Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis

Follow these tips and suggestions from literary agent Kaitlyn Johnson to learn how to write a synopsis for your novel.
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During my time in the writing community, there’s one thing I’ve noticed on which most people agree: how awful it is to write a synopsis. Authors are hardwired to avoid spoilers. They want to hook the reader, tease and tantalize them with half-reveals, until they can no longer stand it and dive headfirst into glorious pages. So, naturally, the synopsis challenges every instinct. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that can help the process become a bit more tolerable.

After receiving a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, Kaitlyn Johnson refused to leave the concept of nightly homework behind. Centering her life around everything literary, she started her own freelance editing company, K. Johnson Editorial, as soon as her diploma came in the mail.

Kaitlyn Johnson Featured

Kaitlyn is proud to be an apprentice agent with Corvisiero Literary Agency, as well as the Muse and the Marketplace Conference Assistant for GrubStreet, Boston.

Check out her Twitter, @kaitylynne13, for #mswl listings and writerly life thoughts.

The first thing I have to say is this: a synopsis is NOT your query and vice versa. This is a huge error I see in the inbox. A query is one page (at most!) and includes your book stats, hook paragraphs, and bio. That’s it. End of story.

A synopsis, on the other hand, is much more detailed. The length can vary, though I’ve noticed most agents/editors prefer no longer than two pages, and it sums up exactly what happens in your manuscript. It sums up everything that happens.

The key to a synopsis is to open your bag of spoilers and clue the reader in to every important event. This means moments that lend to character arc, pace, motivations, etc. And yes, that does mean revealing the ending. The easiest way to ensure you’ve added all you need is to first make a list of events you consider vital revelations to the story.

  • Beginning: Who is the character? What world do they live in? Why is she the lead of this novel?
  • Drama: What happens to stir things up? Is a love interested introduced? Does someone get kidnapped or learn of their magical powers?
  • Next steps: You must include consequences or results of the drama. Whether it be a quest, rebellion, road trip, or family intervention, the reader must know what the main character intends to do about their situation.
  • Stakes. What is at risk for the main character or those close to them? This is what drives most of the choices in your book, so you better believe the reader needs to know them.
  • Climax. Where does the height of tension or action occur? What leads up to it and what follows? Keep this section clear and point-blank. Over-excessive explanation can unnecessarily lengthen your synopsis and also confuse the reader as to how the book actually progresses.
  • Ending. I know, I know, every fiber of your being is fighting against this. My ending isn’t meant to be unveiled before a reader enjoys the whole journey! Guess what? If you jump the shark anywhere in your book, an agent or editor wants to know.

So, you have your list. Now to tie all these major events together. Every writer knows there are Main Points and Filler Points when crafting a manuscript. Filler Points are the scenes that, while maybe lacking that sense of active agency, give the reader a road to walk until they come to the next big moment. Personally, I think fillers are even harder to draft than action. The real stress comes from figuring out how to condense and explain these moments in your synopsis and not get carried away with the storyline.

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Filler Points are also the number one reason I usually end up discarding a synopsis. Writers love words. It’s fact. But, sometimes, they just aren’t needed. Don’t get obsessed with every little thought that pops into the main character’s head, what conversation they had with their best friend before embarking on their mission, or what animals they saw in the forest. If it furthers the plot between crucial moments, include it. Otherwise, save the excess for the book itself. Even avid readers like agents can get tired of words.

And you’re done, right? I mean, isn’t that what a synopsis is, big moments and connectors?

Not quite. Here’s the hurdle most writers struggle with: voice. While many agents or editors won’t immediately scrap a synopsis if it only sticks to the details—leaving out the mesmerizing, storybook tone—voice will always matter. Kelly Peterson, Junior Agent at Corvisiero Literary Agency, says, “If you can write voice into a synopsis, you can write voice into anything.” And that’s a big deal. Agents specifically keep their eyes open for writers who won’t need an extraordinary amount of coaching or editing. True, we know we’ll need to work with the writer to make the story shine, but we’re not looking for an overhaul. That’s something for a freelance editor. For the synopsis, try using the same tone or rhythm from the actual manuscript. Sometimes matching the tempo of words to your query can help. Think of your submission materials as a series in and of themselves: Query, Synopsis, Pages—all linked by voice, all sharing a few key details, and all formatted in their own unique way.

There’s one final option to make all of this bearable, and it isn’t a perfect fit for everyone. According to writer Aljon Celis, you don’t always have to wait until your book is finished to write the synopsis. Do you enjoy outlining before beginning your story? Then this could be just the thing for you! Treating your synopsis as a form of outlining kills two birds with one stone and gives you a whole new perspective on just how to structure the piece. Stretch that outline; create sentences instead of bullet points. Sure, outlines evolve as a story twists and turns to new places, but who says a synopsis can’t do the same thing? Once your novel is complete, simply go back and update your outline/synopsis, and it’ll be done before you know it!

I’ll admit, writing a synopsis is difficult. It shouldn’t be something you sit down and finish in twenty minutes. Just like your novel, it includes multiple drafts, editing, and perhaps a read over from someone who has already read the entire story already. Hopefully these notes will help remove some of the hassle, so you can complete your submission packet and be ready to tackle the querying trenches!

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