How to write an effective synopsis
Are you an aspiring author who writes romantic fiction and who would like to be mentored by a published author for the incredible price of only R100? If so, have you entered ROSA’s 2019 Strelitzia Contest? The deadline for entries is this Sunday, so don’t delay!
Today’s post is aimed specifically at those entering the Strelitzia Contest, but it’s just as useful for anyone preparing to submit their work to agents or editors, because today I’m looking at how to write a synopsis – what to include and (most importantly) what to exclude.
What is a synopsis?
A synopsis is a 2-5 page (depending on the editor/agent's requirements) snapshot of your entire novel. It’s a narrative summary of the book showing the key information (story arc, character arc, setting, genre) and giving an editor or agent a big picture outline of the story.
Usually, a synopsis written before writing the book is just an outline. A true synopsis can only be written when the book is complete. For those entering the Strelitzia Contest this weekend, the synopsis requirement is really more of an outline to let us know whether you already have a grasp of character arcs etc, or whether you will need a mentor who can teach you this.
In this post, however, I am going to focus more on the kind of synopsis you’ll need to write after you’ve completed your book in order to submit the manuscript to an editor or agent.
Most authors hate writing synopses. After all, how do you decide what to put into the synopsis, and what to leave out? How can you possibly condense your epic masterpiece into just 2 or 3 pages?
The first thing I’d recommend (perhaps even before you finish reading this post!) is that you read the post I wrote for Jami Gold’s blog earlier this week, containing my 10 Step Strategy for writing an effective synopsis.
Now, if you’re back and ready to keep on reading, I’m going to break it down even further. This post covers the following:
Why do editors and agents (and the Strelitzia organisers) want to see a synopsis?
What you should include in your synopsis
What you should exclude from your synopsis
How to format your synopsis
An example synopsis
Why do editors and agents want a synopsis?
Everyone in publishing knows that synopses are really hard to write, and everyone knows it’s almost impossible to truly capture the story, character arcs, voice and all the goodness that is a full length novel in just a couple of pages. So why do they still expect writers to write them?
The reasons editors and agents want synopses is so that they can answer the following questions:
Does this author have a grasp of GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict)? Because a story in which a series of unrelated, external events happen to the characters, without any internal conflict, reveals that the author has not yet mastered story telling.
Is there a character arc, or are the characters unchanged at the end? If the latter, then this story is going to need a great deal of work to be publishable.
Is the synopsis riddled with typos, grammar & spelling errors?
What is the author’s writing style? A good synopsis will show the editor whether this is a dark, angsty read, a quirky, light-hearted read, a fast-paced thrill-ride, or a slow exploration of the human condition.
Does the book have a solid structure with a beginning, a middle featuring rising action, and a reader-satisfying ending?
Is the story marketable in the current publishing climate? Is it the kind of story this editor acquires / publishes? Is it too similar to other books they recently acquired?
Finally, can this author read guidelines and follow instructions? Because sending a 5-page synopsis when the agent asked for a 2-page synopsis is the quickest way to get rejected before they’ve even read a word of your actual book! (Luckily, the Strelitzia admins won't do that to you!)
What to include in your synopsis:
An introduction to your main character's goals, their motivation for wanting to achieve those goals, and both the external and internal obstacles preventing them from achieving those goals (GMC).
The main character's growth arc – how they change through the novel, what they learn as the novel progresses, and how their lives are changed by the incidents that take place in the story.
The turning points of the novel – there should be at least 3 key points where your main character(s) make a decision that takes them in a different direction from what they’ve been doing before.
The end. This is not a moment to be coy in an effort to tempt the editor to read the book! They may well already have read the pages you sent with the submission and already like your writing style. What they want to see here is whether you will be able to carry this through all the way to a satisfying ending.
Setting. Is this story set in modern day London is the world of corporate finance, or on a vineyard in Tuscany, or on the outermost moon of the fictional planet Teflon?
Your voice. You don’t have word count to spare to wax lyrical or go overboard with this, but if your book is light-hearted, then so should the synopsis be. As you write the synopsis, simply write it in your own style.
What to exclude from your synopsis:
Minor characters and even most secondary characters should be excluded, no matter how fun and charming they are. Save that for when the editor or agent reads the actual book.
The back story / history of any of the characters, unless immediately relevant (and even then only in the tiniest, bite-size pieces)
Sub plots. Again, the reader can discover these while reading the actual manuscript.
Detailed descriptions. In a synopsis ‘Workaholic Sarah discovers…’ is far more effective than ‘Sarah is a workaholic who loves her job in London’s high-pressure world of investment finance. She has a gift for figures, but the best thing about working with numbers is that they are easy to understand, unlike people. It’s a skill she has been perfecting all her life, since the day…’
Minor incidents or clues. This is especially important if you’re writing crime, thrillers, or suspense novels. Include only a few of the most important clues or incidents, not the minor ones. A single line saying ‘a series of suspicious accidents at the factory arouses her suspicions’ is enough. You don’t need to say ‘Her suspicions are aroused when all the ink runs out on all the printing machines on the same day, and then the vacuum cleaner mysteriously shocks her co-worker who is trying to clear up confetti from an exploded hole punch. Then one afternoon, when everyone else has gone home, the heroine discovers a rotting sandwich in the heating ducts.’ That’s a lot of words wasted on things the reader can discover when they read your book!
Explanations. If you need to explain how magic works on the fictional planet where your book is set, the science required for living on Mars, the history of the time period the book is set in, or the main characters’ back story, then it reveals to the editor that you (a) have an over-complicated story, or (b) you’re filling up pages with information because there is no story. If the editor is interested in how magic works on your planet, they’ll read the actual manuscript pages to find out. (But note that your book also shouldn’t spend page after page explaining how stuff works. This is fiction, not non-fiction, so story is always more important than reams of explanation.
Don’t tell us what is great about your books, your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what the book’s themes are, your purpose for writing this book this book, or what other books are similar to yours – that should be in the cover letter, not the synopsis.
Quotes / extracts from the book. This is simply taking up valuable word count that could be used much more effectively to showcase your book. Again, including a chunk of text from the book suggests that your book doesn’t have enough actual story to fill the required synopsis word count.
Any other books you’ve written. Even if this book is one in a series, you need to focus on THIS book, not the whole series – unless you editor or agent has specifically asked you for a SERIES PROPOSAL, which is something else entirely.
Synopsis Formatting Guidelines:
Remember those essays you wrote back in high school, with a beginning, middle and end? That was preparation for writing a synopsis!
A synopsis is a narrative, which means it should be written in story form, using the same formatting as your manuscript: Times New Roman, Arial or Courier font size 12, minimum 1.5 line spacing, normal size margins, indented first lines or paragraphs separated by a space.
Each time you introduce a new character, the name should be either in bold or in CAPS.
Your synopsis should be written in third person and in present tense, no matter what POV or tense you use in your manuscript. Aside from the fact that it’s an industry norm, present tense uses fewer words than other tenses so gives you more words to play with!
Don’t be tempted to make the font tiny or the margins narrow – this is as obvious as a high school student using font size 18 to write an essay in the hopes the teacher won’t notice they had very little to say! Follow the editor/agent’s guidelines.
Your synopsis is NOT a chapter-by-chapter breakdown or a bullet-pointed list.
Do not include sub headings / chapter titles. If you wouldn’t include them within the text of your manuscript, then they shouldn’t be here either.
Finally, do a thorough spell check on your synopsis before you submit – at least twice!
Example synopsis - Last of the Summer Vines
On this link you can download the 3-page synopsis of my most recent novel, Last of the Summer Vines. (Note that the synopsis contains spoilers!) It’s far from perfect, but note how I managed to distill an entire 100,000 word novel into just 3 pages.
You might be wondering why I even bothered to write a synopsis when I already have multiple books published by this imprint, but there are two main reasons why I wrote this one:
My editor asked me to submit a book proposal up front for the book I planned to write (so yes, even after you’re multi-published, you could still be expected to write a synopsis!)
I like to write my synopsis before I write the novel. I then keep the synopsis next to me as I write to keep me focused on what the story is about, and how the characters grow and change. Best of all, it enables me to write fairly quickly since I already know where the story is headed and roughly what needs to happen next.
A few other things to note about the synopsis for Last of the Summer Vines:
If you’ve read my book you’ll notice that the ending of this synopsis is a little different from the actual ending of the book. This is because I changed certain aspects of the story as I was writing. No one expects the finished novel to be exactly as per the up-front book proposal, so writing a synopsis up front doesn’t need to kill your creativity! (That said, if you’re writing the synopsis after you’ve written the book, it should be an accurate reflection of the book itself)
If I needed to cut this synopsis down even further to just two pages, I’d leave out a few of the secondary characters, such as Alberto and Beatrice, and also the estate agent who makes a brief appearance on the third page, and I’d also leave out details like the collapsing wisteria.
Note how much detail I left out. The opening lines are ‘When workaholic SARAH WELLS inherits her estranged father’s vineyard in Tuscany, the last thing she wants is to take time off work to travel to Italy. But when she makes a costly mistake at work, she doesn’t have a choice; her boss insists she take all the leave she’s never used.’ I don’t explain what mistake she made. I don’t explain what job she does, how she landed up doing it (back story) or even why her job is so important to her. In the synopsis, I focused on the current story, and just enough information to make that current story understandable.
Voice: note how a sentence like “What red-blooded woman could resist, even one as averse to holiday romances as Sarah?” not only gives an insight into the character but also hints at a more light-hearted touch to the book and reflects the style the book is written in.
For more examples of effective synopses, check out this article from Jericho Writers, and also this one featuring a rather different take on Harry Potter.
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