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Writing An Effective Novel Synopsis

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Editing and Publishing


Novel written? Check.

Edited? Check.

Ready for publishers and agents? Check and check!


Amazing! You have accomplished so much and you are very close to taking that well-deserved sigh of relief – just not yet. The next step will be to arrange your book pitch.


Approaching publishers and agents will require a few well-prepared pieces, one of which is the all-important synopsis. Some aspiring authors may draw back in fear – what is this mysterious yet vital necessity? - but there’s no need! Let’s answer all your questions and layout an easy-to-follow guide to your perfect synopsis.





What Even Is A Synopsis Anyway?


Let’s get the main question out of the way: a synopsis is a summary of a book which aims to give the reader (mainly publishing houses and agents) a clear walkthrough of the main plot points which guides us from the beginning to end.


Though both should be intriguing, a synopsis differs from a blurb – a smaller recap of the overall story intended to draw a reader in – in a key way. A blurb will not reveal all of the story, nor will it spill any twists or key moments beyond the story’s premise. A synopsis is a ‘tell all’ in the sense that nothing of relevance will be hidden from the reader.



How Long Should A Synopsis Be?


This is a very important question that helps us visualise the challenge ahead – how much do we need to write on this? The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all limit. Some authors hammer out a solid synopsis in 500 words, others use thousands. It’s best to check with the agent or publisher you intend to send it to in case they specify a limit. However, it is generally accepted that 1-2 A4 pages is a good ball-park.


For most novelists, I would recommend aiming for one single-spaced A4 page, though if you have a convoluted or saga-esque plot on your hands you will want to write enough to be clear in your summary.



Writing Your Synopsis


To ensure you are writing a comprehensive and well-rounded synopsis, tackle the task in stages: The Hook, Main Events, Personal Voice, Edit and Proofread. Take each one in turn, adapting your piece of writing until you are happy with it. Let’s consider the steps:


1 - The Hook

I would always advise your opening line to be the hook which sets the stage. This is a one-sentence summary which sets up the premise and biggest obstacle/issue the protagonist faces. Here are a couple of examples:


’13 year old Jude would like to settle into his new boarding school, but a close call with death provides an unwanted gift: premonitions of how those around him will die.’


‘The East-African tribe of Mahcontah must put political differences aside when a new threat in the form of a shadow creature begins to stalk their land.’


The aim is to have the reader eager to devour the whole page now that you have both set the overall scene but also hooked them in with your story’s main intrigue. What does Jude’s gift mean for him and those around him? Is the tribe facing a supernatural entity or something more tangible? Now that you have them hooked, it’s time to lay out the story.



2 - Main Events

Summarising your story is no easy feat, so do yourself a favour start with bullet points! Your aim is to list the main events which take you from your novel’s beginning to it’s end. Begin this way:


· What is the inciting incident which kick-starts the main plot?

· What are the core events which raises the action from the inciting incident to the climax?

· What climactic event does the rising action eventually lead to?

· How is the plot resolved/concluded?


From here, you can easily see your arc layout. Next, go through each event and remove the needless information. For each sentence, ask yourself ‘What is the key takeaway?’


Let’s consider events which took place in Chapter 9 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.


Instead of:

Draco challenges Harry to a midnight duel, but fails to turn up. Realising this is a trap, Harry and Ron try to escape caretaker Filch but end up face to face with Fluffy, a large three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor.


Try:

By accident, Harry discovers a large three-headed dog (Fluffy) guarding a trapdoor.


It can be a painful experience removing enticing information, but think of it this way: if you included all the details, why would the reader need to read your manuscript? In the case of ‘The Midnight Duel’ chapter, which incidentally was heavily edited for the movie adaptation of the book, an agent does not yet need to know of Draco’s cunning and the reason Harry was out of bed and sneaking around Hogwarts castle. The synopsis takeaway would be the discovery of Fluffy which kick-starts Harry and Co’s investigation.


Ask yourself: what did this event result in? From there, you will discover events of your story can easily be simplified or bundled together. Do you need to highlight the several events which lead to the one result, or can you summarise them in a sentence or two?


Be sure to bookend your start and conclusion with justified reasons characters act the way they do. Staying with The Philosopher’s Stone, consider this example:


START:

Orphaned Harry Potter longs for a better life away from his cruel Aunt and Uncle, so when he receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he jumps at the chance to be more than he thought he could be.


ENDING:

Though he faces the summer back with his horrible family, a proud Harry is optimistic as he will soon be back at Hogwarts with his friends for his second year.


Injecting minor points of characterisation provides the reader with that much-needed connection to the protagonist and clear direction on how they should feel about their journey.



3 - Personal Voice

Now that you have the structure and important information, it is time to personalise the text to your own style and truly stand out from the crowd. This is incredibly difficult to achieve in such a small and pointed piece of writing, but it can be done.


Carefully consider your word choice, sentence structure, use of imagery and overall tone – try to stay in line with your novel’s example. If you have written a historical novel, keep your vocabulary appropriate to the setting and time period. Think about your target age group, themes and genre when you stylize your writing.


One element which you may need to alter is your viewpoint and tense: for most synopses, you should write in 3rd person, present tense. For agents and publishers, it is the most reader-friendly method of laying out a story. If your novel is written in a different point of view or tense, feel free to say so in the outset:


The story is told from the viewpoint of protagonist, Uriah, in the past tense.


If you have any plot twists or big reveals, avoid spoiling them ahead of time and let them come in at the right part of the story. Let the reader experience a snapshot of what you are offering, namely a well-told and rewarding experience that will entertain and surprise all who find it.



4 - Edit

Very few writers like any editing stage, but - unlike your first, second and third draft - your synopsis will take no time at all if you know what the goal is.


You have a limited opportunity to inform the reader of your story, so ensure that each word counts. This is a good time for some last minute merging of events, giving an overview of a series of incidents which lead to the same key result instead of mentioning them in turn. Be prepared to cut out beautifully-crafted sentences for the sake of cutting down. No frills, no showing off if just 'extra'. Be ruthless with your page space: if it doesn’t directly impact on the main plot or support your writer voice (and even then, be selective) press that delete button.


Clarity is key – do not let the reader struggle through flowery language or vague comments. Be direct. Cut to the chase. Don’t be afraid to tell rather than show, because this is the time that old chestnut isn’t appropriate.



5 - Proofread

The magic moment will arrive when your synopsis flows easily, keeping the reader informed but also engaged. Once you feel like you have reached this point, take a small break and come back to it with a fresh perspective just to be sure.


Engage with test readers, both professional and personal, to provide feedback on readability and constructive comments. An objective viewpoint is key, after all, you don’t want to waste the opportunity when an agent holds your synopsis in their hand. Ask your test readers to list questions they have, weaker sections, terms or words they were not keen on, transitions and – of course – segments that they really enjoyed. Consider their thoughts carefully before making any changes. As much as a proofreader can highlight poor areas, they aren't 100% infallible. Change what makes sense to you.



Anyone up for a summary? Wonderful! Here is a checklist of the major DOs and DO NOTs of writing a brilliant synopsis:



DO be selective on your points


DO write in third person present tense


DO place side characters where they belong - to the side


DO be concise and direct to keep your word count low and your reader more likely to finish it


DO inject your own unique voice, complete with plot twist reveals to demonstrate the exciting reading experience you can offer


DO start with an enticing hook


DO check with the agent or publisher’s approved length limits and other important guidelines


DO include a complete narrative with an ending/resolution


DO include an explanation paragraph if there is considerable world-building elements which would make it difficult for the reader to follow


DO put character names in all caps the first time they are mentioned, and limit the characters in the synopsis to those who impact the story.



DO NOT include everything


DO NOT write in first or second person, or future or past tense


DO NOT go beyond 2 A4 pages, and even then do not make it any longer than utterly necessary


DO NOT let it read like a shopping list or instruction manual, bland and without feeling


DO NOT split the synopsis into sections, just keep it running


DO NOT mention characters until they enter the story or have an impact (no sneaky early mentions!)


DO NOT get bogged down with names, places or terminology which – if changed later – have no impact on the story as a whole.


DO NOT go into a character backstory unless it impacts on motivations, choices and actions within the main plot


DO NOT use terms like ‘at the climax’ or ‘the resolution’, forced structure construction takes the reader out of the experience.


DO NOT mention plot themes, interpretations, or other unnecessary commentary


DO NOT include dialogue unless completely necessary


DO NOT ask rhetorical or unanswered questions – this goes against the ‘direct’ approach


DO NOT get pretty with your prose; if a character is a hopeless romantic just say so – the reader will understand there will be demonstrations of this in the full manuscript

By following these steps, you should have a solid synopsis worthy of informing agents and publishers alike of your incredible manuscript just waiting to be read. Not sure how to find the right agent for you? Check out Choosing The Right Literary Agent and worry no more!


Novel written? Check.

Edited? Check.

Ready for publishers and agents? Check and check!


Amazing! You have accomplished so much and you are very close to taking that well-deserved sigh of relief – just not yet. The next step will be to arrange your book pitch.


Approaching publishers and agents will require a few well-prepared pieces, one of which is the all-important synopsis. Some aspiring authors may draw back in fear – what is this mysterious yet vital necessity? - but there’s no need! Let’s answer all your questions and layout an easy-to-follow guide to your perfect synopsis.





What Even Is A Synopsis Anyway?


Let’s get the main question out of the way: a synopsis is a summary of a book which aims to give the reader (mainly publishing houses and agents) a clear walkthrough of the main plot points which guides us from the beginning to end.


Though both should be intriguing, a synopsis differs from a blurb – a smaller recap of the overall story intended to draw a reader in – in a key way. A blurb will not reveal all of the story, nor will it spill any twists or key moments beyond the story’s premise. A synopsis is a ‘tell all’ in the sense that nothing of relevance will be hidden from the reader.



How Long Should A Synopsis Be?


This is a very important question that helps us visualise the challenge ahead – how much do we need to write on this? The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all limit. Some authors hammer out a solid synopsis in 500 words, others use thousands. It’s best to check with the agent or publisher you intend to send it to in case they specify a limit. However, it is generally accepted that 1-2 A4 pages is a good ball-park.


For most novelists, I would recommend aiming for one single-spaced A4 page, though if you have a convoluted or saga-esque plot on your hands you will want to write enough to be clear in your summary.



Writing Your Synopsis


To ensure you are writing a comprehensive and well-rounded synopsis, tackle the task in stages: The Hook, Main Events, Personal Voice, Edit and Proofread. Take each one in turn, adapting your piece of writing until you are happy with it. Let’s consider the steps:


1 - The Hook

I would always advise your opening line to be the hook which sets the stage. This is a one-sentence summary which sets up the premise and biggest obstacle/issue the protagonist faces. Here are a couple of examples:


’13 year old Jude would like to settle into his new boarding school, but a close call with death provides an unwanted gift: premonitions of how those around him will die.’


‘The East-African tribe of Mahcontah must put political differences aside when a new threat in the form of a shadow creature begins to stalk their land.’


The aim is to have the reader eager to devour the whole page now that you have both set the overall scene but also hooked them in with your story’s main intrigue. What does Jude’s gift mean for him and those around him? Is the tribe facing a supernatural entity or something more tangible? Now that you have them hooked, it’s time to lay out the story.



2 - Main Events

Summarising your story is no easy feat, so do yourself a favour start with bullet points! Your aim is to list the main events which take you from your novel’s beginning to it’s end. Begin this way:


· What is the inciting incident which kick-starts the main plot?

· What are the core events which raises the action from the inciting incident to the climax?

· What climactic event does the rising action eventually lead to?

· How is the plot resolved/concluded?


From here, you can easily see your arc layout. Next, go through each event and remove the needless information. For each sentence, ask yourself ‘What is the key takeaway?’ Let’s consider events which took place in Chapter 9 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.


Instead of:

Draco challenges Harry to a midnight duel, but fails to turn up. Realising this is a trap, Harry and Ron try to escape caretaker Filch but end up face to face with Fluffy, a large three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor.


Try:

By accident, Harry discovers a large three-headed dog (Fluffy) guarding a trapdoor.


It can be a painful experience removing enticing information, but think of it this way: if you included all the details, why would the reader need to read your manuscript? In the case of ‘The Midnight Duel’ chapter, which incidentally was heavily edited for the movie adaptation of the book, an agent does not yet need to know of Draco’s cunning and the reason Harry was out of bed and sneaking around Hogwarts castle. The synopsis takeaway would be the discovery of Fluffy which kick-starts Harry and Co’s investigation.


Ask yourself: what did this event result in? From there, you will discover events of your story can easily be simplified or bundled together. Do you need to highlight the several events which lead to the one result, or can you summarise them in a sentence or two?


Be sure to bookend your start and conclusion with justified reasons characters act the way they do. Staying with The Philosopher’s Stone, consider this example:


START:

Orphaned Harry Potter longs for a better life away from his cruel Aunt and Uncle, so when he receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he jumps at the chance to be more than he thought he could be.


ENDING:

Though he faces the summer back with his horrible family, a proud Harry is optimistic as he will soon be back at Hogwarts with his friends for his second year.


Injecting minor points of characterisation provides the reader with that much-needed connection to the protagonist and clear direction on how they should feel about their journey.



3 - Personal Voice

Now that you have the structure and important information, it is time to personalise the text to your own style and truly stand out from the crowd. This is incredibly difficult to achieve in such a small and pointed piece of writing, but it can be done.


Carefully consider your word choice, sentence structure, use of imagery and overall tone – try to stay in line with your novel’s example. If you have written a historical novel, keep your vocabulary appropriate to the setting and time period. Think about your target age group, themes and genre when you stylize your writing.


One element which you may need to alter is your viewpoint and tense: for most synopses, you should write in 3rd person, present tense. For agents and publishers, it is the most reader-friendly method of laying out a story. If your novel is written in a different point of view or tense, feel free to say so in the outset:


The story is told from the viewpoint of protagonist, Uriah, in the past tense.


If you have any plot twists or big reveals, avoid spoiling them ahead of time and let them come in at the right part of the story. Let the reader experience a snapshot of what you are offering, namely a well-told and rewarding experience that will entertain and surprise all who find it.



4 - Edit

Very few writers like any editing stage, but - unlike your first, second and third draft - your synopsis will take no time at all if you know what the goal is.


You have a limited opportunity to inform the reader of your story, so ensure that each word counts. This is a good time for some last minute merging of events, giving an overview of a series of incidents which lead to the same key result instead of mentioning them in turn. Be prepared to cut out beautifully-crafted sentences for the sake of cutting down. No frills, no showing off if just 'extra'. Be ruthless with your page space: if it doesn’t directly impact on the main plot or support your writer voice (and even then, be selective) press that delete button.


Clarity is key – do not let the reader struggle through flowery language or vague comments. Be direct. Cut to the chase. Don’t be afraid to tell rather than show, because this is the time that old chestnut isn’t appropriate.



5 - Proofread

The magic moment will arrive when your synopsis flows easily, keeping the reader informed but also engaged. Once you feel like you have reached this point, take a small break and come back to it with a fresh perspective just to be sure.


Engage with test readers, both professional and personal, to provide feedback on readability and constructive comments. An objective viewpoint is key, after all, you don’t want to waste the opportunity when an agent holds your synopsis in their hand. Ask your test readers to list questions they have, weaker sections, terms or words they were not keen on, transitions and – of course – segments that they really enjoyed. Consider their thoughts carefully before making any changes. As much as a proofreader can highlight poor areas, they aren't 100% infallible. Change what makes sense to you.



Anyone up for a summary? Wonderful! Here is a checklist of the major DOs and DO NOTs of writing a brilliant synopsis:



DO be selective on your points


DO write in third person present tense


DO place side characters where they belong - to the side


DO be concise and direct to keep your word count low and your reader more likely to finish it


DO inject your own unique voice, complete with plot twist reveals to demonstrate the exciting reading experience you can offer


DO start with an enticing hook


DO check with the agent or publisher’s approved length limits and other important guidelines


DO include a complete narrative with an ending/resolution


DO include an explanation paragraph if there is considerable world-building elements which would make it difficult for the reader to follow


DO put character names in all caps the first time they are mentioned, and limit the characters in the synopsis to those who impact the story.



DO NOT include everything


DO NOT write in first or second person, or future or past tense


DO NOT go beyond 2 A4 pages, and even then do not make it any longer than utterly necessary


DO NOT let it read like a shopping list or instruction manual, bland and without feeling


DO NOT split the synopsis into sections, just keep it running


DO NOT mention characters until they enter the story or have an impact (no sneaky early mentions!)


DO NOT get bogged down with names, places or terminology which – if changed later – have no impact on the story as a whole.


DO NOT go into a character backstory unless it impacts on motivations, choices and actions within the main plot


DO NOT use terms like ‘at the climax’ or ‘the resolution’, forced structure construction takes the reader out of the experience.


DO NOT mention plot themes, interpretations, or other unnecessary commentary


DO NOT include dialogue unless completely necessary


DO NOT ask rhetorical or unanswered questions – this goes against the ‘direct’ approach


DO NOT get pretty with your prose; if a character is a hopeless romantic just say so – the reader will understand there will be demonstrations of this in the full manuscript

By following these steps, you should have a solid synopsis worthy of informing agents and publishers alike of your incredible manuscript just waiting to be read. Not sure how to find the right agent for you? Check out Choosing The Right Literary Agent and worry no more!

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