L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

by Jane Friedman

It’s probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare: the synopsis. The synopsis is sometimes required because an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, the synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending.

Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy—the kind of material that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.

Unfortunately, there is no single “right” way to write a synopsis. You’ll find conflicting advice about the appropriate length, which makes it rather confusing territory for new writers especially. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. If your synopsis runs longer, anything up to two pages (again, single spaced) is usually acceptable. Most agents/editors will not be interested in a synopsis longer than a few pages.

While this post is geared toward writers of fiction, the same principles can be applied to memoir and other narrative nonfiction works.

Why the novel synopsis is important to agents and editors

The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., “it was just a dream” endings, ridiculous acts of god, a category romance ending in divorce. It can reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. Or it can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or the plot is hackneyed, your manuscript may not get read.

The good news: Some agents hate synopses and never read them; this is more typical for agents who represent literary work. Either way, agents usually aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language (Miss Snark recommends “energy and vitality”).

Synopses should usually be written in third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person). For memoirists, I recommend first person, but first or third is acceptable.

What the novel synopsis must accomplish

First, you need to tell the story of what characters we’ll care about, which includes the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for her. Motivation is fairly critical here—we need to understand what drives this character to act.

Second, we need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.

Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.

If you cover those three things, that won’t leave you much time for detail. You won’t be able to mention every character or event. You’ll probably leave out some subplots, and some of the minor plot twists and turns. You can’t summarize each scene or even every chapter, and some aspects of your story will have to be broadly generalized so as to avoid detailing a series of events or interactions that don’t materially affect the story’s outcome.

To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in generating conflict for the protagonist, or otherwise assisting the protagonist. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how they might change, too. 

A good rule of thumb for determining what stays and what goes: If the ending wouldn’t make sense without the character or plot point being mentioned, then it belongs in the synopsis. If the character or plot point comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and increases the tension or complication each time, then it definitely belongs.

The most common novel synopsis mistake

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a mechanical account of your story (or the dreaded “synopsis speak”), without depth or texture. Think of what it would sound like if you summarized a football game by saying. “Well, the Patriots scored. And then the Giants scored. Then the Patriots scored twice in a row.” That’s sterile and doesn’t give us the meaning behind how events are unfolding. Instead, you would say something like, “The Patriots scored a touchdown after more than one hour of a no-score game, and the underdog of the team led the play. The crowd went wild.”

The secret to a great novel synopsis

A synopsis includes the characters’ emotions. That will help you avoid the mechanic’s manual situation. Instead, include both story advancement (plot stuff) and color (character stuff).

Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) =
Decision (Story Advancement)

Common novel synopsis pitfalls

  • Don’t get weighed down with the specifics of character names, places, and other proper names or terms. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story only briefly, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say “Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.” That’s an unnecessary tangent. (When you do mention specific names, it’s common to put the name in caps in the first instance, so it’s easy for agents or editors to see at a glance who the key figures are.)
  • Don’t spend time explicitly explaining or deconstructing your story’s themes. A synopsis tells the story, but it doesn’t try to offer an interpretation. Similarly, avoid showing the “stitches” of your story; this is where you add things that describe the book’s structure, such as “in the climax of the novel,” or “in a series of tense scenes.”
  • Avoid character backstory unless it’s tied to the character’s motivations and desires throughout the book. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background; ideally, you should reference it when it affects how events unfold. If you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the synopsis. 
  • Avoid including dialogue, and if you do, be sparing. Make sure the dialogue you include is absolutely iconic of the character or represents a linchpin moment in the book.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical or unanswered questions. Remember, your goal here isn’t to entice a reader.
  • Generally you should avoid splitting the synopsis into sections. In rare cases, there might be a reason to have subheads in the synopsis, due to a unique narrative structure, but try to avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play.
  • While your synopsis will reflect your ability to write, it’s not the place to get pretty with your prose. That means you should leave out any attempts to impress through poetic description. You can’t take the time to show everything in your synopsis. Often you have to tell, and sometimes this is confusing to writers who’ve been told for years to “show don’t tell.” For example, it’s OK to just come out and say your main character is a “hopeless romantic” rather than trying to show it.

For speculative fiction writers

Science fiction and fantasy writers may need to open their synopsis with a paragraph or so that helps establish the world we’re entering and the rules of that world. This helps us better understand the characters and their motivations once introduced. For example, a synopsis of Harry Potter might clarify upfront that the world is divided into Muggles and wizards, and that the Muggles have no idea that a magical world exists. Or, this fact could be relayed in the synopsis once Harry Potter learns about it himself.

Usually it’s best to avoid using proper terms or nouns that have to be defined or explained unless such terms are central to your story (like “Muggles” above). Instead, try to get the point across in language that anyone can understand and gets the same point across. The goal here is to focus on telling the story rather than increasing the mental workload of the agent/editor, who has to decipher and remember the unfamiliar vocabulary.

How to avoid novel synopsis wordiness

Synopsis language has to be very stripped down. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Very Wordy

At work, Elizabeth searches for Peter all over the office and finally finds him in the supply room, where she tells him she resents the remarks he made about her in the staff meeting.

Tight

At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter about his remarks at the staff meeting.

How to start your novel synopsis

Within the first 100-200 words, we should know your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting. Then you’ll have to decide which major plot turns/conflicts must be conveyed for everything to make sense, and which characters must be mentioned. (You should not mention all of them.) Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula. The ending paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved—yes, you have to reveal the ending! No exceptions.

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