Writing the synopsis for your novel is a task generally loathed by writers, yet it is an essential part of selling your book. Why? And why do writers hate the process so much? Shouldn’t we enjoy having the chance to demonstrate how brilliant and exciting our plot is?
What a synopsis is for
A synopsis is really just a summing up of the main plot points of your novel and the journey of your main characters. If your sample chapters are a demonstration of your writing ability, your synopsis is a demonstration of your ability to put together your content in a way that will draw the reader through the story and satisfy them at the end. If a publisher or agent enjoys your sample chapters and is excited by your synopsis, he or she will ask for more. The synopsis may also be used later as a selling tool in order to win over other people or departments who will be involved in the process of producing your book. It may also be used to sell a series or prove you can come up with a sequel.
When to write it
Should you write your synopsis before or after your manuscript? It depends on your method of planning. If you prefer to plot your novel first before writing, there is much to be said for coming up with a synopsis first which you can use as a working plan. It may need revision at the end to account for unexpected events but the basics will be there. Most writers, however, tackle the synopsis at the end, which is probably why it becomes so dreaded a task. Your precious manuscript is complete and ready to go out into the world, and now you have to squeeze all the magic out of it and bash out the main points in a page of dry, academic prose when all you want to do is get the thing out there and move on to the dizzy excitement of planning a new book. Tough! It’s got to be done.
How to write it
There are many resources online which give advice on synopsis, and links to them are included below. These are the basic points I have picked up which I feel would suit the majority of unpublished children’s writers who are drafting a synopsis for the first time and need something to suit the majority of publishers/agents they are submitting to.
- Length – one single page is a good length welcomed by most publishers. It doesn’t need to be double spaced unless you feel that will aid readability.
- Voice – omniscient (all-knowing) narrator is best. Don’t write from a character’s point of view. Try to be consistent with the tone of your novel within reason, for example if it is a comedy you don’t need to squeeze in as many gags as you can! Use the present tense.
- Content – concentrate on the journey of the main character or characters, what happens to them, the main plot points and the climax at the end. Forget minor characters, subplots and anything which digresses too much. If you are struggling with what to include, imagine someone asking you at a party what your book is about and you having to explain in a few sentences above the noise. Then expand it using only the most important plot points until you have filled the page. Don’t hint or tease like you would on a blurb on the back of a published book. Your publisher or agent needs to know what happens!
- Polishing – some agents and publishers will read the synopsis before anything else. Try to look on your synopsis as a selling tool and spend time perfecting it. It should, of course, be free of errors, but also clear and concise but not dry. Your book is exciting/humorous/emotional/dramatic so make your synopsis reflect that.
You will probably hate your synopsis by the time you have spent hours beating it out. Don’t worry. If you’ve done all you can, send it off with your sample chapters and your covering letter, and get on with the next book. And this time, perhaps try writing the synopsis first or even as you go along. It may save you a least a little agony later.
Try these links for articles and discussions about synopses. You will find advice that is conflicting but it just proves there are no set rules about synopsis writing. Before submitting, check the requirements of your chosen publisher or agent. They may ask for a particular length or even a chapter by chapter breakdown. If that is the case, you will already have your prepared one page synopsis ready to adapt. Good luck!
Writer and former editor Caro Clarke
A practical and really useful step-by-step breakdown of what it takes to create a synopsis based on an existing manuscript using a real example.
Crime writer Beth Anderson
An deservedly oft-linked to article that goes into detail about crafting a great synopsis.
Fiction Writer’s Connection
Short and punchy summary of the main points.
Writer Joshua Palmatier
Useful article with author’s synopsis of one of his own books.
Agent Nathan Bransford
Brief but salient advice from the agent’s point of view, followed by a good range of agonized comments!
The Literary Consultancy
In-depth how-to article by Rebecca Swift that also appears in the Writers and Artists Yearbook.
Short how-to article that makes the process sound even more complicated than it already is…
Try looking up your favourite novel and reading the summary. It will be more like a blurb in tone but will give you an idea of a tight precis. This link is for Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief.
Alternatively read novel summaries on Wikipedia for inspiration. This one for Tolstoy’s War and Peace must have taken a while…