Of all the things you will write throughout the publishing process… a synopsis may be what you dread the most.
It’s not fun to have to shoehorn an entire novel into a relatively brief summary. But if you follow just a few relatively simple steps and keep a few key things in mind, it may still be a pain, but it won’t be endlessly hard.
Writing a synopsis… Not as terrible as you might think!
What is a novel synopsis?
A synopsis is slightly different from a query letter, which includes biographical information, and it’s also different than jacket copy, which is more oriented to selling a book and avoids spoilers.
A synopsis is essentially a summary of what actually happens in a novel. That’s it. It’s a summary of the plot that typically includes the ending.
Yep. Don’t worry about spoilers.
Unlike the way manuscripts are formatted, synopses are typically single-spaced and are typically two-four pages long. Why? I have no idea. That’s just how it’s usually done.
Agents and editors will use synopses to get a sense of the overall plot of the novel (and also as a handy refresher when memories start to fade through time on certain character names and plot points). You may, for instance, have to write synopses of future installments of a multi-book deal to give an editor a sense of where you want to take a series.
Not every agent or editor will ask you for a synopsis, but chances are you’re going to have to write one at some point.
Why you have to write a synopsis
Let’s get this one out of the way. Authors sometimes feel like they shouldn’t have to be bothered summarizing their work.
“It’s a different skill!” they yelp to me. “I’m a good writer but I’m a bad summarizer!”
Just set aside the whole “writing a synopsis” thing for a second and think about how many times you’re going to have to summarize your work over the course of the book publishing process.
- When you friends ask you about your book, you have to summarize your book.
- When you talk with people in the book business, you have to summarize your book.
- When you stand up at a reading, you have to summarize your book.
- When you become massively famous and are on a talk show and there are television cameras on you, you have to summarize your book.
Get used to summarizing your book. Better yet: get good at it. Take ownership over this part of the process. Make other people want to read your book.
How to write a good synopsis
How do you do that?
Start by writing your query letter. I have a query letter template that is a good place to start, and those same key ingredients (setting, complicating incident, villain, protagonist’s quest) should be present in the synopsis.
Think of a synopsis as a longer query letter that always includes how the book ends. You have more room to include more detail and you go more in depth into some of the specifics of the plot and key subplots, but the synopsis should still cover the arc of the book in a relatively succinct way.
As in a query letter, ditch all discussion of themes and what the novel means and focus on what happens.
Here are some key elements that set snappy synopses apart from dreary ones:
Summarize through specificity
Just as in a query, the more detail you can infuse into the synopsis, the more it will come to life. “Nathan was over-caffeinated” and “Nathan was so amped he scraped the silver off the Red Bull” may describe the same moment, but one has a lot more life to it than the other. (And uh. No. That didn’t happen why do you ask.)
Some summarizing will be necessary, but those little moments where you show what makes your character and world unique will make the synopsis sparkle.
Also focus on using clear descriptions to make sure the stakes are clear. What happens if the protagonist succeeds? What if they fail? Infuse the synopsis with that knowledge so the reader knows why they should care.
Use a cohesive voice
If you have a novel that, for instance, alternates between several different characters or has a unique structure, it may be difficult to figure out how to describe the plot in a clear way. You don’t want to write a synopsis that constantly alternates between different plot-lines and characters or else you’re going to bewilder the reader.
Instead, don’t be beholden to the precise sequence in which events unfold in your novel or to an alternating-character structure, and try as much as possible to “get above it” and focus on describing the essential events in a way that’s clear to the reader.
That could mean sticking to one character per paragraph, it could mean describing the plot from a gods-eye perspective, and it almost always means describing your novel in the third person even if your novel is written in first person.
Whatever you do, optimize for clarity and cohesion in describing the plot over being a stickler for how things unfold in the novel.
Don’t worry about spoilers
Agents and editors know they’re going to read your book so many times over the course of the publication process that no one is very worried about spoilers.
In fact, agents and editors read so many books and are so well-acquainted with the sausage-making of writing that..
- They probably aren’t going to be surprised by even the surprise-iest of endings. Surprises are for mortal readers.
- They are experienced enough to do the mental jujitsu of judging whether an ending will be surprising to someone who has never read the book *even though the agent/editor knows exactly how it ends.* They can put themselves in another reader’s shoes and judge it that way.
So yeah. Spoil away.
Don’t overthink it
At the end of the day, it is highly, highly unlikely that your book is going to be made or broken by how well you write a synopsis. It’s not something that will likely see the light of day beyond your agent and editor, and compared to a query letter or, ya know, the actual manuscript, it’s not likely to factor highly into whether you book sinks or swims.
So don’t spend months on it.
Still: have fun with your synopsis and use it as valuable practice for summarizing your book in a most-awesome way.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: A Vanitas by Evert Collier