Once your novel is written and edited it is time to start thinking about your submission package. This typically involves writing a synopsis. This is a task that fills many writers with dread, but it shouldn’t.
Your synopsis performs a very specific job. It guides an editor or agent through the core plot of your book. It strips out the description and subplots and focuses only on the meat. A great synopsis can make the difference between a rejection and an invitation to submit a full manuscript because it sells the reader on the story. It shows how the core arc unfolds and convinces the reader that there is a reason to keep turning the pages because the work is cohesive and delivers a satisfying resolution.
The first step when writing a synopsis is to pare down your story to the central plot and identify the major events in the story that advance the plot. Start off by introducing your protagonist(s). Give us a reason to connect to them. Do we want to see them get revenge? Will we be turning the pages, hoping they can solve a specific problem or connect with a special someone? The synopsis gives you a platform to show off the character readers will be focused on for hundreds of pages, so it’s a great opportunity to introduce them. You also have a chance to tell us a lot about them in a few words, which can add to the reader’s intrigue.
You want to introduce the catalyst that starts your character on their journey. Make their objective clear: do they need to heal, solve a murder, save the world, or something else? When the reader can start off your synopsis and know who has an issue and what goal has been set for them then they have been given a reason for the story and can determine if it will hook readers. Don’t muddy this with multiple issues. Focus on the core plot. For example, Torvah may wonder why lightning bolts shoot out of her fingertips every time she sees the color purple. She may wish she could get her memory back, and perhaps answers, but those details are not plot events or catalysts. It’s far more likely that someone will discover her secret and disrupt her normal life by threatening her safety, forcing her to go on the run. That’s a catalyst.
From the catalyst, move through the synopsis and present the character’s actions, their motives and the obstacles they face. Provide this information sequentially so that the reader is led to the next turning point in the story. Continue to do this through all of the core sections of the work until the climax is presented and the resolution revealed.
A great synopsis underscores the most significant events in the manuscript and how those events affect the character’s journey and the outcome of the story.
You should limit the number of character names used as much as possible and, other than your protagonist(s) you should only mention key antagonists or secondary characters by name if required to understand the information presented. Remember, the reader is getting a lot of data in a few pages and using character names reduces the space available for important information. Does it matter if the person who stole your character’s shoe was Billy Joe Tanner III, who had brown hair and blue eyes, or is the critical piece of information that a man stole their shoe? Wherever possible, strip out extraneous details. Again, you’re looking for the meat here. Your manuscript is where you get to add in the trimmings.
One of the main reasons that authors have a hard time writing a synopsis is because they are attached to specific subplots or secondary characters they want to write about. Sneaking in this kind of information can detract from your synopsis if it does not enhance the core plot in a meaningful way within the limited number of pages you typically have available. Remember, three pages double-spaced is approximately 750 words. That isn’t a lot of space, and if you try to cut corners with your core plot by threading in beloved secondary characters or clever subplots you run the risk of weakening your presentation.
Another reason some writers struggle with the synopsis is because they don’t know what their book is really about. This is part of the reason that writing a synopsis is a crucial part of the process. If you, the writer, can’t explain what the key themes or plot objectives are then how do you expect anyone else to be able to identify the point of your story? You aren’t channeling words from gods that theologians will pour over for centuries in the hopes of finding enlightenment. Your job is to tell a story, and the story requires a clear objective, whether that be to right a wrong, learn a life lesson, solve a problem or something else. Your job in the synopsis is to identify that core story and show how the character(s) get from the beginning to the end and offer a clear resolution. Agents and editors want to be sure that there is a substantive story, that the motives your characters have make sense, and that their actions are credible. Without these components there is no story worth telling.
Books may have secondary themes, but these should be included sparingly. When you write a synopsis that demonstrates you have a clear arc presented in your narrative, an arc that has been fully developed and is engaging, the reader will look forward to reviewing your chapters. They will also be aware of the fact that secondary themes may be included. Again, these are part of the trimmings that will show the reader that, as great as your core story is, the manuscript offers even more to appreciate, and they will be more likely to be interested in seeing more of your work as a result.
Different articles will offer varying perspectives on other synopsis essentials, but the most important thing to remember is this: present what the agent or editor asked you for.
What do I look for in a synopsis?
- Third person is preferred.
- Past or present tense is acceptable. Pick one and be consistent.
- Do not include a paragraph summarizing each chapter. This does not enable the reader to follow the core plot of the work effectively.
- 3 to 5 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt Times New Roman with 0.5” indentations for the first sentence in each paragraph. (Many publishers ask for 3 pages maximum, some want the synopsis single-spaced. Always check the submission guidelines.)
- Present the climax and resolution. If you send a synopsis that ends with a list of questions the manuscript will answer then you have not written a synopsis. Your presentation will not provide the information needed to evaluate your story at this stage of submission. This means that one of the most critical selling tools that you could use is missing, and it could make the difference between interest in your manuscript and a decision to pass.
A great synopsis is not unlike sharing a juicy bit of gossip. Here are a couple scenes to view. You don’t need to know the characters. You don’t need to know the context. Both tell their own cohesive story. One is a formative story about something that caused a character to adopt a specific code for their life. The other is a moral lesson.
You do not need to know that Mike turned from cop to criminal. You do not need to know who he is talking to. Follow the one thread of the story he starts at the 30 second mark. Listen to the words he chooses to use to describe the people in it. No names, but we know them. All the moments up to this moment that made it so powerful aren’t needed for this to convey its clear truth and narrative arc in a way that is compelling and reveals so much about Mike and the choices he’s made.
Fargo seasons 1 and 2 are riddled with great storytelling moments. In this clip, it’s the Sioux Falls story you want to focus on. Notice how the absence of excessive details actually makes it more intriguing, more ominous. In a synopsis, you’d want to expand on how the case resolved and add a bit more about the catalyst and those involved, but the core idea’s here. You want to give enough to show there’s a compelling story without giving all the details away.
Think about how you’d tell an anecdote at a party, or tell the story of how you met your spouse. You want to capture people’s attention, you want to give the full story arc, and you don’t want it to be so long you lose their interest. That’s a synopsis.
Remember to focus on a simple, straightforward narrative arc that delivers the punch in the end. In these video clips, we didn’t need to know much about appearances or occupations or political beliefs. We just needed to know the core details relevant to these arcs. This is how you pack punch in a summary that conveys a compelling story.