I’ve never met a single person who liked writing a synopsis. Seriously — not one. But still, synopses are a necessary part of the submission process (until some brave publishing pro outlaws them), so I wanted to share 5 basic tips today regarding how to compose one in case you’re query agents or getting ready to pitch at a writers’ conference.
A synopsis is a summary of your book. Literary agents and editors may ask to see one if you’re writing an adult novel, a memoir, or a kids novel (young adult, middle grade). The purpose of a synopsis request is for the agent or editor to evaluate what happens in the three acts of your story to decide if the characters, plot and conflict warrant a complete read of your manuscript. And if you haven’t guessed yet, they’re pretty tough to write. If you are indeed putting one together and sending your work out, check out these tips below:
1. Reveal everything major that happens in your book, including the ending. Heck, revealing the story’s ending is a synopsis’s defining unique characteristic. You shouldn’t find a story’s ending in a query or in-person pitch, but it does leak out in a synopsis. On this note, know that a synopsis is designed to explain everything major that happens, not to tease — so avoid language such as “Krista walks around a corner into a big surprise.” Don’t say “surprise,” but rather just tell us what happens.
2. Make your synopsis two pages, double-spaced. There is always some disagreement on length. This stems from the fact that synopses used to trend longer (six, eight, or even 12 pages!). But over the last five years, agents have requested shorter and shorter synopses — with most agents finally settling on 1-2 pages, total. If you write yours as one page, single-spaced, it’s the same length as two pages, double-spaced — and either are acceptable. There will be the occasional agent who requests something strange, such as a “5-page synopsis on beige paper that smells of cinnamon!” But trust me, if you turn in a solid 1-2 page work, you’ll be just fine across the board.
(Need a query edit or synopsis edit before you submit to agents? See more here,)
3. Take more care and time if you’re writing genre fiction. Synopses are especially difficult to compose if you’re writing character-driven (i.e., literary) fiction, because they may not be a whole lot of plot in the book. Agents and editors understand this, and put little (or no) weight into a synopsis for literary or character-driven stories. However, if you’re writing genre fiction — specifically categories like romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, horror or science fiction — agents will quickly want to look over your characters and plot points to make sure your book has a clear beginning, middle and end, as well as some unique aspects they haven’t seen before in a story. So if you’re getting ready to submit a genre story, don’t blow through your synopsis; it’s important.
4. Feel free to be dry, but don’t step out of the narrative. When you write your prose (and even the pitch in your query letter), there is importance in using style and voice in the writing. A synopsis, thankfully, not only can be dry, but probably should be dry. The synopsis has to explain everything that happens in a very small amount of space. So if you find yourself using short, dry sentences like “John shoots Bill and then sits down to contemplate suicide,” don’t worry. This is normal. Lean, clean language is great. And lastly, do not step out of the narrative. Agents do not want to read things such as “And at the climax of the story,” “In a rousing scene,” or “In a flashback.”
5. Capitalize character names when characters are introduced. Whenever a new character is introduced, make sure to CAPITALIZE them in the first mention and then use normal text throughout. This helps a literary agent immediately recognize each important name. On this subject, avoid naming too many characters (confusing) and try to set a limit of five, with no more than six total. I know this may sound tough, but it’s doable. It forces you to excise smaller characters and subplots from your summary — actually strengthening your novel synopsis along the way.
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