What is a Synopsis?
A synopsis is a succinct account of a manuscript’s plot, characters, setting, style and mood. Grouped with the cover letter and the chapter sample, it is a vital piece of the querying jigsaw.
The synopsis demonstrates your writing talent, shows your ability to craft a good story and, above all else, should get the editor clamouring to read the full manuscript.
Many authors loathe the synopsis, and it’s easy to see why. After working tirelessly on their manuscript, they must condense the essence of what could be more than 100,000 words into no more than two or three pages.
With such a limited word count, it can be an excruciating task identifying which parts of your work to include and which to leave out. But as with most impossible-sounding tasks, if you break it down and take things one step at a time, it’s going to get a whole lot easier.
What Should a Synopsis Do?
While there are no definitive rules about how you should approach the synopsis, there are some elements that you must get right.
Reveal the ending
One of the biggest mistakes made by green authors is to hide the ending in their synopsis. You must show how your story ends! There is nothing more infuriating than arriving at an unsatisfying ending.
You wouldn’t starve your readership of a great climax, so why do it to the editor – the one person who might just get your book on the shelves?
NOTE: Your ending may be inconclusive on purpose, and this is fine. Your story might be the first of an incomplete series or you might be leaving something up to the imagination of the readers. This is okay, as long as you can prove that the ending works and actually present how it unfolds.
Prove that your manuscript is not flawed
An editor will be able to spot any major problems with your manuscript just by reading the synopsis. Your character’s motivation might not match their decisions, or the opening may have no apparent connection to the middle of the story.
If you get it right, though, the editor will see that you can craft a well-rounded story, with strong character motivations and natural links from start to finish.
However, you shouldn’t wait for the editor to spot the flaws. If you can see them for yourself after writing the synopsis, consider postponing your submission until your manuscript has undergone more editing.
The synopsis, as part of the query, is your one shot at getting the attention of a publisher.
Think of it like a theatrical movie trailer that gives away the entire story. At the cinema, when an exciting trailer comes to an end, you might turn to your friend and say, ‘I can’t wait to see that one’. The editor’s office is no different. When your synopsis turns up on their desk, you want them turning to their colleagues and saying, ‘I can’t wait to read that one’.
Use all the tools at your disposal to make your synopsis stand out. Use vivid and emotive language. Make sure the mood of your synopsis matches that of your manuscript. Show the editor that your manuscript is marketable and do everything you can to prove your book will sell.
What Should a Synopsis NOT Do?
No matter what type of synopsis and no matter where you’re submitting it, you should definitely bear in mind the following universal no-nos.
Outline the plot
The terms ‘synopsis’ and ‘outline’ can be used interchangeably but they are, in fact, vastly different. Like a primary school student writing a recount, an outline is a chapter-by-chapter summary of events. ‘First someone did this, then they did that, and after someone did that, this happened…’ And so on.
While this mechanical outline does exhibit your pacing, it is not going to get the editor excited about your novel. Besides, if your synopsis is written well, the editor should understand how the text is paced anyway.
Make it sound like marketing
Will the publisher like the author’s synopsis or will it end up in the recycling bin with the others?
You want to know the answer to this, don’t you? It might seem like finishing your synopsis like this will tempt the editor into asking for more. You want to tantalise them, leave them on the edge of their seat, right?
Wrong. When you write a synopsis, it is easy to fall into the trap of using language that sounds like the copy on a hardcover jacket or the back cover blurb of a paperback. But this is not the purpose of a synopsis.
Your writing should be clear and concise, revealing the essentials of your story without ambiguity. Use rhetorical questions sparingly, and certainly avoid using them to create suspense.
Explain themes or backstory
It can be helpful for you to include themes in your synopsis, but there’s no need to explain how they play out in your work. You simply don’t have the word count and, if you’ve written your synopsis well, the editor should be able to get a feel for the themes without you spoon-feeding them.
Similarly, you don’t have enough words to explain the background of your story in great detail. Don’t worry about detailing how your fantasy world came into being or how each member of your protagonist’s family affects their personality.
If it’s not essential to the conflict and plot development of your story, it doesn’t need to be included. As suggested in Step 2 below, any vital element of backstory should be placed in your opening paragraph.
How to Write a Synopsis
As with any creative work, there is no universally accepted method to writing a synopsis. Neither is there a certain style or layout you must follow. This will of course depend on the type of manuscript you’ve written.
The following outline is only a guide. Some steps may feel like overkill or mightn’t suit the way you work. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Step 1: Decide what to include
This is the most difficult step: choosing who and what is critical to your manuscript.
First, consider the role of each character and whether they generate conflict for the protagonist. The heart of all great fiction is conflict, and your synopsis needs to focus on this aspect of your story.
Then ask yourself, does the ending make sense without this character or without this plot point?
You might have a well-rounded secondary character, a subplot or a feature of your setting that you believe will sway your editor. But the hard truth is that, more often than not, you’ll be better off leaving it out.
Cut things back to basics: include any characters and plot points necessary for the ending to make sense. Leave the rest out.
Though the secondary aspects of your story are still significant and might make the difference if the editor asks to see more of the manuscript, the essential elements of your story are the most important and should be good enough to sell your idea.
If you work out what should and shouldn’t be included in your synopsis from the beginning, it will save you time and effort down the track. There’s nothing worse than spending time summarising a secondary story arc, only to realise that you’re going to run out of words if you include it.
Planning from the beginning will also help to clarify the essence of your book. A clear vision will help set you on the right track as you start to write.
Step 2: Write the introduction
If you’re at the stage of writing your synopsis, you might not even remember writing the opening line of your manuscript. But the beginning of your synopsis has to be just as good as the beginning of your novel.
Spend time on your opening line and keep working at it until it is perfect. Catch the editor’s attention. Hook them in and don’t let them escape.
Your first paragraph should introduce the protagonist, introduce the problem that sets them on the pathway of your plot, and describe the setting. It should cover the essentials of who, where, when and why.
Write in the present tense. Include any vital elements of backstory – those that ensure the ending will make sense when you come to it.
Step 3: Write the middle
Your synopsis needs a strong middle section: one that successfully moves the story onwards from the introduction and keeps the reader interested as you approach the ending.
Keep this section of your synopsis moving. If the pace feels too slow, cut words or sentences out, even if you included them in your planning.
Focus mainly on the plot, but make sure you show how the protagonist is changing. Your character shouldn’t transform suddenly from timid teenager to confident young adult. Explain the events of the story, and as you go, detail the characters’ gradual change as a result of those events.
Step 4: Finish it off
The next step is clear: finish the synopsis. There are a couple of things your final section should achieve. Firstly, as we mentioned above, you must reveal the ending. The editor needs to know that your beginning and middle sections lead to a logical, conclusive and exciting climax.
Secondly, you need to present the characters’ development. This should be easy if you followed Step 3. Your characters will have arrived at their final destination, metamorphosis complete.
Describe what they have learnt or how they have changed. Compare their feelings from the start of the journey with their feelings as they walk towards the setting sun and the credits start to slide.
Step 5: Clean it up
You can’t avoid it. When you’ve finished writing, it’s time to edit!
Go through the same editing process you went through with your manuscript. Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Make sure your synopsis flows logically and each section of the story links to the next.
Remember to read over your work with that initial question in mind: Does the ending make sense if I include/exclude [x]? If you’re well above the suggested word count, be ruthless. If you can cut something while retaining the sense of your ending, do it!
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart…” — Stephen King
Step 6: Saving and sharing
Often, depending on where you’re submitting, the length of the synopsis will vary. When you’re happy with your final draft, save a default copy to work with each time you prepare a new query or submission.
If you have a default copy on file, it’s easier to mould your synopsis when you find that your next target asks for ‘a brief synopsis of no more than 300 words’. Simply work through the same process, keeping only what is critical to the manuscript.
Likewise, if the guidelines suggest you have a few hundred words more than your original draft, use the extra words to show off. You might even be able to weave in one of those secondary elements you had to cut from your original.
Be sure to save each new copy. It’s easier to reduce a 600-word synopsis down to 500 words than it is to cut down from 1000 words.
Also, don’t forget to share your work. Give it to friends and family. Read it aloud with the members of your writers’ group. Just like you did with your manuscript, listen to feedback and be sure that your synopsis is the best it can be before you format it, ready for submission.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” — Ken Blanchard
Tell, don’t show
I say f*** the old advice ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s called story TELLING for a reason…” — Ashly Lorenzana
You’ve heard it before: show, don’t tell. But when it comes to writing your synopsis, telling is absolutely fine.
You simply don’t have enough words to employ flowery language in every sentence. You’re better off getting straight to the point and being clear, concise and unambiguous.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to tell everything! As best you can within the word count, find a balance between showing and telling.
Write your synopsis at the start
All writers work in different ways. Some like to plan out their novel from the beginning; others like to see where their writing can take them, with little or no planning at all.
Consider this: writing your synopsis from the very beginning, even before you write your opening scene, has two main benefits.
Firstly, you won’t have to write the synopsis when you come to the end of your manuscript. It will already be there, a working document that will just need a bit of tweaking.
Sure, your story might take you to a place you never considered when you wrote the original. But again, you can simply rewrite the synopsis as you go. This will help you out when it comes to that all-important final kilometre.
The synopsis can also assist you in multiple ways for the process of editing. A structural edit will be made easier if you can see the development of your plot and your characters just by skimming over one document. You’ll know immediately which scenes are the most important and in which order they occur. This is especially helpful in longer manuscripts.
Read some examples
Whether you’re a seasoned synopsis writer or sitting down to your very first, you should be able to pick out the strengths and weaknesses of different pieces. Study the layout, style and language. Look for the strengths and try to emulate them.
You’ll be able to find a number of examples just by doing a quick Google search; Writer’s Digest also has an extensive list of movie synopses to peruse.
Navigate with a critical eye. Not all synopses posted online will be good examples. And keep in mind the interplay between the words ‘synopsis’, ‘outline’ and ‘summary’.
For editors on the hunt for their next project, the synopsis is the doorway to your story – the last post guarding entrance to the world that is your manuscript. Don’t lock them out. Welcome them inside and give your manuscript its best chance to get published.