The synopsis should be the easiest document of all to write – it is after all about the one thing we have real in-depth knowledge of – our story. How many times have you told your story to yourself? How many times have you imagined your book on the shelves? How many times have you imagined telling other people about it? In fact, how many times have you told other people about it? It is likely that the answer is many, so why is it one of the hardest things for us to write?
A small consolation is that you are not alone in finding this hard! It is tricky to get the hang of writing a synopsis but it can be the difference between finding a literary agent or being rejected by a literary agent.
A fair question – surely if the agent likes the writing they should request more and see what happens? Unfortunately, it isn't quite that easy. Literary agents will look at several things when they are assessing a manuscript, including the writing style, the author's voice and the structure of the plot. On first receipt of your manuscript the agent will only be looking at the first three chapters so the synopsis must do the rest of your work justice. The synopsis needs to outline the plot and give the agent enough of an overview of the ins and outs and sub-plots to be able to make a decision as to whether to see more or not.
The synopsis is a crucial tool that the agent uses to help assess the strength of your manuscript. It should sell your novel without being salesy and it should also inform. Avoid it sounding like a book blurb. The book blurb is designed to sell without giving away the key twists and turns of the plot. The synopsis, on the other hand, should give away the key moments in the plot including the conclusion.
Whilst a synopsis serves one main purpose, there is no single way to write it. It is important, however, to know what you need to include and what can be left out.
Before you start to pull your hair out whilst you face what seems to be a mammoth task, just remember this – keep it simple. Don't get bogged down with too many names, places and intricate details that don't illustrate the emotional or physical advancement of the plot.
Your first step is simply to tell the story. Don't justify it – just tell it. It will help to imagine you are telling a friend about your story but you don't have much time with them and you want to get across everything they need to know. Write with this in mind and don't worry too much about length at the moment. If you are imagining telling it as though you are limited for time, then you shouldn't end up writing a large chunk. Look at what you have written and really nail down what is essential and what isn't. What doesn't contribute to the final outcome? Whatever it is – lose it from the synopsis. If you find yourself with many sub-plots that actually don't seem to contribute to the conclusion or the development of the plot then it might be worth reconsidering them as a part of the story – are they essential to plot development? Do they add anything to the overall story?
Generally characters follow a hierarchy in terms of importance of the role they play. Focus on those that play the most significant roles or contribute most to moving the action forward.
Novels usually follow a formula - the protagonist has a goal, whether it is physical or emotional, he will face obstacles along the way that he must overcome to reach this goal and he must have a result at the end whether good or bad, success or failure.
If you have successfully followed this formula you should be able to sum up the very basics of your plot in one sentence and build out from there.
[Protagonist] wants ______________ but to get there he must overcome ___________.
To build this concept out, fill in the details about the protagonist, what their goal is and what they will face on their journey towards this goal. Elaborate on what happens once they reach this goal. Revisit your short synopsis as "told to a friend" and pick out the essentials. Add these in along the goal/obstacle framework. If it helps, sketch this out as a timeline and detail both emotional and physical development as you draw towards the conclusion.
Backstory is something that the reader needs drip-fed to them throughout the story - don't include this in the synopsis. If there are essential pieces of information that are needed from backstory then summarise it within a sentence that also serves another purpose:
[Protagonist], whose murky past as an underworld crime boss finally catches up with him, finds himself on a journey of redemption…
More than ever, every word counts in the synopsis. Keep it as succinct as possible, but avoid it reading as a list of events with no emotion or feeling. If your synopsis is verging on a list style you will find yourself writing things such as "And then he does this…" "Next he goes to…" "Then he finds…".
Our final piece of advice is to relish writing the synopsis. Don't leave it until the very last minute. Writing a synopsis is actually a very good exercise in ensuring your plot and each of its sub-plots are contributing to moving your story forward in some way or other. Of course, the earlier you make a start on your synopsis, the more you will find yourself changing it and tweaking it - that isn't necessarily a bad thing. One thing is for sure – a tight synopsis will keep you focused and on course for a tight, well-put-together plot.