I’ve never heard of anyone (other than agents) who feels the way I do about a synopsis. I haven’t always felt this way. I used to think they were busywork from agents who wanted to cut down on their number of submissions. (This isn’t the case.) But I love the synopsis. If you don’t have one for your novel, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
A synopsis is an amazing device that can not only help you get an agent but aid in every stage of your book’s life. Before you write it, a synopsis can iron out your plot and ensure your pacing works. During your drafting, it can keep you on track. After the novel is polished, the synopsis shows agents you know the ins and outs of a novel.
What’s the purpose of a synopsis…
A synopsis will show agents and editors that you know how to plot and execute an effective character arc. It can showcase voice, give the clever twists, and guarantee that the agent or editor isn’t wasting their time by reading the full manuscript.
This is scary! I know. Even putting this truth out there is difficult. Putting a book out in the world in any way is difficult. But reality is that a synopsis can actually help you feel more secure about what you’re submitting, because it’s forcing you to analyze and know your plot, characters, and world well enough to prove that it’s working. If it is working, awesome! If it’s not working, it lets you fix it before you burn through your list of agents.
When to write the synopsis…
If you’re a pantster, it’s best to start your synopsis after the first draft. For you, the fun of the writing is in not knowing where things are going to go and letting the characters lead you down the path with them. And that’s fun! I’ve written like this and sometimes still do.
If you’re an outliner, it’s best to nail down your synopsis once you’ve finished the outline. For you, the synopsis is only going to tighten things and make sure your outline is succinct before proceeding. It’ll give you one more assurance you’re on the right path.
How to write the synopsis…
Always use present tense.
Use transitions to smooth over the missing stuff. (After many failed attempts…)
Leave out subplots if you possibly can.
Minimize secondary characters.
Keep it to one page, single spaced, with normal paragraph indents.
Have a header with your last name / TITLE. Add a page number to the header if you can’t manage to get it to one page.
Have Synopsis, TITLE centered at the top, then leave one space, and begin with the paragraphs.
The names of characters are in ALL CAPS the first, and only the first, time we see their name.
The most effective synopsis will showcase the plot, goals and motivations of the characters, include some voice, the theme, and tone, and of course the unique parts of your world.
For Voice, write the synopsis as if you were the main character giving a summary of the ‘high points’ to a friend you meet while waiting for a subway. You have a couple of minutes to rattle off the major events, the surprises, and the wrap up.
The tone will be dictated by the specific words you use to make the narrative feel a certain way.
As the plot and characters unfold, the theme should be self-evident by what the character’s goals and motivations are, the way the conflict and plot push them to change, and by the feeling we’re left with at the end. How has this journey made us question the world around us and/or ourselves?
The character arc should be plain. How did they change throughout the novel? What did they learn, how did their moral premise shift and allow them to overcome the villain at the climax? This will come as tidbits of perspective throughout the synopsis.
The world and it’s uniqueness should be included with minimal telling. Try and show the world as you show the forward movement of the plot. For instance, when ZinZin picks up her wand and blasts a hole right through the toe of the Headmaster’s shoe, but it fizzled before she could steal his nail to make her stew. This tells us character, plot, and world all in one.
Lastly, the plot. I’m going to use a simple five paragraph essay to showcase the easiest way to format a synopsis.
For the plot structure, see the following post:
Plot and Structure . . . Scientific Formula or Witches Brew?
And how your novel might align a little–or a lot–differently:
Plot Mash Up: The Four Act Structure, The Twelve Point Outline & the Quest
Translate the following paragraphs to what happens in your novel. They might not line up perfectly. Writing is all about smudging and manipulating, and that’s fine. Maybe you’ve taken a trope and turned it on its head. Maybe you’ve stretched the key incident out or put it sooner. So long as you have a reason, great. This is a very basic outline.
Paragraph One, The Inciting Incident and Upping of Stakes:
Introduce main character (hero/heroine), their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero as an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential. The life-changing or inciting incident near the beginning. (by 10%) The lock in, or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.
Paragraph Two, The Key Incident and Introduction of Ally:
The MC reacts to the life-changing event and seeks out an ally or is brought out by the ally. Ally must be established with a basic modus operandi that will qualify them to be the most well-suited person to help MC out of their predicament. They make a plan, usu the MC’s not so great plan that sounds great but will ultimately fail because they think that they can remain the same and overcome their problem as they are. (We all want to be good enough now—but we aren’t.) The MC struggles to hold onto flaw or not recognize it while still trying to react to the inciting, life-changing event. The MC and ally must have a confrontation.
Paragraph Three, the Midpoint:
Your main character recognizes their main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. In other words, they figure it out and can now work toward a realistic goal.
Paragraph Four, The Climax:
After recovering from the previous debacle, the main character now fully allies with ally and prepares for the final battle/confrontation with opponent/antagonist. Of course, the opponents are rallying as well, so the stakes are increased because there are more bad guys doing more bad stuff. By the end, it appears that failure is inevitable. We must see the resolution of the main flaw and how it allows the hero to confront the antagonist and win. Or lose if this is a cautionary tale.
Paragraph Five, The Wrap Up & New Equilibrium:
This is where we see the transformed hero in contrast to the beginning. They reach a new ‘normal’ where they probably didn’t get everything they wanted, but they have what they need and often something better. And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their HEA as well.
Always tell the ending.
I see a lot of synopses, and a good one can make all the difference in getting a request. I know this isn’t easy. If you need more help, you can always contact me for more synopsis help on my editorial services page.
Best of luck to everyone!