The synopsis is your sales pitch. Think of it as the jacket blurb for your novel (the synopsis is often used in writing this, and by the publisher's art and advertising departments, if the novel is purchased), and write it as though you're trying to entice a casual bookstore browser to buy the novel and read it.
One Step at a Time
Rather than being daunted by the enormity of such a task, break it down. Do it step by step.
The first step, of course, is realising that you're going to have to write a synopsis -- if you intend to market your novel, that is. The best time to realise this is just before you sit down with your manuscript for the final reading preparatory to declaring the thing completed.
Sit down to that final reading with a pen and paper beside you. As you finish reading each chapter, write down a one- or two-paragraph summary of what happened where, and to which character, in that chapter.
Notice any themes running through your chapters as you're reading? Symbolism you didn't realise you'd woven through the story while you were slogging away at the computer for all those months? Take note of themes, too. You may just discover your one-line story summary that agents and editors like so much, if you didn't know what it was before.
What you will have when you are done is a chapter-by-chapter novel outline, what might be called the author's outline. Don't throw this away when you've done your synopsis, either. You may know the story intimately now, but you do forget details over time. You may decide to revise the novel in the future, and this outline will help you. Reading an outline is much easier than leafing through or rereading an entire novel.
What you are doing, basically, is distilling the story down into smaller and more manageable packages, step by step. So, you pinpoint the most important plot points in that outline, and you put them into a synopsis.
We're talking about only those events and motivations that moved the story forward in a major way. We're talking about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players. Right now, we are striving for bare-bones.
Now I want you to envision one or two things while you rework that synopsis:
1. Imagine that you're writing a jacket blurb for the novel, one that will pique the casual browser's curiosity and make him or her want to buy the book to see what happens. Read a few jacket blurbs, to get a feel for how it's done.
2. You've just seen a terrific movie. You're describing it to your friend. You're not saying, "The good guy chased the bad guy and shot him and that was the end." That doesn't sound very enthusiastic, that sounds like your synopsis as it stands right now! No, you say things like, "The good guy is wounded, but he knows if he doesn't stop the evil
the whole world is in danger, so he staggers after Dr. Death ,
falls, somehow gets to his feet again, and at last zaps him with the Good Guy
Death-ray to save the world." Dr. Death
When you're done, a synopsis should be filled with enthusiastic. It should be enticing. A description that makes the reader want to pick up the manuscript and find out how this happens!
How can you make your synopsis unique, exciting? Start with the main character and his or her crisis. Include snippets of dialogue or quote briefly from the novel itself. Don't neglect to reveal the character's emotions and motivations, those points that explain why a character does something, but keep it brief. If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis with a brief paragraph. This includes any background information that is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Build excitement as you near the conclusion of the story summary by using shorter sentences and paragraphs. The synopsis is a sample of your writing; it is a taste of what reading the actual novel will be like, so give it your all.
Don't forget that one- or two-sentence story line, or the theme of the story that you discovered. It should go in your synopsis, or in your cover letter. Editors and agents like having this distillation; not only will it pique their interest, but it's something they can use when presenting the novel to the buying board. It's also something you can use, the next time someone politely asks you, "What's your novel about?"
Most editors and agents, busy people that they are, prefer short synopses -- two to ten pages. The busier ones like five pages at most. I personally consider two pages ideal, and have distilled synopses down to a single tight page. If you've written a thoroughly intriguing synopsis, don't worry if it's ten or more pages long -- but it had better be gripping.
Edit, edit, edit, if you have to! Always keeping in mind that the synopsis must remain interesting and supply the necessary information. Don't know what to cut? Lose the adjectives and adverbs; keep the motivation and "flavor" of the story.
You have to tell the entire story in your synopsis. Don't send the first three chapters and then start the synopsis at chapter four. Don't leave out the ending, hoping to entice the editor or agent to request the full manuscript in order to find out what happens. What they will do is decide you're an amateur.
No matter what tense your novel was written in, the synopsis is always written in present tense (
Jerry goes to the bullfight as opposed to Jerry went to the bullfight.)
Format: to be on the safe side, double-space; it's easier to read. In terms of layout, format your synopsis much as you did your novel.
The first time you use a character's name in the synopsis, type it in CAPITAL letters. Do this only the first time. Avoid confusion by referring to a character the same way throughout (not "
the first time, " Dr. Evans Jerry" the
next, and "the doctor" another time). It's also advisable to identify
which character(s) is the point of view character by typing "(POV)"
after the first instance of the character's name.
Yes, writing a good synopsis is a lot of work, but think of it this way: not only are you creating a vital marketing tool, but you're honing your writing skills at the same time.