Ruth E. Walker
The manuscript is finished. You’ve edited until you can’t look at the words for one more minute. Your beta readers are all giving you the Thumbs Up. It’s ready to go out.
Then you see it. On the submissions page of the publisher you hope will publish your book. They want a synopsis. (Cue Jaws music.)
Good grief. You’ve perfected your manuscript. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Get over it. They want a synopsis and you have to produce one. So let’s cover the main points to help you pull it together.
Just the important bits
A synopsis is a kind of point-by-point outline of the story, summarizing what happens and who is changed by the end.
A synopsis is not a marketing tool but the first paragraph should offer a touch of a hook or any of the unique elements of the story. It’s not written like your novel yet it should hold a sense of your writing voice…your style…and the genre/style of the book. And just as important, it’s not a jacket blurb so be prepared to reveal the ending.
If a synopsis is interesting enough, agents and publishers will want to read the manuscript despite knowing the ending.
Short is sweet
For a novel, a synopsis can be as short as one page or as long as five pages. I recommend going shorter. Ideally, no more than two pages. Unlike the manuscript, text is single spaced so you have a fair amount of room in those two pages.
To take full advantage of two pages, keep to the main story and the primary characters. You’re outlining the events but this is not a point-form summary. So your creative self needs to come through in how the synopsis is crafted. You can, for example, lift a slice of description or a touch of dialogue right out of the manuscript to use in your synopsis.
For example: Mary is distraught by her husband’s perceived betrayal. “I’ve wasted years of trusting you!” Little does she realize that she is the one who betrayed them both.
Motivation + action = story
A synopsis needs to introduce the main characters, a touch of character(s) motivation and reveal conflict right from the beginning.
Don’t be coy—set the stage for the rest of the story: Mary and Omar are the ideal couple, leaders in their rural community and a successful left-leaning political team. Newly re-elected mayor, Mary is confused when Omar opts to resign his council seat without telling her first. But when she discovers he’s involved with a far-right insurgency, she’s horrified and throws him out of their home. Then terrorists take a bus full of school children hostage and Omar is the only person they’ll negotiate with.
Subplots are not part of a synopsis but you can offer a single line or two if it matters to the main story.
For example: The themes of betrayal and loss are mirrored in a subplot involving school friends. In the same way, background or walk-on characters don’t need to be mentioned unless they are integral to the plot. As with subplots, keep it to one line: When the terrorist spokeswoman hesitates, she’s executed by the leader who then gives police 5 minutes before one of the children will be killed.
Zip up the ending
When you get to the ending, don’t short change your synopsis. Demonstrate how your ending has punch or significance: As Mary holds a dying Omar in her arms, she realizes her refusal to listen to the only man she’s ever loved cost him his life. Whispering into his ear, she promises to raise their unborn child with a true understanding of its father and his beliefs.
Check for basics
There are several ways to tackle a synopsis. A simple approach builds it from listing the major turning points for your main character, then fleshing out a brief summary of the action at each point. Don’t forget to keep the whole narrative arc in mind as you work:
Inciting incident or the crack in the world of your main character that sets them off.
Rising action or the events that add tension and propel the story forward.
Climax or the point of excitement, ultimate change or Oh My God moment.
Resolution or the place that brings the story to a close.
There’s no perfect way to write your synopsis. But if you keep to these four elements, add in a dash of your writerly style and remember to focus on the main story, you should be well on your way to a compelling two-pager.
The Last Word: more synopsis resources
https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis/ — examples and ideas on building a great synopsis.
https://theeditorsblog.net/2012/07/15/clear-the-dread-from-the-dreaded-synopsis/— a detailed analysis of the how and why of synopsis. A long read but packed with things to consider once you’ve got the basics put together.