Does the word synopsis make you cringe a bit? If so, you're not alone! Writing your book synopsis can be the most difficult (and despised) document you'll ever have to pen. Unfortunately not only is it useful, chances are that somewhere down your book publishing journey someone, be it an agent or publisher, will ask to see it.
What is a synopsis?
For anyone who's brand new to writing, you may be confused or unfamiliar with what a synopsis is. That's okay! We're here to clarify.
A synopsis is simply where you create a beginning to end overview of your story. The goal is to cover your entire narrative arc, showing what happens, how people change, and of course, what the ending of your story will be. It is detailed and leaves nothing unexplored.
Generally speaking when you start to query you'll be asked for one of these so that your potential agent or publisher can decide whether or not they want to work with you. They will use it to gauge your story's appeal and whether it's worth them reading the rest of the manuscript.
Often a synopsis is mistaken for a sales copy (the blurb that appears on the back of your book's cover or on your Amazon description). But don't get these two confused! They're not the same thing and should be individually written. There is a difference in both tone and purpose for these documents as well as format, so don't expect to write one and be completely done with the whole process.
The logical next question when it comes to synopsis writing is how long should it be?
Often Googling this question can lead to confusion. There's a lot of differing opinions on this topic, but simply answered it's a good idea to create both a long and short version of your synopsis, as each publisher may have different requirements regarding length.
A good starting point is to write a short version first. This is a one to two page synopsis (approximately 500-1000 words) single spaced. It should be written in third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in another tense, unless you're writing a memoir in which case first person is appropriate). The reason you want to start here is because it's easier to add words to the shorter version if something longer is required than it is to cut down a long version. Typically anything up to two pages single spaced is acceptable, but you want to make sure that your synopsis is as clear and concise as possible.
**Note: You should never send a long synopsis when asked for a short version. Many agents/editors will automatically bypass any submissions that don't meet their requirements, so don't hurt your chances by not following directions.
You may now be wondering why a synopsis is so important.
Simply put, a synopsis give insight into potential appeal and problems within your novel. Primarily it tells the reader whether or not your character's actions and motivations are realistic and plausible. It also reveals whether your story is genre appropriate. It can highlight potential plot gaps, mistakes in the evolution of your character's motivation, and issues within your novel's structure. It can also show how fresh your idea is and how it will be perceived by future audiences.
Obviously this isn't a document you're going to want to haphazardly write. Take your time and really consider what you're writing. Thinking about your novel's overall concept objectively and through the eyes of a publisher may even help you identify things you can fix before you query. For instance, if there's nothing surprising in your novel, then you can safely assume your story will be passed over in favor of one with more action. Knowing this you can go back and fix your mistakes to increase your chances of success.
This may sound like the determining factor of whether or not you get published/represented. The good news is that it's not. Some agents don't even require a synopsis, for example those that represent literary work. They also don't expect your synopsis to be a masterpiece but they are looking for lean, clean, powerful verbiage.
Okay, we've covered what a synopsis is, how long it should be, and why it's important. Now it's time to explore what it needs to accomplish.
You should start your synopsis by introducing your main character. Describe their mindset and motivations at the beginning of your story and then explain what happens to change her mind (the inciting incident). It should be crystal clear what forces your protagonist to act.
Once you've got your protagonist presented, each paragraph moves your plot forward. Events should unfold in exactly the same order as in your manuscript. They're looking for strong cause-effect patterns along with the key scenes of your novel. Showing how conflict arrives and is resolved, who or what is responsible for the conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails is also important. The key thing to include is the resolution of conflict, and how the protagonist's situation, both internally and externally, has changed.
**Note: If you need inspiration, check out the writing "formula" for your genre and use that as a template. Include all major plot points associated with that formula.
When writing your synopsis you have to make a few judgement calls. You won't have the space to list every single detail or character to appear in your book. Thus you need to pick and choose what directly influences your protagonist's decisions or understanding of events. This means you'll have to exclude characters, subplots, and high levels of details of event details. For example, if your characters get into a fist fight, don't describe the semantics of the fight. Just state that a fight occurs and what the outcome is.
How do you know what characters to include? Look at their role within the story. If they influence the protagonist or directly change the direction of the story, mention them. Anyone who should make the cut should appear at least two to three times in the manuscript. If it's less than that, they don't need to be mentioned. Once you narrow it down, make sure you say when they enter the story, their relationship to the protagonist, and how their role in the story concludes.
The golden rule for deciding what stays and what goes is to ask yourself: Would my ending make sense without the aforementioned character or plot point? If the answer is no, add it. If the answer is yes, it can be left out.
The most important aspect of writing a synopsis is this- be concise.
This is not the time to be wordy. On such a tight word budget, you need to use every single word wisely, that means there's no room for fluff. Aim to be as clean and precise as possible and you'll see a stronger synopsis overall.
Wordy: Janice and Ian get into a fight during Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards, Janice confronts Ian and tells him how he's hurt her feelings and why she didn't think it was appropriate timing to fight.
Concise: Janice and Ian get into a fight during Thanksgiving dinner and after she confronts him.
See? Much better.
Need more help writing your synopsis? Check out these great resources:
Do you hate writing blurbs? Do you wish there was an easier way to summarize your novel and get more sales in the process? Author and copywriter Bryan Cohen’s book descriptions have hit both the Kindle Store’s Top 50 and the USA Today Bestseller list. Let him show you exactly how to craft the copy you need to hook new readers.
Do you want a synopsis that persuades agents to request the whole manuscript? Does your book need a description that entices Amazon customers click the 'Buy Now' button? This guide shows you step-by-step how to create six effective short forms for selling your manuscript to publishers and your indie-published book to readers.
The book cover images in this post come from Amazon, on behalf of the Amazon affiliate program.
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