Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS
6 tips to compose your novel summary.
by Chuck Sambuchino
I’ve never met a single person who liked writing a synopsis. Seriously—not one. But still, synopses are a necessary part of the submission process (until some brave publishing pro outlaws them), so I wanted to share tips and guidelines regarding how to compose one.
A synopsis is a summary of your book. Literary agents and editors may ask to see one if you’re writing an adult novel, a memoir, or a kids novel (young adult, middle grade). The purpose of a synopsis request is for the agent or editor to evaluate what happens in the three acts of your story and decide if the characters, plot and conflict warrant a complete read of your manuscript. And if you haven’t guessed yet, these summaries can be pretty tough to write.
Here are some guidelines that will help you understand the basics of synopsis writing, no matter what your novel or memoir is about:
1. Reveal everything major that happens in your book, including the ending. Heck, revealing the story’s ending is a synopsis’s defining unique characteristic. You shouldn’t find a story’s ending in a query or in-person pitch, but it does leak out in a synopsis. On this note, know that a synopsis is designed to explain everything major that happens, not to tease—so avoid language such as “Krista walks around a corner into a big surprise.” Don’t say “surprise,” but rather just tell us what happens. This touches upon a bigger point. The No. 1 failure of a synopsis is that it confuses the reader. Have no language in your page that is vague and undefined that could lead to multiple interpretations. One of the fundamental purposes of a synopsis is to show your book’s narrative arc, and that the story possesses staple elements, such as rising action, the three-act structure, and a satisfying ending.
2. Make your synopsis one page, single-spaced. There is always some disagreement on length. This stems from the fact that synopses used to trend longer (four, six, or even eight pages!). But over the last five years, agents have requested shorter and shorter synopses—with most agents finally settling on 1-2 pages, total. If you write yours as one page, single-spaced, it’s the same length as two pages, double-spaced—and either are acceptable. There will be the occasional agent who requests something strange, such as a “five-page synopsis on beige paper that smells of cinnamon!” But trust me, if you turn in a solid one-page work, you’ll be just fine across the board. In my opinion, it’s the gold standard.
3. Take more care and time if you’re writing genre fiction. Synopses are especially difficult to compose if you’re writing character-driven (i.e., literary) fiction, because there may not be a whole lot of plot in the book. Agents and editors understand this, and put little (or no) weight into a synopsis for literary or character-driven stories. However, if you’re writing genre fiction—specifically categories like romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, horror or science fiction—agents will quickly want to look over your characters and plot points to make sure your book has a clear beginning, middle and end, as well as some unique aspects they haven’t seen before in a story. So if you’re getting ready to submit a genre story, don’t blow through your synopsis; it’s important.
4. Feel free to be dry, but don’t step out of the narrative. When you write your prose (and even the pitch in your query letter), there is importance in using style and voice in the writing. A synopsis, thankfully, not only can be dry, but probably should be dry. The synopsis has to explain everything that happens in a very small amount of space. So if you find yourself using short sentences like “John shoots Bill and then sits down to contemplate suicide,” don’t worry. This is normal. Lean, clean language is great. Use active verbs and always strive for clarity. And lastly, do not step out of the narrative. Agents do not want to read things such as “And at the climax of the story,” “In a rousing scene,” or “In a flashback.”
5. Capitalize character names when characters are introduced. Whenever a new character is introduced, make sure to CAPITALIZE them in the first mention and then use normal text throughout. This helps a literary agent immediately recognize each important name. On this subject, avoid naming too many characters, and try to set a limit of five, with no more than six total. I know this may sound tough, but it’s doable. It forces you to excise smaller characters and subplots from your summary—actually strengthening your novel synopsis along the way. Sometimes writers fall in love with a minor character or joke or setting, and insist on squeezing in mentions of these elements into the synopsis, even though they are not a piece of the larger plot. These mistakes will water down your summary, and also cause the synopsis to be more than one page.
6. Use third person, present tense. The exception of this is memoir. While you can write your memoir synopsis in third person, it’s probably a better idea to write it in first person. “Feeling stifled: I enlist in the Army that very day.”
Every agent has a different opinion of the synopsis. Some agents openly state in interviews that they’re well aware of how difficult a synopsis is to write, and they put little consideration into them. But we must presume that most or all of the agents who do not openly speak out against synopses put some weight into them, and that’s why it’s important for you to treat this step with care.
A poor synopsis will confuse the reader, and during the pitching process, confusion = death. A poor synopsis will also reveal big problems in your story, such as strange plot points, how ridiculous acts of God get the main character out of tight situations, or how your romance actually ends in a divorce (a major category no-no).
CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino on Twitter) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His pop-humor books include How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (film rights optioned by Sony) and Red Dog / Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political (reddog-bluedog.com). Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., as well as Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, sleep-deprived new father, guitarist, dog owner, and cookie addict.