Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I’ve been asked more than once to lay out the setup for a synopsis. Since the synopsis is so important for fiction writers, I will do just that. Before we get to the format specifics, however, let’s look at the purpose of a synopsis. And let me point out that there are very different recommendations regarding the style and purposes of a synopsis, differences so striking that the two camps might as well be discussing different pieces of writing.
On one side is the idea that the synopsis is a tease, a draw to get the proper persons (agents, editors, contest judges) to want to read the full story. Adherents of this viewpoint counsel you to write the synopsis in the style of your story and to write to entertain. If you’ve ever judged a writing contest or entered one that makes use of a synopsis, you’re probably used to this style. You might have even noted on a particularly engrossing synopsis—I can’t wait to read this story!
Those who recommend this style tell writers that everything sent to an agent or editor or publisher is a sample of the writer’s style, so each item needs to be creative and entertaining.
They direct the writer to include the story arc as well as major character arcs. They say to make use of pacing and the fiction elements so that as they near the end of the synopsis, readers feel they’re approaching the end of the story. They say to include the same highs and lows and buildup that you’d include in your novel.
What this turns into is a mini-version of your story with the same feel and word choices and emotional impact.
On the other side is the viewpoint that says the synopsis isn’t a tease to entice but a report of what happens in your story. Those who advocate this style are looking for only the facts—what happens? why? how? how is the story resolved? Agents or editors familiar with your work may expect a synopsis in this style. The emphasis here is not on how you write but truly on what happens in the story. One popular agent who offers online tips to writers is a proponent of this style.
Those looking for this style in a synopsis aren’t looking to read a mini-version of the novel; while they want to know what happens, they don’t need to see your writing style. Think of this group as wanting to cut to the chase.
With these true differences between the approaches, is it any wonder that writers feel confused about what to include, what to leave out, and how to word the synopsis when one recommendation is to write in the style of the novel and another is to simply convey, in the style of a police report, what happens? Is it any wonder writers look on writing one with dread?
Isn’t it bad enough that writers have to condense 350 pages to 3 without having to worry whether or not they’ve gotten the style exactly right when there’s little agreement about that style to begin with?
It is tough. But you can do it. Writers do it every day.
Even with the disagreements among professionals who deal with manuscripts and synopses every day, keep in mind that there are some absolutes.
Start with the commonalities and write your synopsis. Once you’ve got the basics, you can shade the synopsis toward either of the approaches. If you’re including a synopsis for a contest, you’ll need one that’s well written and appealing, that reads like your story, that engages the reader. If you’re writing one for your long-time editor, give her the facts.
Ah, but what if you’re somewhere in between, approaching an agent or editor at a publisher for the first time?
~ Check the agent’s or editor’s website and/or blog for recommendations.
~ Write an appealing synopsis that answers the question what is this story about?
~ Write two synopses, one for each style.
~ Understand that you may send the wrong style to an agent or editor and that doing so is okay. Don’t let indecision about the style of your synopsis keep you from submitting to your agent or editor of choice. Make a decision and send the submission.
Simple, right? Or maybe not. But I mean it. Write your synopsis. Make it the best you can. Have others read it. And then start submitting.
Keep in mind that proponents of neither style are looking for a laundry list of common actions or setting details. No one is looking for a play-by-play.
One way to keep from writing a synopsis filled with unimportant details is to practice with a book you didn’t write or to write a summary of a movie.
If you were to write a single-page summary about Gone with the Wind, you wouldn’t begin it with Scarlett entertaining the young men at the picnic at Twelve Oaks—you don’t have time to cover individual actions. Think in terms of meaningful events rather than common actions. Teach yourself how to look at the big picture of your own stories.
What’s important? Who’s important? What happens? This is what the reader of a synopsis, of either style, wants to know.
Particulars of a synopsis
These items are the general items you’ll want to cover in a synopsis of either style, though with a leaning toward the story rather than the report style. I’m not going to include recommendations for every possibility—include the theme, include a scene or dialogue snippet—because there isn’t agreement on some items.
What’s important is that you cover the relevant plot points. But don’t merely list story events; connect them into sentences and a flow. For both styles, make your summary engaging.
A synopsis, at its most basic, is a summary of your story.
~ You need to cover major characters, major events, goals, motivation, conflict, and the ending.
Yes, you have to spell out what happens at the end. No, you can’t tease by promising to reveal all later if the agent, editor, or publisher contacts you.
Agents and publishers need to know that you can end the story. They need to know what the end is. Is your story the same as two others they’re publishing? They need to know that.
You can point out character growth or character insights; both can be more important for character-driven stories than for plot-driven ones.
For the synopsis that flows in the story style, consider the synopsis as your bait. Make it appealing, especially if you are unknown to the agents and publishers you’re approaching. Infuse your synopsis with life. Create images to be seen and emotions to be felt.
~ For both styles, identify the time (era) and place of the story.
~ Do not write a plodding synopsis that reports every move a character makes—
This has too many unimportant details—
TOM SWIFT enters his local bank. Then Tom robs the bank. BRENDA COLLINS, head teller, notes the unusual tattoo on his wrist and quickly sketches it on a pad of paper, certain she can use it to identify the robber later. Tom drives away. When he gets home, he closes the blinds so he can count the money. He’s shocked to find more than a million dollars, much more money than he’d expected. He’s an undercover DEA agent, but something’s gone wrong with the joint plan of the FBI and DEA to catch a thief at the bank.
Still befuddled, Tom treats his buddies to dinner, acting out the script his boss has written for him. Brenda, meanwhile, spends the night at the police station, working with a sketch artist and answering questions about the robbery. The detectives offer her dinner and she orders a veggie burger since she’s a vegetarian. Tom goes to bed that night after counting the money for a third time. He sets his clock to get up early . . .
You don’t want to put the reader of your synopsis to sleep. Instead, engage your audience. Keep away from the tedious.
This is better—
Undercover agent TOM SWIFT successfully robs the bank the FBI set up for him. But when he escapes with the money, he finds five times the amount he’d been expecting.
BRENDA COLLINS, head teller at the bank, figures out the heist was a setup. Armed with clues to the robber’s identity, she goes after him as well as the man she suspects is his inside contact.
~ You have options. Start with an attention-getting line or with an event or with the revelation of a character. Begin with a specific moment or the general picture. Think specifics, but not step-by-step actions. At the same time, think general, but not vague.
Does that sound difficult? It needn’t be. Keep the word summary in mind. Convey flavor and emotion and the high points.
~ Name major characters but not minor or secondary ones unless it’s vital to do so. No one needs to know the protagonist’s dog’s name is Fluffy.
~ Don’t include full scenes or long sections of dialogue. The synopsis is not about a moment but all the moments. Think overview and big picture. You can, of course, refer to emotional or important scene moments. Just don’t dwell on them. You don’t have time for scenes; you do have time for images and feelings.
So you wouldn’t write—
At the annual dinner to celebrate the family’s business successes, Hans faces Marta with a frown and says, “You failed me. You are no longer family. Get out.”
Marta meets the embarrassed gazes of friends and family before, tears streaming, she runs from the restaurant.
But you might write—
When Hans cuts Marta publicly, she turns her back on her family and disappears into the Bolivian rainforest, determined to restore her credibility and reputation by finding the lost treasure of la loca.
~ Write the synopsis in the same style as your story—humorous, wry, fluid, suspense-filled. Keep genre in mind. (Keep in mind, also, the differences between the synopsis styles that we’ve already talked about.)
~ Don’t refer to yourself in the body of the synopsis. It’s all about the story.
~ Don’t refer to other stories in a series. It’s all about this story.
~ Cover the full story. Give your synopsis an opening, a middle, and a conclusion.
~ Use the proper presentation. No matter what your story’s point of view and narrative tense, a synopsis is written in third person, present tense.
THOMAS GALE is a genius safe-cracker, a competent second baseman, but a dud with women. When ANGELICA PETERS cuts into his business, both his thieving instincts and his libido take notice.
Fear enters Liberty City with the arrival of the West’s final passenger train. And with the presence of BEAUMONT TRASK, new owner of the town’s only saloon.
Trask’s first move is to take on the sheriff; when he’s dead, only MARK BALLYTON stands between Trask and a takeover of the town.
A synopsis, especially for a long novel, can be as long as 10 pages. But a typical synopsis is three pages (sometimes two, sometimes four or five), and you should write yourself one of a single page as well. You may be asked for the one-pager; have it ready before you need it.
In addition to the synopsis, create a blurb for your story, similar to the back cover copy of the book. This can be fairly easy to write—pull out a dozen books in the same genre, read the covers, and then write your own. Have a writer friend or colleague or critique partner read your blurb and give you feedback. Read another dozen cover blurbs and try again.
The blurb is not the story in full—it’s the excited ad that gets you pumped for the full novel. It’s the excited description you share with your best friend about the movie you saw last night.
You should also have a single sentence description of your story. Think appealing overview for this one. It can sound like a movie promo if you want it to.
Female detective chases down he-man fugitive
Determined teenage boy chases his dream into space
Lovers separated by war and 25 years reunite to try romance again
You may never be asked for a summary in any of these other formats, but if you are, you should be ready. You should always be able to explain your story in only one or two sentences.
Format (body of synopsis)
A standard format helps agents and editors as they wade through hundreds of submissions. Follow the rules.
Check with agent or publisher before sending your submission packet—many post their guidelines on their websites or their personal preferences in blog articles. In the absence of a specified format, use the following—
~ double space any synopsis longer than one page; single space for a one-page synopsis if submission guidelines allow it
There is both disagreement and leeway on spacing, with some saying to never single-space anything other than a business letter. Yet many contests allow for single-spaced synopses.
~ align left (do not justify)
~ one-inch margins on all 4 sides (1 1/4 is sometimes acceptable or preferred)
~ indent the first line of paragraphs 1/2 inch, just as you do the manuscript
~ no line spaces between paragraphs if double-spaced, but one line space between paragraphs if single-spaced
There is disagreement on this point, with some saying to never use a line space between paragraphs except in business correspondence. But if you’re going to single-space the text, show courtesy to your readers and give them a line break between paragraphs.
~ Times New Roman, black, 12-point font
~ use all CAPS for the first mention of major characters
~ include a slug line in the header (on the left, starting at the margin, include author last name/title or key words from the title/the word synopsis (for pages beyond the first)/and page number)
There are options here. Some recommend separating the page number and putting it on the right side of the header.
Some don’t bother with the word synopsis.
Page One Format
You’ve got some options here, depending on what your synopsis is for. If you’re submitting to a contest, you typically won’t include contact information on your synopsis (check your header to be sure you didn’t include it there by mistake).
If you don’t need contact information on your synopsis (perhaps you’ve already included it with your submission), page one will include—
~ the slug line in the header
~ the title, a line or two below the header, centered (horizontally, not vertically)
~ the word Synopsis, two lines below the title
~ the synopsis, beginning three or four lines below the word Synopsis
If you need to attach contact information, page one will include—
~ the slug line in the header
~ contact info in the top left corner, a line space or two under the header, with each item on its own line—name, address, phone number, e-mail address (whatever you intend to include)
~ the title, a line or two below the contact information, centered (horizontally, not vertically)
~ the word Synopsis, two lines below the title
~ the synopsis, beginning three or four lines below the word Synopsis
Options for the first page include adding either or both genre and word count. This information is typically found opposite the contact info, on the upper right. If you include both, list them under one another, genre first.
If you’re asked for a synopsis, provide only what’s requested. If a page length isn’t specified, submit no more than three pages. Always check the agent or publisher’s website to see if they have specific format requirements.
A brief synopsis means brief, a paragraph or two or one page at the most. An agent or editor who wants a brief synopsis just wants the basics—what is this story about? This is definitely a time to cut to the chase.
Tell what the story is about without putting the reader to sleep.
Don’t stress over the format. Agents and editors and publishers aren’t picky obsessives who’ll mark you down for failing to skip a line. They are professionals, however, and they expect you to be professional. Show them the courtesy of making the effort to learn and follow the basic guidelines. Those guidelines are there to help agents and editors give your submissions and stories the attention they deserve. Following the guidelines is to your benefit. And it’s a way for those who read synopses and manuscripts to get through the many they receive every day.
Any quick check of the Internet will show you that there are standards for the novel synopsis but there are also true differences among professionals. If you keep in mind your audience, the purpose of your synopsis (and thus its direction and emphasis) should be clear—
For a contest, you want to entice the judge into wishing she could read the full story.
For an editor (at a publishing house), you want to show what the story is about so he’ll know if they want to buy it.
For an agent, you may be highlighting your writing style and/or giving her an idea of the kind of story you write so she can decide if you fit the type (not necessarily the genre) of book she represents.
Different audience, different needs. Know your audience and write your synopsis accordingly.
While I detailed the format of the synopsis and touched on some of the elements to include, there are areas I could expand on. I’ll do that in a future article.
Take what you know and write an engaging synopsis. Show agents and editors and contest judges that you’ve conquered the synopsis and have no reason to dread it.
Prove to yourself that you can write a ten-, five-, three-, or even a one-page synopsis that attracts attention, lays out the story, and gets you and your story noticed, noticed for all the right reasons.
Write a great synopsis to complement your outstanding novel manuscript.