How to Write a Novel Synopsis

This is a “Blast From the
Past” post.  To celebrate the
GLA Blog’s 2nd birthday, I am
re-posting some of the best
“older” content that writers
likely missed.

 

If you write a novel and want to sell it, you’ll need a good synopsis to hook a literary agent. A synopsis, simply put, is a long summary of your fictional story, detailing the events and characters.

At a recent writers’ conference, I critiqued several synopses from amateur writers. When I met with the writers, I found myself repeating the same things over and over regarding formatting, content and length. I’ll try and relay some tips in this post, so writers don’t follow in their footsteps.

 

  • First of all, synopses have a specific format. They begin on a new page and should have all your contact information in the upper left corner of the first page. Just below your contact info, centered, should be the book’s title, its genre and your name.
  • The body of the synopsis is double-spaced.
  • Use dialogue sparingly, if at all.
  • You can get to the point, meaning you can say if a character is “a hopeless romantic.”
  • Starting on the second page, there should be a header at the top of all pages, looking like this: Author/TITLE/Synopsis. That should be pushed left while the page number should be pushed right.
  • Things must be explained. You can’t say a character has “psychic powers” or “finds a surprise around the corner” without saying what these things mean. I find that writers, when questioned about confusing details, will often say, “Well that’s explained in the book.” Then I say, “OK … but an agent won’t read the book if they’re confused by the synopsis. Make sense?
  • Try to stick with main plot points and characters. This will help cut down on confusion. Ideally, an agent won’t get any name/character confusion because the synopsis doesn’t detail needless subplots or minor characters.
  • When characters are mentioned for the first time, CAPITALIZE their name.
  • I read somewhere that a synopsis should read like you’ve summarizing a story for a 12-year-old. This is good advice. To practice, read a novel. Then explain the plot and characters of the story to a child as if it were a bedtime story. Tell the tale from beginning to end in 5-10 minutes. That’s a synopsis.
  • Remember that queries and synopses are different things. You would never find a synopsis in a query. A query is a one-page letter that explains what you’ve written, who you are, and why the agent should represent you. In a query letter will be a pitch, which is a explanation of your story in 3-8 sentences. It’s like the text you see on the back of a DVD box. It’s designed to pique your interest. A pitch, like the back of a book or DVD, will not spill the beans regarding the ending.
  • I recommend having TWO versions of your synopsis – a “long synopsis” and a “short synopsis.” Let me explain. In past years, there used to be a fairly universal system regarding synopses. For every 35 or so pages of text you had, you would have one page of synopsis explanation. So if your book was 245 pages, double-spaced, your synopsis would be seven pages approximately. This was fairly standard, and allowed writers a decent amount of space to explain their story. I recommend doing this first.  This will be your “long synopsis.” The problem is: Sometime in the past few years, agents started to get really busy and they want to hear your story now now now. They started asking for synopses of no more than two pages.  Many agents today request specifically just that – two pages max. Some may even say one page, but two pages is generally acceptable. You have to draft a new, more concise synopsis – the “short synopsis.” So which one do you submit?  Good question. If you think your short synopsis (1-2 pages) is tight and effective, always use that. However, if you think the long synopsis is much more effective, then you will sometimes submit one and sometimes submit the other. If an agent requests two pages max, send the short one (because, naturally, you’ve been instructed to). If they just say “Send a synopsis,” and you feel your longer synopsis is far superior, and your long synopsis isn’t more than eight pages, I say just submit the long one.

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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:

 

 


 

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6 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel Synopsis

  1. Jacqueline Seewald

    I’m not new to the business, but I’ve never liked writing the synopsis. Your advice is excellent and very useful to all of us.

    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale 2009
    THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print

  2. Terry

    Very helpful. The bit about 12-year-olds I found interesting as well.

    I worked for a while in the news biz and we were told to write to an eighth grade level, roughly 14-years of age. And the first graph was called "the hook."

  3. Jessica Rosen

    This is a terrific article for those of us new to the publishing world. You not only addressed formatting, but content as well. I love the last point about summarizing the story for a 12-year-old. It really puts the synopsis process into perspective.

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