How to write a synopsis is a question on every writer's mind. It's like death and taxes: awful but unavoidable.
This article is intended to make it easier for you to know how to write a synopsis - and not just any synopsis, but a compelling and intriguing synopsis that will have literary agents begging to see the rest of the work.
As with the information on writing query letters, this information can only be generic and you should refer to each agent’s specific guidelines to see what they want.
Writing a synopsis will be much easier for those who outline rather than those who make up their story as they go along. The outliners can refer back to that outline and it’ll provide a neat and comprehensive basis for writing a synopsis.
The rest of us will just have to condense this huge novel into fewer and fewer words. One way to do this is to have several run-throughs, trimming more and more each time, as I share in the sample synopsis.
The synopsis is very much about the plot of the story, and has to show that the plot is complex and well-developed enough to sustain a whole novel.
You also have to show that the characters are well developed. This is very difficult in such a little space, but you can do it by using adjectives generously, and by showing that the plot and characters are totally entwined and each builds on the other.
How to write a synopsis: how long should it be?
One of the main questions which comes up when people wonder how to write a synopsis is: how long should it be?
The answer to this depends on what stage of the process you’re at.
The etiquette in Britain and Ireland is that you send a query letter, the first three chapters and a synopsis to the agent. In this case the synopsis should ideally be no more than two pages long - and that’s double-spaced!
The etiquette in the US is that you send only a query letter and after reading that the agent will hopefully request either a ‘partial’ or a ‘full’. The ‘full’ means the full manuscript, and that would be absolutely brilliant! More likely, though, is a ‘partial’ which means the first three chapters and a synopsis. In either of these cases the agent has indicated that s/he’s interested in your work, and so you have a bit more leeway over the synopsis. So ten pages would be roughly the right number.
What else do I need to know about how to write a synopsis?
There are other rules about writing a synopsis. Many of them contradict the rules for writing a novel, but that’s okay.
- You always write a synopsis in present tense.
- It’s always in third person omniscient third person POV no matter what POV the actual novel is written in.
- Establish - in the first sentence - the location of the story and the era if it’s anything other than the modern day.
- Tell-don’t-show (in absolute reversal of the usual rule). So you can say, "James is an angry man..." for example whereas in the story itself you'll show him being perennially angry.
- Info-dump as needed. You don’t have time for gradual, graceful interweaving of information when you’re writing a synopsis.
- Likewise for the back-story. Just announce it. (See my example below, about Jane the lawyer.)
- Use as few names as possible - probably only the protagonist and one other. Use descriptors, e.g. “The best friend”, “the sister”, for the others.
- Keep description to a minimum. Don’t describe your characters’ appearance unless it has an integral part to play in the story.
- Write the synopsis in the same tone as the novel itself, e.g. chatty or serious or whatever.
- Tell all - no keeping cliffhangers or story-twists to yourself. (This is hard as you don’t want to just give away your carefully crafted twists; but it’s essential.)
- Avoid describing the subplots if possible. Include them only if they’re so intrinsically linked to the main plot that their absence wouldn’t make sense.
The synopsis should go something like this:
- Give the character's name and a very brief but compelling description,
- including her back-story as needed, in a sentence or two.
- Describe her dilemma, which is the narrative hook of the story.
- She wants this goal badly because of the crucible,
- but can’t get it because of the conflict.
- This goal is important because of her internal goal - i.e. the roots of the character arc.
- She takes the first steps in achieving her goal but,
- has her first failure.
- She then reacts, regroups and decides what to do next.
Carry on like that, as per the specifics of your own story. A good rule-of-thumb is to have one or two sentences in the synopsis for each chapter. Each chapter should represent one big scene or one pivotal moment, and that will provide natural breakpoints for the synopsis.
Here's a brief example:
Thirty-something lawyer Jane Robinson [her description] wants to achieve success at all costs [narrative hook], to cover up the feelings of inadequacy from her poverty-stricken childhood and her con-man father [back story]. She gets a name-making case but in order to win she may have to lie and cheat, to become like the father she despised [conflict]. She can’t walk away as the senior partner has promised her a partnership if she wins [crucible].
And then go on with the rest of the story in this way. You don't leave spoilers hanging - you tell the agent exactly what happens, twists and all.