10 tips to help you write a knock-out synopsis
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Something I often get asked by authors is how to make their synopsis stand out from the crowd.
First, let's be clear about what a synopsis actually is and why it's important. Put simply, a synopsis should be a comprehensive but not all-encompassing summary of your story. It is not a blurb, nor is it a chapter outline. The main purpose of a synopsis is to show the literary agent or publisher your ability to craft a good story and make them want to read the entire manuscript before someone else gets their sticky mitts on it. Some authors find it helpful to write their synopsis before they write the book as it gives a framework for the story, while others like to write it at the end once they know how the story will unfold. If you are one of those writers who prefers to write the synopsis at the start, it might be a good idea to revisit it once you've written the book to make sure that it's water tight.
Creating your synopsis is one of the hardest parts of the writing process. There is so much you want to show the agent or publisher to demonstrate what an amazing writer you are and how great your story is, but how do you squeeze it all onto a couple of pages? How do you know which bits you should include and which you should leave out?
Below, Susan Elliot Wright, bestselling author of The Things We Never Said, The Secrets We Left Behind, What She Lost and The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood shares her top 10 tips for writing a knock-out synopsis.
1) Do your research. Check the agency website – do they want a 500-word synopsis? One-page? Three pages? If you’re writing a synopsis as part of a submission to agents, you may find you have to write more than one, because different agents have different requirements. A one-page synopsis is standard, but some agents want something longer and more detailed.
2) Make sure it’s clearly presented. It can be single spaced (unlike your manuscript, which should be double spaced), but use a clear, plain font that’s easy to read – Arial or Times new Roman, (11 or 12 pt).
3) It’s usual to use all caps for characters’ names, at least the first time you mention them – but only name your protagonist and the major supporting characters.
4) Write in the present tense, even if the narrative is past tense.
5) Be economical. Cut, trim and rephrase in order to shave off EVERY unnecessary word. You’re trying to get a lot of information across in very few words, so make the most of the words at your disposal.
6) …but take care to address your protagonist’s feelings and emotions, otherwise it can feel a bit mechanical.
7) Structure the synopsis so that events unfold in the same order as they do in the novel. That way, you’ll give an idea of what will keep the reader turning the pages. For example, if the story is about someone wrongly accused of a murder and the novel starts with that person in court, waiting for the jury’s verdict, don’t start your synopsis with ‘JANE SMITH, a 40-year-old mother of two, is accused of a murder she didn’t commit’. Instead, start with, ‘JANE SMITH, a 40-year-old mother of two, sits in a court room, trembling as she waits to hear whether the jury has found her guilty of murdering her estranged husband JOHN.’ (Note the suggestion of her anxiety, as well as the plain facts).
8) Don't weigh down your synopsis with backstory or go into depth about themes – the synopsis should tell the story, not interpret what it means. Nor should you go into detail about supporting characters and subplots.
9) Don't include dialogue.
10) Don't use flowery, overblown prose – keep it simple!
And, as a bonus point:
11). Don't withhold the ending and say, ‘you will have to read the book to find out what happens!’
Are you a published author? What are your top tips for writing a killer synopsis? Or, if you are currently trying to write your first synopsis, what are you finding most difficult?