WRITE A STRONG SYNOPSIS
The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the agent or acquisitions editor on the manuscript. If they don’t see anything they like in the synopsis, they won’t even glance at your chapter samples.
The synopsis is not just your sales pitch. Editors like having this distillation as something to use when presenting your novel to the buying board. It might even be used to write the jacket copy. It may also be used by the publisher’s art and advertising departments. It’s also something you can use, the next time someone asks you what your novel is about.
This is why the synopsis has to be developed and sweated over and polished with the same attention devoted to the novel itself. Most writers hate composing a synopsis because it can be much more difficult to write than the novel ever was. Distilling 100,000 words into a few pages is not easy.
Before setting out to write a book synopsis, it helps tremendously if you can clearly and succinctly describe what your book is about in a sentence or two to clarify and distill it down in your own mind, like a movie description in the tv guide. If you neglect this exercise, you miss opportunities to demonstrate the strength of your work.
This is called an elevator pitch. Brevity is best in pitching your novel to an editor or agent at a writers conference, for example. For press releases and publicity, you need to describe your work in a couple of sentences or a short paragraph. You can use this same jewel as the hook in your query letter. Or use it to start out strong in the opening sentence of your synopsis.
But most of all it will help you get a grasp in your own mind as to what your novel is about. A strong synopsis conveys the spirit and theme of the book and gives a bigger sense of what makes the book unique and interesting. Grab them with a killer line, and then hook them with a tight synopsis that shows your novel has a great story arc.
(Good example: “A rogue physicist goes back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” - Transgression by Randall Ingermanson)
Unless the editor or agent specifies otherwise, shoot for 2 to 5 pages (single-spaced) . A synopsis is similar to a cover letter in that it doesn’t need to be double-spaced for editing purposes, but if single-spacing looks too difficult to read, try using 1.5-spaced lines instead. Of course, if the editor asks for something specific, follow guidelines to the letter.
Put the title of the book and your name at the top of the page, and remember that a synopsis is always written in the present tense. (see attached example)
Tell the entire story in the 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.
Give a clear idea of your book’s core conflict. Show what characters we’ll care about, including the ones we’ll hate. Demonstrate what’s at stake for the main character(s). Show how the conflict is resolved.
LEAVE A LOT OUT
A synopsis is very different from writing a summary or outline that details a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene reduction or compression of the entire work. A synopsis portrays the narrative arc of your novel.
Every word must earn its due, so hit only the high points and leave out the rest. Start with the main character’s crisis. Don’t neglect to reveal the character’s emotions and motivations that explain why the character does something, but keep it brief. If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis.
Do not include every single character and every single plot point in some lengthy, methodical “and then this happened, and then that happened” fashion. Select only those major events and motivations that moved the story forward. Talk about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players, because here we are striving for bare-bones.
To nail the tone and brevity of an effective synopsis, a good model to mimic is book cover copy found inside flap jackets or on the backs of paperbacks. Just leave out the part about the author and be sure to include what happens in the end, as the editor wants to know more than anything how you plan to end the book.
The most powerful synopsis will have the narrative tension, drama and pacing of the novel itself. Your description should sound enthusiastic and enticing. 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.
STILL HAVING TROUBLE?
If you still are at a loss what to include and what to leave out, try working in reverse. Start with the climax of the story, the apex of act three, then work backwards through the manuscript from there.
It’s like using MapQuest where you can enter the destination and ask for directions to your place of origin. How you got there becomes clear.
Ask what major events needed to happen to set up or get to this culmination or pinnacle of your story. Then write a sentence or paragraph about each vital point that got you there. (This assumes that the final confrontation is really what the story had been headed to all along.)
Working backward you will see the point where all the elements fell into place that led to the showdown, and further back through the heart of the story to various points where the conflict has been increased or the stakes have been made brutally clear. Include these too. Eventually, you will get to the opening premise that introduced the main characters and the hook that introduced the conflict facing them.
This exercise can have additional benefits. It is your last opportunity to discover any remaining weaknesses in your story before you submit it to an agent or editor. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. It will show whether you have created a sound plot that makes sense and that your events build tension and lead to a satisfactory conclusion.