How to Write a Strong Novel Synopsis (and Why You Should)
Authors who want to be traditionally published must include a synopsis in each query. Indie authors should not miss the golden opportunity provided by creating a synopsis for their current work in process (WIP).
What is a synopsis?
For anyone who has never seen a synopsis, let’s get that out of the way. Simply put, a synopsis for fiction is similar to an abstract for non-fiction.
If you have ever written a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, or even a super-long academic paper, chances are that you have written an abstract. Abstracts are expected for scientific studies, too, and put simply, an abstract is a courtesy to help the reader decide if the full-length work is what they are looking for. An abstract is a high-level summary, usually one paragraph, that ranges between 150 to 250 words.
We will get to synopsis length in a moment, but first, let’s discuss why you need one.
Why do you need a synopsis?
If you are seeking traditional publication, your synopsis is an important part of the querying process.
Steve Laube of the Steve Laube Agency wrote that sending your first three chapters to an agent without a synopsis is: “Like asking someone to buy a car online but only showing them a picture of the front grill and the passenger side door.” I love that analogy. If you want to read his entire article, see the Resources below.
Even if you plan to self-publish, your synopsis is valuable for craft purposes, to save you time during novel creation. Why? Because it will help you ferret out the weaknesses in your story. You will learn the answers to these questions:
- Is your premise strong enough?
- Are your main characters compelling?
- Does the plot stay interesting?
- What makes your story unique?
How long should a synopsis be?
That’s a trick question, and the answer depends on the purpose of the synopsis.
One hundred words (or so)
First or last, write a synopsis that is not more than 150 words in length. This is not the same as a hook which should be about 30 words. In your query letter, these two items—the hook and the short synopsis—should total 200 words or less as a rough guideline. After all, you need room in your query letter to sell yourself too.
The hook for your query is a topic for another day.
Let’s concentrate on the short synopsis for a moment. Try for approximately 100 words. This copy can serve as your elevator pitch and help you develop your back cover copy too. You NEED this short synopsis. Realistically, you will rewrite it many times before it is perfect.
For the short synopsis, make the characters, the conflict, and the stakes clear. Let’s take Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen as an example:
In Regency-era England, ELIZABETH BENNET is one of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five, unmarried daughters. Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed to a distant cousin, and the girls’ mother is desperate to marry her daughters off. Wealthy prospect, MR. DARCY, is attracted to Elizabeth but repelled by her decidedly crass relatives. He insults her at their first meeting, and she is in no hurry to forgive. Can love overcome his prejudice and her pride? (75 words)
Notice the elements of this synopsis:
- The main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and and Mr. Darcy, are introduced.
- The conflict is clear: his prejudice against her family vs. her injured pride.
- The stakes for both are emotional death with a side of destitution for Elizabeth if she cannot make an advantageous match.
See? You can do that. One difference between this short synopsis and a longer one is that the story ending is more of a cliffhanger. More about that in a moment.
Writing a multiple-page synopsis is the most logical place to start. This synopsis is great for evaluating your plot at a high level.
Go for five pages or less, then if you need a one-page synopsis for your queries, whittle the multiple-page synopsis down to one. Make every word count. Chop off the side plots. Get rid of the minor characters. Focus on the main conflict. Chop. Chop. Chop.
The exercise of limiting your space to a handful of pages is worth your time.
Ideally, you should hone your synopsis down to one, single-spaced page. This is approximately 500 words.
One page is difficult to achieve, especially for a lengthy novel.
If you are preparing your synopsis for submission, then pay attention to the submission guidelines. If you ignore submission guidelines, expect the agent or publisher to toss your manuscript out. Some agents want one page, some two, and others will go for three. Follow directions if you want a contract.
Put yourself in their shoes. If you looked at submissions all day, how much time would you want to spend reading about a book you may never get to read?
That brings us to the next question.
When do you create a synopsis?
My best advice is to create your first synopsis BEFORE you write your story.
What did you say? You’ve already written your first draft? That’s okay. Write your synopsis anyway.
After you have your five-page synopsis, step back and ask:
- Is my main character relatable? If you have multiple MCs, are they all relatable?
- Is this the best story I can write?
- Where are the weak points?
- Are the stakes high enough?
- Is death on the line?
- Is the pacing tight enough and the plot twisted enough to hold my readers’ interest?
- Does the ending make sense without being the same, old thing?
- Does the main character have a satisfying arc?
Now you can tighten your story in an informed way during the revision phase. You can even rewrite your synopsis before you start revising to perfect the plot and the story arc.
What needs to be included in a synopsis?
Start with your main character(s), your MCs. I like to emphasize my MCs’ names with all caps the first time I reference them.
Use shorthand descriptions for your MCs. It is fine to use trite phrases like: single mother, deadbeat father, estranged son, impoverished family, distinguished doctor, etc. You do not have room to provide backstory.
Name the setting
In the Pride and Prejudice example, I mentioned Regency-era England. This places the story in a specific set of years and a particular place, so the agent knows the context for the story.
Setting, which equals place and time, must be disclosed because context matters. Don’t linger on the details. You know how some movies establish the shot with place and time with a little subtitle like “New York City, September 11, 2001”? Get as close to that as you dare.
Important secondary characters
Include critical secondary characters. For example, you would not mention Frodo Baggins without including Samwise Gamgee.
In a one-page synopsis of Pride and Prejudice, you would need to mention Jane, Charles Bingley, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, George Wickham, and Lydia Bennet by name. These characters are integral to the overarching plot, but keep your audience in mind. Don’t expect an agent to keep ten characters straight.
In a multiple-page synopsis, use your best judgment about how many characters, places, and organizations you name.
Is this for your eyes only? Then, fine, include anything you want.
Will you be sending multiple pages out to others? Make it as easy as possible for your reader to keep people, places, and things straight.
Major plot points
Tell how the characters start out. Tell the inciting event. Disclose the conflict. Go through the major plot points, and make the stakes clear.
You are expected to tell, not show. Put on your summarization hat. “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Joe Friday, Dragnet)
Use strong verbs
I know I said to summarize and tell the facts; however, you need to make an emotional connection with whoever is reading your synopsis. This is the time to s-t-r-e-t-c-h for strong verbs with meaningful connotations.
Cinderella longs to attend the royal ball, but her stepsisters shred her homemade gown and mock her before sauntering away. Grief stricken, she stumbles to the garden where her fairy godmother bursts into view to console her.
Did you notice the verbs? Cinderella longs to go to the ball. Doesn’t the word long have a stronger, more emotional connotation than want? Her stepsisters shred and mock and saunter. Cinderella stumbles, and her godmother bursts into view to console her.
If you have trouble with your wordcount, work on your verbs because verbs can do the heavy lifting in your synopsis and remove the need for a lot of helping words.
Through the stepsisters’ actions in our example, the reader knows they are wicked.
Through the verb stumbles, we get how overwhelmed Cinderella is. The godmother’s arrival seems miraculous without having to say so. She bursts onto the scene to console Cinderella.
Tell the ending! Give it away. Hold nothing back. Agents and publishers want to know the resolution. If you play coy, your submission will go in File 13.
What needs to be left out of a synopsis?
Here are the things to leave out of your synopsis:
- Leave out minor characters, if possible.
- Leave out sub-plots as much as you can. Stay on the main path through the story.
- Omit backstory. Please, for the love of great fiction, leave out the detailed history of everyone in the story.
- Do not use flashbacks in your synopsis. Present the story in a linear fashion.
- Do not use bullet points, headings, and sub-headings. Tell the story.
- Do not include dialogue. This is a summary, not a snippet. Your one-page synopsis will accompany your first three chapters of your full manuscript. Your manuscript is where your dialogue skills will shine.
Tips for a Great Synopsis.
- Use present tense. Re-read the example above to see what I mean.
- Put your main characters’ names in all caps the first time they appear. This helps the reader know who is most important.
- If the setting is key to the plot, put it in all caps the first time it is mentioned. Again, this is my preference.
- State the inciting event in a compelling way. For example: LUKE SKYWALKER is a farm boy on the desert planet, TATOOINE, who dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. When his aunt and uncle are murdered by Imperial stormtroopers, he leaves his home planet to train to be a rebel pilot and a Jedi.
- Stay out of the weeds. In the Star Wars example, you would not mention Luke’s friendship with Biggs Darklighter in your synopsis. He is part of Luke’s backstory, and he gets about two lines in the movie.
- Make every word fight to stay in the synopsis. Every word must serve a purpose. Edit like mad. Your synopsis is a demonstration of writing skill. If you do not feel adequate to the task, ask your critique partners for help.
- Make the stakes clear. For example: When Luke joins the rebels at their base, the pilots are ordered to fly a suicide mission to destroy the Death Star.
- Summarize the resolution in simple terms. For example: Luke escapes from Darth Vader. Using the power of the Force, he pilots his ship to deliver the “impossible” killing shot that destroys the Death Star. Darth Vader whirls into space in his TIE fighter, leaving the door open for a sequel to Star Wars.
- Obey the guidelines you find for the agents or publishers you want to query. This shows that you can follow directions. It is a test, so make sure you pass it.
- Make sure your story meets the expectations for your genre. This is why I am an advocate for writing a synopsis before writing the first page, but even more so for writing it (again) after the first draft.
A synopsis is a useful tool for authors and a necessary one if they intend to attract an agent or publisher. Use these tips to make the process easier.
This week’s question is: Do you have any pointers or experiences to share about writing synopses?
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- Laube, Steve. 2018. “Book Proposals: The Fiction Synopsis -.” The Steve Laube Agency. https://stevelaube.com/why_write-a-synopsis/.
- Bradburn, Richard. 2018. “How to Write A Synopsis – and Why Indie Authors Need Synposes Too.” Self-Publishing Advice. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/writing-how-to-write-a-synopsis-of-your-self-published-book-and-why-indie-authors-need-synposes-too/.