Thursday, 10 April 2014

Writing Ramble: How to Write a Synopsis

I recently found myself asked to critique a novel synopsis written by a friend of a friend, and since my critiquing ended up as more of a how-to-write-a-synopsis guide, I thought it would be worth reproducing here:

A synopsis should be a summary of your entire plot, from beginning to end, leaving out no significant detail, character or development.  However, the plot is the thing: characters and places need only be described with the bare details that allow a reader to understand their behaviour within the story.  A synopsis should begin at the beginning and continue chronologically to the end, including any twists and eleventh hour developments.  Plot threads should be incorporated more or less as they arise in the book itself, although some simplification is obviously okay and necessary; it's fine to say "meanwhile" or "on the other side of town" or whatever.

A synopsis shouldn't try to trick, mislead or tease the reader - plot twists should be revealed as they arise rather than as characters discover them - and although it's a good thing if it's entertaining, it shouldn't really try to entertain either.  Its first and most crucial role is to convey to someone with no knowledge of your story exactly what happens; the important thing is that by the end the reader knows exactly what your story is.  Of course, the really important thing is that they both know your story and are intrigued to read it in full, but the only way to achieve that is to write a good enough story in the first place and then to convey it as clearly and succinctly as possible.  Trying to persuade the reader simply won't work; it's their job to know better than that.

With that in mind, there should be no trace of you the author in a synopsis.  An editor has no interest in you, (at this stage, anyway), only your story.  Never refer to "my novel" and never refer to the story as a story, or plot twists as plot twists, or strands as strands.  In fact, write it as if you're describing a really fantastic story by someone else, and your only goal is to express it as clearly as possible so that other people can see for themselves how great it is.  A synopsis is as much a storytelling vehicle as the book it describes, and should be readable as a story in its own right, albeit a spartan and abbreviated one.

Editors and agents will likely ask for either a three page or a one page synopsis.  Write both.  (I write the three page first and compress it, but whatever works.)  Use every word you can cram in without making the formatting unpleasant to read; writing a synopsis that fills half a page implies that you haven't enough plot to talk about for an entire page.  Play around with margins and paragraphs if you have to.  Single space, unless it makes the text look cramped.  It should be a challenge to say everything you want to say in such a tiny space, not the other way around.  But the end result should be comfortable on the eye.  Your goal at every stage is firstly to not put the reader off - with typos, bad formatting, rambling sentences, lapses of professionalism - and then, once you've convinced them you're not wasting time, to persuade them they'd like to read your novel and possibly purchase / represent it.  But if you can't get past the first stage, you'll never stand a chance at the second.

Lastly ... a synopsis should be as well written, edited and formatted as your novel, or even more so.  It should be your storytelling at its absolute best, lucid and concise.  Use clear, short sentences.  Make the spelling and grammar impeccable.  If you can't write a flawless one page synopsis, no editor is going to feel enthusiastic about wading through however-many-hundred pages of your novel.

Oh, and as with all things writing-related, use a clear font, Times New Roman or Courier New.  Use a common file format, .rtf or .doc; anything else is likely to be deleted unread.  If in doubt, I go for .rtf.


  1. That is useful! Thank you for advice!

  2. Great article, David! You explain the synopsis well! If it helps, it should be about two pages. A synopsis should show that you understand how to build the work that you have in front of you. A synopsis makes clear how the conflict unfolds, what the fine points of the plot are, who the antagonist is and how that antagonist is pushing against that main character. All in two pages.