Writing a Synopsis

Keep calm - synopsisI am sure it is not surprising, but writing a synopsis is the hardest task for most of our authors. It’s rare to find anyone completely confident in their synopsis and cover letter – even if they think they have written the world’s best book!

It’s hard. And we – the industry professionals – don’t help by making comments like: ‘your novel could be perfect, but if your synopsis doesn’t sing then you won’t get anywhere’. That’s a scary statement, but we say it because it’s pretty accurate. Your cover letter and synopsis need to shout ‘READ ME! I AM WORTH YOUR TIME AND EFFORT’…but with less desperation…

 

Every publisher and literary agent have their own differing expectations and requirements, but I believe there are a few fundamentals and so I have outlined these in this article. Hopefully this will help you to get your head around the business of writing a synopsis so you can get some words on the page and start making them work for you… and hopefully win you some attention for the right reasons.

I should probably also mention that this is about writing synopses for submission to agents and publishers for the consideration of publication. (It is also primarily written for fiction writers.) For this purpose your synopsis is outlining the narrative and your writing style so that the agent or publisher can decide whether they want to ‘buy’ or ‘represent’ it for publication. The synopsis helps them determine if it fits their ‘list’ and whether they feel it has potential. If the synopsis helps them to identify these aspects then it might encourage them to read your manuscript – which is one step closer to your goal: publication!

It is also important to note that these are general guidelines and you should always read and adhere to the guidelines that each publishing house and literary agent set out.

 

So, what is a synopsis and why is it important?

Let’s tackle the ‘why’ first…

You have finished your novel and you’re thinking of trying to get it published. Your manuscript is the most important thing, right? Wrong. When you submit your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher the first thing they will read is your cover letter and synopsis. If they’re not convinced after reading those two documents then they’ll either give up and move on, or read the start of your manuscript with trepidation…and this is bad. You want to give your manuscript the best chance to succeed, and this starts with your synopsis and cover letter. They should set the reader up to feel engaged and excited to read your manuscript. They set the tone for what is to come. If they don’t like your synopsis then you will have a much harder job of convincing them to like your manuscript, if they even get that far!

Often agents and publishers won’t even want to see the manuscript from you until they have read your synopsis, if this leaves them wanting more then they may ask for some sample chapters.

Running The Manuscript Agency means that I read a lot of cover letters and synopses. They usually either inflate expectations of what is to come, don’t reflect what the manuscript is about, or fail to engage the reader as they simply recount the events, or are so packed with information that it becomes confusing. We don’t judge your work by your synopsis (in fact, we don’t ‘judge’ your work at all!), we always read the manuscripts first and allow it to speak for itself. But if we were to read the synopsis and form our opinions on the manuscript as a result, well, it wouldn’t always be to the benefit of the manuscript!

 

Now the ‘what’…

A synopsis is a summary of your manuscript. But it isn’t just a summary. As well as showing us what happens in the manuscript, it should also give us a taste for the style of writing. It’s not sales copy, it is a taster (but with all the spoilers included).

This is the analogy I came up with:
Your synopsis is the bait to lure the fish. But unlike a back cover blurb (sales copy) where you give the fisherman the bait and ask them to go fishing, a synopsis gives them the bait AND the fish!

The main aim of a synopsis is to clearly show the reader what they are going to get when they read your manuscript. This means giving them a general sense of the setting, the main characters, why the journey takes place, how the story unfolds, the dramatic turning points and how it ends. It also means giving them all of this while using conveying the style of your manuscript (is it witty, dry, fast-paced…?). But while using your unique voice, make sure you write from a present tense, third person point of view… and remember not to be too complex with your prose…

Okay, so it’s not so simple. Let’s break it down some more.

 

Writing your synopsis

Getting started

There are a few ‘tick boxes’ that you can use to get you started. At the very least you will then have words on a page, and who doesn’t love words on a page? Because where there are words you can edit and develop, and this is where the magic happens. So here are a few things to get on your page straight away:

☐ Who is your protagonist? What is their name, what are they like
(ie determined investigator), and what is life like for them at the start
of their journey (ie recently divorced)?

☐ What is your protagonist’s goal and why is it important to them?

☐ What is your protagonist’s central conflict/what’s at stake for them?
What is driving that conflict? What is the main thing that stops them from reaching their goal? How do they respond to the conflicts they encounter?

☐ What else do they encounter along the way: conflicts, important characters that makes the story move towards resolving the conflict and reaching their goal? You won’t be able to (and won’t need to) recount
every event, pick and choose the events that have the most impact on the protagonist and their narrative.

☐ How is the conflict (and therefore the narrative) resolved? What is your protagonist like now – how have they changed in the face of the conflict and its resolution? What is the ending? (Yes, you do have to give away the ending! Don’t leave the reader hanging!!)

It is a good idea to engage the storytelling techniques that you used while writing your manuscript. Think:

  • Pacing: take the reader on a journey, making use of the highs, lows and tensions for your protagonist.
  • Consider your word choices, what will have then most emotional impact?
  • Remember not to get caught up in the nitty gritty, consider the big picture and the overall emotional journey of the protagonist.

 

First paragraph: This should be a strong paragraph, introducing the protagonist, their central conflict (the thing that is stopping them from achieving their goal), their end goal and their setting (think physical setting, era, emotional setting etc). You might like to consider using an attention-grabbing opening line, or a poignant moment in the manuscript that helps summarise the theme and tone of the story, or your could start by painting a general scene.

Second paragraph: This is where you will identify the main plot points/conflicts, central characters, the ups and downs that make up the bulk of the story, helping and hindering the protagonist from reaching their goal.

Third paragraph: Finally, you should outline how conflicts are resolved and how the protagonist reaches their goal. You must always reveal the ending. Don’t leave the synopsis-reader hanging!

Make sure your synopsis is CLEAR. It needs to be a balance of vague big picture with the nitty gritty details that makes your story unique. Make sure everything mentioned deserves to be mentioned… for example, don’t tell the reader that the protagonist has a cat named ‘Josephine’ unless this is vital to the story or to us understanding the character more. Don’t waste space with unnecessary detail.

What NOT to do…common mistakes

The most important thing to remember is that this is the piece of writing that will sell your work. You want to engage the reader and hold that interest. Here are a few things that might lead to a publisher or agent pushing your work to one side – you want to make their job easy for them, not make it feel like a chore. If reading the synopsis is a chore, what will it be like to read the book??

Here are some suggestions of what NOT to do when writing your synopsis:

  • Don’t write a back cover blurb. This is not the time to be elusive. Give it to them straight up: ‘this is what you will get when you read my book’. They don’t want to be left with a hook or any confusion about the plot and its resolution. So no rhetorical or unanswered questions!
  • Don’t just detail the plot. You want to imbue the synopsis with the same ambience that they will feel when they read your manuscript. This is not simply a blow-by-blow account of the events…because that would be boring. It’s also not a summary of the chapters or scenes.
  • Don’t confuse the synopsis reader with too many details. You want this to be easy to follow. I know that I just said you ‘need to give it to ‘em, straight up’, but that doesn’t mean that they need EVERY detail, character and plot point. So long as they get the gist of it and come away with a ‘feeling’ for your work then you have done your job. Back away from the details and no one will get hurt!
  • Don’t include a listing of every character in the book. We only need the key characters; the one’s who impact the protagonist and their journey. But DO use caps in the first instance when you mention a character.
  • Don’t get carried away with the prettiness of the prose. I know, this is confusing. You DO want to give the publisher (etc) a sense of your voice, but you DON’T want to get bogged down in the prose? ‘What the…?!’ I hear you saying. This is the one place where you are allowed to tell, not show. You don’t want to waste precious words showing the reader. For example, just come out and say your protagonist is a “nerdy, uncomfortable girl” rather than trying to show it.
  • Avoid including dialogue. Only use it if it tells or shows us something you can’t tell us in any other way.
  • Don’t break your synopsis down into sections, or under headings.
  • Avoid wordiness. Make each word in your synopsis count. This is where self-editing can come into play. It is a great practice in restraint. How can I say the same thing in half the number of words?
  • Don’t include a list of all the other stories in the series. That’s what the cover letter is for. The synopsis is for this And if the synopsis can’t stand alone without a lengthy explanation of the other books, how can you expect your manuscript to?
  • Don’t refer to yourself in the synopsis. Again, this is what the cover letter is for. The synopsis is all about the story.

What is the ‘perfect’ length for my synopsis?

I tend to think that a one-page synopsis is perfect. But what I think isn’t gospel and there is no ‘absolute’ in regards to the length, the best thing is write a few versions of differing lengths. Read the submission requirements of each agent or publisher, this will tell you exactly what they want. At least you will have a few up your sleeve ready to go if you write a few of differing lengths. Try having these in your arsenal:

  • 1 page
  • 3 pages
  • 10 pages (this will be more detailed, including not just key events, but more of the minor events and characters)
  • Anything longer would probably fall into ‘chapter breakdown’ territory, which means it’s NOT a synopsis, but it is also good to have handy. It might even be a good place to start. When you have written the chapter breakdown use a highlighter to highlight the central characters, events, scenes, plot developments…it will give you a good idea of what you should include in your synopsis.

So, what is a blurb then?

A blurb (or back cover copy) acts as a hook. It is sales copy, meant to entice the reader to purchase the book. A blurb is not the full story, it is a punchy, clever editorial piece that excites the reader.

 

And a cover letter…?

Your cover letter will tell the agent more: genre, word count, market placement, target audience, themes, author biography etc. The agent or publisher should be able to read your synopsis and cover letter (the submission package) and get a sense of whether your manuscript is worth the investment of their time.

Don’t worry, I will write another blog post on cover letters. Stay tuned!

 

Finally…

I know, I know. It all seems easy when you read articles on how to write a synopsis. But how do I actually do it? Well, it is a craft. And like any craft, it can be mastered with practice. I will be the first person to say that I am great editing other people’s synopses, but I am stumped when it comes to writing my own. If you find yourself really stuck then it may be worth getting a friend to read your manuscript and write a synopsis, this will:

  • allow you to see your book through the eyes of a reader, you will see what someone else sees as the key points in the novel;
  • give you something to start with so then you can edit it and hone the voice etc.

Alternatively, there are plenty of services (like The MAA) who actually offers this service, professionals who will sit down and help you write your synopsis (and other accompanying material).

I know you don’t need me putting more pressure on you, you know how important the synopsis is…right? This one document will (hopefully) demonstrate to the editor/publisher/agent that you know what you are doing; that you can use voice and understand how to craft an engaging plot.

And remember: once you have written the perfect synopsis, make sure it is reflected in your manuscript (or the first three chapters at the very least!).

View your synopsis as an invitation to the professional reading your manuscript to keep on reading. They’ve tasted the candy, now will they walk into the lolly shop and buy a whole packet of the stuff?

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.

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