Fiction writing tips: How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.

1. Don’t make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.

2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related to your main characters that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or expertise or a deformity). If a secondary character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with only one leg, you should mention that.

4. Don’t go into detail about setting. If you wrote a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you could simply say, “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”

5. Don’t go into detail about your main character. A few quick strokes are all you need. For example you might say, “Bridget Jones, a ditzy, rather boozy twenty-something . . .”

You don’t have to give away your final plot twist, although you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance, and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly, though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, so you should spill the beans whether you like it or not.

How concise should the synopsis be? Try to keep it to one page, single-spaced, that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end—the problem, the struggle, and the resolution. Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have one ready to send.

I suggest that the first thing to do is write a “logline” for your story. This is a short and informative summary of a story used by screenwriters that encapsulates the story in 20 to 30 words. It has three crucial components:

• Character

• Want

• Obstacle

An interesting character who wants something badly but is having trouble getting it.

The logline must answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

If you can’t boil down your story to a logline, then you can’t write an effective one-paragraph summary for a query letter and the first paragraph of a synopsis.

After that, beginning with the second paragraph of your synopsis, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your main characters, what they do, and what happens to them. To do that, answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Why does this character want what he/she wants?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

The following movie loglines will help you write one for your novel:

THE GODFATHER: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

PULP FICTION: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

FOREST GUMP: Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

THE MATRIX: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

CASABLANCA: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

REAR WINDOW: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

APOCALYPSE NOW During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

THE LION KING Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble.

All of these loglines are under 30 words. Most are under 25 words.

MORE GUIDELINES for a synopsis

• If you submit your synopsis on paper, format it using single-spaced lines; 12-point Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible.

• Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

• Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

• Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says: “Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, they skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then they’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is rejected.”

That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your email query, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in summary form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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