Synopsis How-To

Thoughts on Synopsis Writing

Because there isn’t one way to do it

Imagine you are an editor at a major publishing house and the day’s mail has just come in. You’ve got 30-40 synopsis to read as well as fifteen full manuscripts — and those are the ones that you requested. Then, if there is time, maybe you’ll read some of the proposals which came in over the transom, unrequested. And this doesn’t even take into account the books which you’ve already bought which need to be read and edited as well as your many other responsibilities.

Now, just how much time do you, an author, think that editor is going to spend reading your synopsis? One minute, five, maybe ten if it catches her attention? This is what you’ve got to keep in mind while you are writing your synopsis and are struggling to reduce your 400 page manuscript into a ten page synopsis.  Try to make it five pages, and make that first one count for all your worth!

The whole point of a synopsis is to sell your book. In those measly five pages, you’ve got to make the editor fall in love with your protagonist(s), want to know what s/he is dealing with and why (Goal-Motivation-Conflict) and know that her/his road to that “happily ever after” is going to be a fun and interesting read and, if you’re writing a paranormal, that editor’s got to understand your world and the basic rules of that world. Vampires? Terrific! What can they do? What can’t they do? What do they eat/drink? Are they good or bad? All of that has got to be clear within the five pages of your synopsis — sounding shorter by the moment, isn’t it? So, how do you do it? Here’s one way:

Page 1: Start with a short hook paragraph. In one or two pithy sentences tell your reader the main point of the book. What is it that makes your book stand out from the hundreds of others which are clammering for the editor’s attention?

On this first page you also need a paragraph about the world in which your story is set if it’s a fantasy or science fiction, and another on who the main characters are, what they want and why — I usually suggest one paragraph for each of your protagonists.

After page one, you’ve got four more pages in which you need to very briefly describe the entire plot of your book. (Take a deep breath, you can do this.) The easiest way to tackle this is to make an outline of your plot first (if you don’t have one already) with each of the major turning points as a point on the outline, like so:

If you’re familiar with the work of Michael Hauge (fabulous — read/listen/watch/see him!!) you’ll recognize this outline as a mash-up of his story structure outline and a more general one. I find this to be really helpful when figuring out the structure of my book.

Now, back to your synopsis. From this outline, you’ve got your major turning points already written out in a brief form. Use this to write your synopsis. But one note: do not say this happens, then this happens, and then that. That’s one way to make your reader fall straight to sleep. You’ve got to make this exciting. Tie all of your turning points together with action or emotion (wherever the emphasis of your story lies) as you move from one turning point to the next.

Finally, your last paragraph absolutely cannot have a cliff hanger! No matter what, this is a big no-no in synopsis writing. You cannot leave your reader hanging with a rhetorical question — will the lovers ever get together? Will the murderer be found? No. If you do that, the reader (editor?) will think that you don’t know the answer or they’ll just get annoyed and dump the whole thing in the recycling bin. Your last paragraph must sum up the end of the story and tie up all of the major story lines which you’ve described in the synopsis (not the minor sub-plots, remember, you don’t have space for them in your five page synopsis). So, tell them if the hero and heroine commit to a lifetime together or if the murderer is caught and who did it.

One last note: don’t forget to end with a great hook that will make that editor grab your manuscript and start reading, or even better, grab the phone and make you an offer you can’t refuse!

Here are some basic rules which all synopsis should follow:

  • Don’t make your synopsis too long. Ideal is 2-3 pages, fine is 5 pages, pushing it, but still ok is 10 pages.
  • Write in the present tense, no matter how your book is written.
  • Write in the third person, again no matter how the book is written.
  • Try to get the voice and flavor of your novel into your synopsis. If your story is dark, make the synopsis dark; if it’s light and funny, so should your synopsis be light and funny.
  • Don’t include secondary plots or too many characters. We only want the basics.
  • Don’t put in empty rhetorical questions, they’re useless and try your reader’s patience.
  • Make your first three paragraphs fabulous and enticing. Many editors and agents won’t read past the first three paragraphs (or the bottom of the first page), make yours so compelling they’re forced to read on.
  • Remember that this is a marketing tool. You are selling a book here. Write this in such a way that your reader can’t wait to read the whole manuscript.