How To Write a SynopsisDec 05, 2021
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From the desk of Lily Lindon, editor at The Novelry and author of Double Booked (June 2022).
If you want an agent to represent your novel, you're going to have to write a damned good 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 pitch letter. But what is it, and how do you make it work effectively?
Your synopsis is your novel in miniature.
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.
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.
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 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.
So here’s our list of ten key things to keep in mind:
- How Long Should it Be? (How Short?)
- Where To Begin?
- What's the Tone?
- Who are the Characters?
- Once Upon a Time, in a Land Far, Far Away
- Spoiler Alert?
- Be Concise.
- Be Even More Concise.
- How Should it Look?
- Think Like an Agent.
1. How Long Should it Be? (How Short?)
The thing people are often the most worried about with their synopsis is that it is too long. Your synopsis should be 1–2 pages (and no cheating with making the font ridiculously small!) In fact, at The Novelry, we recommend a 500-word upper limit 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. But perhaps even more importantly, it forces you to be strict with yourself. Cut to the heart of your novel. Tell the reader what happens; that’s it. (You'll be amazed at how writing a good 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 novel – 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 the synopsis, 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 pitch letter, where you'll want to use your hook line as a short sharp lure.
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. But it’s also good to demonstrate your creativity and flair – only if it adds to the effectiveness of the synopsis.
Write in the third person (even if the novel is written in the first). This will help you to give a precise overview of the events. 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. In most stories, you’ll be wanting the synopsis to revolve closely around what happens to the hero, and 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 every character (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 them, 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.)
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 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!
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 can often combine these in a simple opening few words – in modern-day Manhattan/a near-future Lagos/Elizabethan London etc – allowing you to then get to the heart of your character and story as soon as possible.
If you are writing speculative, 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 of the synopsis to describe your Brave New World, without actually telling the reader what your specific character's journey is. It can often work 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. Save the beautiful descriptions of your beach hotel, haunted house or distant planet for the actual novel.
6. Spoiler Alert?
Writers often worry about spoiling a twist in their synopsis. 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 everything is a good thing.
However, we'd caution against this. As explained at the top of this article, this is not a blurb. This 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. If your story is compelling, spoilers 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. On the other hand, ensure you do include any information that is 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, do be careful to follow the different instructions on specific agency websites. 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 writing a good 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.
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 is 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.'
Give the agent a perceptive bird’s eye view of your book, and they’ll be desperate to read more.
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.
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 thenovelry.live 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 in 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 synopses: 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. Coming soon: Rachel Joyce and Diana Evans.