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How To Write a Synopsis for a Novel

editing your novel getting published Dec 05, 2021
how to write a synopsis for a novel

If you want a literary agent to represent your book, you’re going to have to write a damned good novel synopsis. That’s right – it’s not enough to spend months of your life crafting tens of thousands of words of brilliant, original storytelling. You’ve got to be able to summarise it too.

Most agencies ask for a synopsis as part of any submission package, to be sent along with the opening of your novel and your query letter. But what is it, and how do you make it work effectively? Our editor, Lily Lindon, formerly of Penguin Random House, explains all of this and shares her tips to write a cracking novel synopsis.

A novel synopsis is your story in miniature

How to write a one page book synopsis as a short summary of your book proposal to nail a book deal

Essentially, your synopsis is your novel in miniature. It is a concise, dynamic overview of your novel. It gives a stranger the essentials of your story – who, what, where and why – and outlines the main characters. What changes and challenges do they go through? It needs to convey the essence of each of your novel’s unique parts. Give us an idea of the characters, the overall narrative arc, the major plot points.

I can also tell you what a synopsis is not. It is not the same thing as a ‘blurb’ (the teaser paragraph on the back of published books). It is also not the same as your plan, which you as a writer use to understand the workings of your plot. And it is also not the same as an essay: this is not the place to be arguing about the thematic complexities of your novel. This is simply your story, in 500 words.

‘Impossible?’

Have no fear! No one knows your story better than you. All you need to do now is prove it... 

Aside from the fact that agents expect to see a novel synopsis, it’s actually a great way to see if your plot is working properly.

If you can’t summarise your story in a page, then that might be a sign something is wrong.

This is simply your story, in 500 words.

10 things to keep in mind when writing a synopsis

So here’s our list of ten key things to keep in mind:

  1. How long should a novel synopsis be? (How short?)

  2. Where to begin

  3. What’s the tone?

  4. Who are the characters?

  5. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away

  6. Spoiler alert?

  7. Be concise

  8. Be even more concise

  9. How should it look?

  10. Think like a literary agent

 

1. How long should it be? (How short?)

The thing many writers are most worried about with their book synopsis is that it is too long.

Your synopsis should be between one and two pages (and no cheating with making the font ridiculously small!). In fact, at The Novelry, we recommend a 500-word maximum word count on your synopsis.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because we’re evil. It’s because, on a practical level, 500 words will always be within an agent’s specified limits for synopsis length in their submission guidelines.

When you write a novel synopsis, it forces you to be strict with yourself. Cut to the heart of your novel. 

But perhaps even more importantly, when you write a novel synopsis, it forces you to be strict with yourself. Cut to the heart of your novel. Tell the reader what happens, just the big plot points; that’s it. (You’ll be amazed at how writing a good book synopsis will help you to edit your novel effectively too!) 

2. Where to begin?

Well, as Julie Andrews would tell us, the beginning is a very good place to start. 

Open with the opening of your novel. In fact, your synopsis should follow the chronology of your plot points – tell us what happens, in the order it happens.

If it’s good enough to open your novel, it should be good enough to open your synopsis. If you’re going to indulge in one, stylish, luxurious sentence anywhere in your synopsis writing, it’s best to have it as an irresistible opening line, or pithy ending. Bonus points for some dramatic irony, or revealing insight.

If you have a brilliant hook line that really sells the conflict at the heart of your story, then by all means include this at the beginning of your synopsis. (She wasn’t the only one living a lie, but she was the only one who saw the truth.) But remember that you will also have your query letter, where you’ll want to use your hook line as a short sharp lure. 

If you’re going to indulge in one, stylish, luxurious sentence anywhere in your synopsis writing, it’s best to have it as an irresistible opening line, or pithy ending. Bonus points for some dramatic irony, or revealing insight.

If in doubt, don’t faff around. Begin your synopsis in-scene, at its most interesting point. Present the initial dilemma/moment of change as soon as possible. (Bumbling editor LILY is taking out the bins when aggressive aliens kidnap her.)

3. What’s the tone?

To some extent, there is space for personal preference in a synopsis: some agents will prefer a synopsis that gives a taster of the novel’s tone, as well as its plot. Others prefer their synopsis to be a ‘factual’ tool, devoid of voice quirks.

In general, be professional, clear and to the point. It’s good to demonstrate your creativity and flair – if it adds to the effectiveness of the synopsis.

Write in the third person (even if the novel is written in the first person). This will help you to give a precise overview of the plot points. Skip the dull parts. Include the complications and climaxes. (A good tip for writing your novel too, to be honest!)

If your novel is funny, probably don’t include jokes in your synopsis, as the humour is unlikely to land out of context – but don’t hide descriptions of your set-pieces or brilliant ironies. Use the synopsis to tell your comic story with a complete deadpan.

4. Who are the characters?

A synopsis needs to tell the reader who the characters are, what’s at stake for them, and the challenges they face.

As you (presumably) do in your novel, start with the main character, who should almost always appear in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. In most stories, you’ll want the synopsis to revolve closely around what happens to the hero (i.e. the inciting incident that triggers the main plot), and a brief summary of what they do next.

But unless you’re writing a dystopia (or a lockdown novel), there’s probably more than one character in your book. You don’t need to mention all of your other characters (in fact, please don’t), but you should include any of the key players. A general rule is to introduce them in the order we meet them (Cast In Order of Appearance.).

When introducing characters, it’s helpful to add a very short description of them. This can be as simple as one adjective (LILY, a well-intentioned editor). Add their ages if relevant to the story – doesn’t have to be their exact birthday and star sign; ‘late 70s’ will suffice. (If it’s a children’s novel, it’s particularly helpful to give the protagonist’s age, as this is often an important indicator of the intended reading age.)

When introducing characters, it’s helpful to add a very short description of them. This can be as simple as one adjective (LILY, a well-intentioned editor).

Adjectives can sometimes be distracting or clunky in an actual novel, but in a synopsis, they can be useful for quickly transmitting character types and immediately drawing your reader into conflicts.

Check the adjectives you use are deft and specific. The adjectives should typically describe their personality or character motivations (rather than appearance), because these are what impact their actions, and allow the agent to understand the mood of their scenes. Upgrade bland or generic words: try having a play with an online thesaurus! 

Adjectives can sometimes be distracting or clunky in an actual novel, but in a synopsis, they can be useful for quickly transmitting character types and immediately drawing your reader into conflicts.

5. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away

Are we in the present, past or future? This must be made clear immediately. You don’t want the agent to realise it’s historical fiction only when you mention the Titanic sinking. Similarly, your novel’s main setting should be evident early in the synopsis.

You don’t need to go into too much detail here, and can even often combine these in a simple opening few words: in modern-day Manhattan/a near-future Lagos/Elizabethan London, for example. That allows you to get to the heart of your character and story as soon as possible. Those are, after all, the most compelling parts of any book summary.

If you are writing science fiction, fantasy or otherwise otherworldly fiction, ensure that you give the reader enough information to understand that this is not our familiar Earth.

However, it’s a mistake to use the whole word count of your synopsis to describe your Brave New World, without actually telling the reader what your specific character’s narrative arc is. A good synopsis format in this kind of genre is to introduce the reader to the setting and time period upfront (Mars, 2099). Spread out any further information about your world so that it’s not too front-loaded.

As with the rest of your synopsis, only tell the reader the essentials. Leave us wanting more detail. Save the beautiful descriptions of your beach hotel, haunted house or distant planet for the actual novel.

whether or not you writer literary fiction you should write your synopsis in the third person not from the point of view of the main characters and you can use present tense or past

6. Spoiler alert?

As they begin writing a synopsis, writers often worry about spoiling plot twists.

Now, there is some differing opinion here: some argue that the synopsis’s job is to intrigue an agent to request the full manuscript, and therefore not giving away every plot twist is a good thing. 

Tell us all the juicy bits: indeed, tell us nothing but the juicy bits. 

However, we’d caution against this. As explained at the top of this article, these are not book blurbs. The book synopsis is not a marketing tool. It is a professional outline, used by an agent to check that your novel is in good working shape, and that it fulfils the demands of its readership.

A good synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler. Tell us all the juicy bits: indeed, tell us nothing but the juicy bits. After all, you’re not going to be able to give a useful description of your twisty thriller if you hide all the turns. Let them know they can expect a satisfying ending. If your story is compelling, spoilers of your plot twists won’t stop an agent from reading on – they’ll encourage them.

If your story is compelling, spoilers won’t stop an agent from reading on – they’ll encourage them.

7. Be concise

Cut all unnecessary words.

8. Be even more concise

Okay, number 7 was a little bit cheeky of me, but you see what I mean!

Delete any information that is not essential for understanding the story. Always have the word count front of mind when you write a synopsis.

On the other hand, the perfect synopsis includes any information or plot details that are essential for understanding the story. If a character makes a cup of tea because they’re thirsty, don’t include it; if a character makes a cup of tea to poison someone, do include it.

Therefore, avoid including too much backstory – only give us the details we need to understand the synopsis itself. Do not include full character names, every visited location, explanations of every magical device, details of subplots or quotes from dialogue. When in doubt, save it for the book.

Cut all unnecessary words.

9. How should it look?

There’s no one uniform template for a synopsis. However, as with all the materials in your submission pack, it should be immaculately well presented.

No typos. No spelling mistakes. No odd fonts. No pictures of your cat.

Structure in paragraphs, not bullet points. Put the names of the main characters in CAPITALS when you first introduce them. Use font size 10–12 with double-spacing (unless the agent specifically requests otherwise).

A further note on this: if you’re at the stage of submitting to agents or publishing houses, do be careful to follow the different guidelines on each specific website. If you haven’t taken the time to format in the way they’re asking for, they may be less likely to take the time for your submission in return. (And this isn’t just spite, sometimes agents get so many submissions that they are filtered through a computer system: don’t let your submission get stuck in the process just because you attached it as a Word document rather than a PDF!) 

If you submit your novel to agents via The Novelry’s editorial team, we will sort this for you.

10. Think like an agent

Like anything creative, I’m afraid there is no one right answer for how to write a novel synopsis.

Some industry professionals will have preferences about what you should or shouldn’t do, but at the end of the day, synopses will be almost as varied as the novels themselves. The thing to remember is that the synopsis is there to fulfil a purpose: to give an agent an immediate overview of your novel and its main plot.

Therefore, if in doubt, think, ‘If I was an agent, what would I find helpful? Would I need to know this before reading the novel? What would make me confident that it’s worth my time to read the chapters? What could be off-putting?’

And remember, if your idea and novel are utterly brilliant, one dodgy comma in your synopsis isn’t going to stop you. It’s there to help your application, not hinder it. Juliet Mushens, one of The Novelry’s star partner agents, says:

I will always read the cover letter and pages first [...] I tend to only look at the synopsis if I’m potentially on the fence about something. So I might think that the writing is good but I can’t see where the plot is going, or that I am intrigued by the set-up but am not sure how the plot will unfold.
—Juliet Mushens, literary agent

Give the agent a perceptive bird’s eye view of your book, and they’ll be desperate to read more. Let them see the inciting incident and rising action, give them a sense of the main arc, the main conflict and the overall plot – ideally on about one page – and they’ll be desperate to read your full book.

Still got problems?

The answer to solving a synopsis problem is almost always to simplify. Return to your plan with the fundamental beats of your story. Try telling your story to yourself, maybe on a voice recorder or voice note. Listening back to your speech will help show you what’s unnecessary and ensure you have enough detail without making your synopsis longer than it needs to be.

Try telling your story to yourself, maybe on a voice recorder or voice note. Listening back to your speech will help show you what’s unnecessary and ensure you have enough detail without making your synopsis longer than it needs to be.

Your synopsis needs to be understood by a complete stranger, so ensure you’re not assuming any knowledge about your story that an outsider couldn’t know. If you’re unsure, try sharing your synopsis with a trusted reader – your friends at The Novelry will oblige! See what they remember if you ask them to tell your story back to you. See what’s lost in translation.

But there’s a caution to this sharing: don’t send it to agents until it’s ready. In the same way that you wouldn’t rush over words when you’re writing your key opening chapters, spend time crafting your synopsis until it gleams. Don’t do your novel an injustice by summarising it poorly.

Go for it!

Perfect your submission to literary agents with The Novelry’s expert editorial team. Members of The Novelry gain access to brilliant resources to improve their book synopsis. The Novelry’s Community offers live online workshops and dedicated space to get feedback on your work from fellow writers plus exciting live sessions with famous bestselling authors.



 
 
image of Lily Lindon who knows all about the stages of publishing

Lily Lindon

Editor at The Novelry

Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. Lily is also the author of debut novel Double Booked. Edit your novel with Lily at The Novelry.

 


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