Querying a publisher or agent is never an easy task and it’s important to get all the essential bits right, including the synopsis. Your synopsis is your chance to sell your novel as a complete story, and when most publishers only request the first few chapters with unsolicited submissions, a great synopsis can convince a publisher to request the rest of your manuscript.
Of course, writing a synopsis is a totally different mindset to writing a novel. It’s strategic rather than creative, and you need to include certain pieces of information so that the reader has a clear idea of your manuscript.
What’s it for?
The first thing to consider when crafting a synopsis is the purpose of the thing. Most of the time, you’ll be trying to sell your work to a publisher that may or may not have read your query letter or sample chapters. You want to convince the editor that you can carry the story through to the end, and that you have a clear sense of the manuscript as a whole.
Usually when submitting you send in a query letter and sample chapters as well as the synopsis. The purpose of the query letter is to sell your manuscript to the publisher, and include the details including target audience, genre, wordcount, your bio, etc. Your sample chapters give the publisher an idea of your writing style and the pacing of the novel. Your synopsis is there to do the rest—convince the publisher that you can do this thing all the way through.
Now, it’s a totally different thing if an editor or manuscript assessor has requested a synopsis. Here, describe your vision for the novel, so that they can understand what you’re going for when reading your work. It’s important to spend some time on this—if they misunderstand what you want, they may make suggestions that aren’t relevant or helpful.
A synopsis is a 1-2 page (500-800 words is a good guide) description of the major events in your novel. It’s designed for a publisher to be able to see the structure of your manuscript as a whole, so that they can determine whether it is appropriate for them to asking to read the full manuscript.
This should be easy and fun to read (i.e. not a laundry list). Make it as legible as possible. Use paragraph breaks, and if it makes it easier to read, capitalise the names of each character as you mention them for the first time.
Unlike your query letter, this doesn’t need to change from publisher to publisher—a good synopsis gives a clear idea of the manuscript, and as long as you’re submitting the same manuscript, you shouldn’t need to personalise it too much.
- The plot: Your primary job is to list the major plot points and events, including the ending, to give the editor a sense of the structure of the book. If you have a defined structure (such as a three-act structure), your synopsis should reflect that.
- The characters: Mention each character by name as they appear in the plot. For major characters, include their goals and motivations.
- The setting: Explain the parts about your setting that are important to the plot. The reader should have some idea of where the book is set, but you don’t need to include all the details.
- The writing: Make the synopsis easy to read, and match the tone to the tone of the manuscript.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do finish the book before writing your synopsis. Especially if you’re writing fiction, you’ll generally need to finish the book before submitting. Besides, you don’t know if major plot points or structural bits will change if you don’t have a polished manuscript.
- Do take time to write your synopsis, and to edit it. Great synopses are very rarely written in the first go, and you really want to get this part of your submission right. If you can, get writing buddies or other networks to read over your synopsis before using it.
- Do search for example synopses online to get a feel for the structure.
- Don’t include a cast list, or every character in the book. If a character is central to the story, they should make it here—and if they don’t, you should consider their relevance to your novel.
- Don’t include all of the details of your worldbuilding or setting. If there are key plot elements related to your setting, mention them, but don’t waste room describing your world and forget to tell your story.
- Don’t be ambiguous. Clearly outline all of the major events in the novel, including the ending—and if the ending is intended to be ambiguous, say so!