. You don’t need to tell the entire story, or write a chapter breakdown. You want to show how your story progresses and why it is interesting.
- A possible approach to writing your synopsis might be to structure it into three parts: firstly an introduction to your character, their conflict or problem, and the setting; secondly, a breakdown of major plot developments and characters and thirdly, showing how major conflicts are resolved and plot strands tied up by the end. If you allocate 150-200 words to each paragraph you’re on the right track, lengthwise.
- You don’t need to ‘tell’ the synopsis reader how to respond to your story’s developments by describing your plot turns as ‘thrilling,’ ‘moving’, ‘haunting’ etc. It’s enough to say what happens and how it impacts on your lead character.
How to present your synopsis
- Present the document clearly, no more than two pages, no spelling mistakes or typos. Check agent/publisher guidelines for font, line spacing and length requirements.
- Give it a clear file-name that corresponds to your novel, eg Surname/NovelTitle/Synopsis.docx)
- Begin with a brief two/three-line summary of the novel at the top of the document to introduce it. State clearly what the genre is, ie ‘Edie’s Race is a contemporary YA novel that shows how a solo adventure for a teen with a difficult past brings about big life changes.’
- Use clear, straightforward language: active not passive voice, and write in third person. Your sample chapters show off your writing style, whereas your synopsis acts as a map, or outline, of your novel.
- Start strong, identifying setting and background, central character and their problem, ie. Edie, 18 and stroppy, has been fired from her holiday job at a hotel in Scarborough. She steals the owner’s car and finds herself caught up with a charity rally driving through Italy.
- Write character names in bold or capital letters when you introduce them. Include a brief character sketch (eg, Jimmy, 45, Edie’s estranged father, facing redundancy).
- With each turning point in your narrative, highlight how it impacts on the main character (eg, The crash at Turin where Al dies shakes Edie’s world, making her realise how devasted she’d be if she lost her dad, exactly Al’s age.) People reading your synopsis are looking at your plotting and character development skills.
- Don’t be afraid of spoilers. Agents and publishers need to know how your book ends, and any major twists. So tell them. ‘Edie returns to Scarborough to face up to what she did. She knows life isn’t going to be an easy road, but finishing the rally shows her she can achieve her dream of being an engineer, and reconciling with her dad means she’s winning at life too.’