Updated: Jan 29, 2021
So you've arrived at this dreaded stage of the writerly journey... the synopsis. (Cue thunder and lightning.)
Well, not to worry. I'm here to make it a little less painful.
We're gonna discuss the following:
What a synopsis is
How long it should be
Guidelines, tips, and tricks for writing a synopsis
What is a synopsis?
First, let's clarify what we're talking about.
A synopsis details the events of your story from beginning to end. (It's not the teaser blurb on the back of the book.)
It shows the complete direction of the story and shares all the important information about plot and character development. Full spoilers. The reader (an agent, editor, or publisher) needs to see the overarching story and what you're doing with it.
The goal is to give the reader enough info that they want to read the full manuscript.
How long should a synopsis be?
Synopsis length depends on the preferences of the agent/editor/publisher. It may be a single page, or it may be three to five pages long.
Confirm how long the person/group prefers a synopsis to be. It will generally be in their submissions website page or FAQ.
An average length is one to two single-spaced pages. Yes, this sounds difficult, but you can do it.
How to write a synopsis
For the easiest synopsis journey, start with your outline. Don't take your manuscript and pare it down. Take your outline/structure and build up. If you already have an outline, you are SET, my friend. Focus on the status quo, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.
Describe any unique aspects to your story, such as the unusual POV or the twist on a trope or genre. If you have a quick sell (2 or 3 sentences max), put that at the top.
Put the first occurrence of a character's name in ALL CAPS so it's easy to pick out on the page. You can also include their age in parentheses. "CARLA BOOKFIEND (30), a local librarian, witnesses a mob execution." After the first use, you can go back to regular capitalization. "Carla throws her heel at a mobster and gouges out his eye."
Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. Yes, even if your book is in first person or past tense. "Carla smothers a mobster with antique newspapers," as opposed to "I smothered" or "Carla smothered."
Introduce the concept: the protagonist(s), their problem, and the setting. This is your opening image and sets the scene for what's to come. This should be brief. (Really, all of this should be brief.)
Describe the inciting incident. What shoves your protagonist out of the status quo? Why can't they go back?
When describing the rising action, focus on what's relevant to the main plot. You don't have to outline every single scene and side character. Ask yourself if what you're describing affects the main character(s) in the primary, overarching storyline. Ask yourself, "Would the ending make sense if I didn't mention this element?"
Describe key plot events or twists and how they affect the main character(s). "The kingpin posts a reward for the capture of all librarians, and Carla goes into hiding." You don't need to say, "This is important"; let the event stand on its own. Your reader doesn't need to be coddled.
Spoil the ending! The entire point of a synopsis is to share everything major, and that includes who-dun-it, how the lovers finally get together, and so on. You're not marketing the book to a potential reader, so this is not the time to drop a cliffhanger. Spoil. That. Ending. "Carla marries the kingpin's daughter and becomes untouchable."
Focus on your character's goal and stakes. Make it clear how the MC changes over the course of the story. You may be telling the entire story in short form, but you can't be boring. Everything should come back to that motivation.
Keep your sentences and paragraphs short, clear, and concise. You don't need to be flowery here.
Only name up to three characters. In our example, we might name CARLA BOOKFIEND (the main character), GEORGIANA MOBFAMILY (the kingpin's daughter, who helps Carla), and STEVE BIGKNIFE (the assassin sent to kill Carla). Refer to the rest of the cast generally (the mother, the friend, the mentor, etc.) I've seen advice that says you could name as many as five, but tread carefully. You don't want to overwhelm or, worse, bore the reader with too many particulars.
Once you've drafted the synopsis, get feedback from other people. Ask them if it makes sense and if the story flows. If they have any outstanding questions about the storyline, adjust accordingly.
Our tips for writing a synopsis:
The goal is to detail the major events of the story, which includes spoiling the ending.
A synopsis is generally one to two single-spaced pages long, but you need to confirm the agent/company's preference.
Start with your outline! You'll include the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.
Share the unique aspect of your story (fresh POV, twist on a trope, etc.).
SPOIL THE ENDING.
Write in third person present tense.
Put the first occurrence of a character's name in ALL CAPS. Only name up to three characters.
Focus on the character's goal and stakes.
Stay short, clear, and concise.
Get feedback from readers to make sure the synopsis is clear and interesting.
Now go forth and write a stellar synopsis!
I believe in you!
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