Writing a Synopsis

When I was querying agents, nothing filled me with fear more than drafting a synopsis. Writing a synopsis was more difficult than writing the query letter, at least for me. The challenge was to describe a work of 100,000 words in one to three pages and in a way that will make the agent want to read your novel. Talk about pressure.

Writers who have never tackled a synopsis should know the basics. First, what is a synopsis? A synopsis is a one to three page summary of a novel, which usually accompanies a query letter to an agent. I say usually because the writer must check the agent’s guidelines on the website. Some agents prefer not to receive a synopsis and some will request one upon reading the query letter.

A synopsis is a description of the narrative arc of the story. It should show what happened in the story, what the main character’s goals were, what the conflict was and how it was resolved, and how the main character was changed. It must do so in clear, convincing language. It must avoid generalities and focus on the story. For example, here’s one approach to starting a synopsis:

“This is a story of heartbreak and hope, rejection and renewal, shame and success.”

There’s some nice alliteration there, but the reader has no idea what the story is about.

How about this:

Mary Jones had no idea the man she married was a serial killer–until the night of their honeymoon when he brandished a knife as she lay in bed. Now she must return to her hometown in shame, but first she must figure out a way to escape without losing her life.

Okay, that’s a little over the top, but that’s the idea.

Veteran publisher and editor Jane Friedman said the secret ingredient in a good synopsis is to include the feelings and emotions of the characters. “That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot,” she wrote in this excellent post.

She continues, “You must include story advancement and color,” and she offers this formula: Incident (story advancement) + reaction (color) = decision (story advancement).

Keep in mind that an agent will make a decision on your story based in large part on the strength of your synopsis. If your story doesn’t hang together, the characters don’t work, or if the ending is not satisfying, the agent will take a pass on your work.

Former agent and author Nathan Bransford puts it this way: “A synopsis needs to do two things: 1.) it needs to cover all the major characters and major plot points (including the ending) and, 2) it needs to make the work come alive.” He advises writers to look at book cover copy for good examples of concise description, but to remember the synopsis will always include the ending.

Bransford writes, “You want to strike a balance in the synopsis between covering the plot and characters, but also conveying the spirit and tone of the book and smoothing over gaps between the major plot points you describe.”

Read Nathan Bransford’s post

Here’s another useful post on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog written by her client, Gordon Carroll.

Do you find writing a synopsis as terrifying as I do?


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2 responses to “Writing a Synopsis

  1. I definitely do. But I’m in a different position. As a published author, I now have to write them for proposals. Which means I don’t have a completed ms yet. It’s a lot harder because my stories usually develop even more during the drafting of the book (even if I do outline first). (Which is why it’s also hard for me to sub with only sample chapters of a yet unfinished ms).

    Thanks for this great post and the link. I’ll be referring to them frequently while I write my current synopsis. I never realized how important it was to load the synopsis up with emotion. It makes sense now.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, your circumstances require even greater challenges. I really dreaded writing synopses when I was querying agents. Since I made the decision to self-publish, I still do them as an exercise to see if the story really is cohesive. You would think it would be easier than writing an 80,000-100,000 word MS, but it’s not. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your latest project.

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