S is for Synopsis.
After a query letter, a synopsis might be the most challenging form of writing you ever create. In common parlance, a synopsis is a summary of a book’s plot. To the rational writer, though, a synopsis is much more. It’s a document written in paragraph form, in the present tense. Composed in third person, it tells a complete story; there are no “spoiler alerts” and no pulled punches about the plot resolution. It has one specific purpose: to sell your story.
Traditionally, authors wrote synopses to get an agent (or, if they weren’t represented, to get an editor.) Those are still valid reasons for traditionally published authors to write synopses. In addition, those authors might create a synopsis to assist their editors’ presentations to marketing committees or to prepare the art department before a cover is designed.
But self-published authors need to master the art of synopsis writing too. For a self-published author, a synopsis is vital to summarize an entire book for cover artists and for experts in publicity and marketing. In the crowded marketplace, you want evangelists who can promote your book far and wide. Those enthusiastic partners can best sell your work to others if they understand the story you are telling.
Formatting Your Mini-Masterpiece
You should use an easy-to-read format for your synopsis. In a heading, include your name and contact information. If you have an agent, put that name in the heading as well, along with contact information. Clearly state your manuscript’s name, genre, and word count.
For the body of the synopsis, double space your text. Leave one-inch margins to facilitate easy reading. Use a clean, readable font. The synopsis is not an appropriate place to advertise your creativity by selecting artistic fonts that require careful parsing.
Length of Synopses
Debates rage over the appropriate length of a synopsis. Some industry professionals maintain that a synopsis should be no more than three double-spaced pages (around 750 words). Others consider a reasonable length to be ten or fifteen or twenty pages, whatever it takes to capture the scope of your work. There is no standardized definition, no coded language for “short synopsis” or “long synopsis.”
So what’s the rational writer to do? Ask. Contact the person who is going to use the synopsis—an agent, an editor, a blog tour organizer, whoever—and ask that person’s preference. That one simple question can save hours of otherwise-wasted time.
The Meat of the Matter
The body of the synopsis consists of three major parts: the hook, the characters, and the plot. Each of these components works with the others to generate a rock-solid depiction of your book.
As with your query letter, the synopsis hook is short. Often only one sentence, the hook is an intense distillation of your entire book. It is so captivating that the reader must ask for more. As with the query, your hook should emphasize the aspects of your work that are unique. These might include a setting and time period, a specific character, or a startling circumstance. Hooks are elevator pitches—the summary of your work that can be conveyed to the world’s most important decision-maker in the time it takes to ride an elevator from the ground floor to a penthouse office suite.
The primary focus of your hook should be the tone of your novel. You won’t be able to fit in all the details of your intricate writing—even in summary format—and you shouldn’t try. Rather, your goal is to capture the spirit of the work. The hook for a romantic comedy will sound completely different from the hook for an epic fantasy or a thriller or a literary novel. Prepare your synopsis reader for what comes next.
The next section of your synopsis is a brief character summary. Limit yourself to two characters—usually your protagonist and antagonist. (If you’re writing a romance novel, you’ll typically describe your heroine and hero.) If you absolutely, positively cannot restrict yourself, you can add a third character description. Each character gets their own paragraph. By tradition, a character’s full name is written in ALL CAPS the first time it appears.
For each description, provide the character’s goal, motivation, and conflict. (In simplest terms, the “goal” is what your character wants. The “motivation” is why they want it. The “conflict” is why they can’t have it.) This section should not include details about a character’s physical description unless that information is vital to the goal, conflict, or motivation. (In general, we don’t need to know that a heroine has long blond hair. But if the character is Rapunzel and her goal is to find true love and escape her tower prison, then we do need to know she has both the world’s strongest scalp and longest hair.)
The majority of your synopsis will focus on your plot. Your goal, though, is not to recite what happens first, then what happens second, then what happens third. Rather, your goal is to focus on how plot events change your characters. Each major plot event should be summarized with an action by one character, a reaction by the same or a different character, and a summary of the effect. The culmination of your plot summary is the description of your character’s arc. Thus, your plot becomes a tool for displaying emotion, thereby gripping your reader.
You will likely write one paragraph for each major transition of your story. You definitely do not want to include every beat (the smallest unit of storytelling.) You may not want to include every scene (comprised of multiple beats.) But every time a character reacts to a substantial action and changes direction in a meaningful way, you’ll add a summary to your synopsis.
The road to writing a good synopsis is strewn with traps. Avoid vague, flowery, and unclear language—you’re trying to create a road-map, not show off your most extensive vocabulary. Don’t try to fool your reader about characters’ secret identities, including surprise villains. Don’t wallow in excessive plot details. Try to avoid skipping around in narrative time; rather, craft a simple, straight-forward narrative to help your reader understand your plot’s direction.
The final paragraph of your synopsis is its conclusion. Your goal is to summarize your characters’ successful arcs, underscoring how they have grown and changed. At the same time, an ideal conclusion wraps around to the initial hook at the beginning of the synopsis, mirroring the large questions set forth at the outset.
Once you’ve finished drafting your synopsis, invest several rounds of editing to make the most of your creation. Verify that every word is essential to the story you’re conveying; don’t give your readers a chance to be distracted by any unnecessary text. Test the strength of every verb you use, focusing on choosing action verbs that connote emotion, rather than weaker forms of “to be.” Similarly, concentrate on specific adjectives, searching for descriptors that carry shades of meaning.
As you near the end of your polishing, consider sharing it with a beta reader or other critique partner. Someone less familiar with the text will help you identify snags that aren’t easily found on a first reading.
Wrap up your editing with a grammar check and a spell check. If you’re sending your synopsis electronically, make sure that you’ve saved it at 100% view, so that your reader will open it in that same manner.
So? Are you ready to tackle the rarefied writing that forms a synopsis? If you don’t have a completed manuscript of your own to practice on, consider drafting a synopsis for a favorite book or movie. Can you summarize The Lord of the Rings in ten pages? What about Pride and Prejudice in five? Or your favorite Nancy Drew book from childhood in three pages or less?