Most of the time, you can’t submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher without sending in a synopsis first. Why would anyone spend time poring through several hundred pages of text, after all, when they have zero idea of what it is about. A synopsis allows them to get a clear picture of what the manuscript presents in detail without having to invest too much time in reading and understanding the material.
Look at the submission guidelines provided by agents and publishers. More often than not, you’ll find a recommendation to hold back the manuscript and send in the synopsis first. Or they’ll want a synopsis with the first chapter (or two or three) of a novel. That’s it. This places serious value on your synopsis, as it will play a major role on your chances of actually selling a manuscript.
The Synopsis Sells
Think it’s your manuscript’s cover letter that sells it? Think again. While it does carry weight, the synopsis is the most significant selling tool to get agents and publishers to the next step of actually reading your manuscript. If they like the synopsis, they’ll proceed. If they don’t, then it’s not a far stretch for them to assume they’ll probably dislike the longer material as well.
A Synopsis Is Not An Outline
That outline you make to map out your novel before you start writing? That’s not a synopsis. That’s your personal tool for organizing your thoughts and ideas. It’s likely valuable only to you, not to your agent, editor or publisher.
A Synopsis Is Not A Blurb
Those 100-word blurbs at the back of books that seem to encapsulate what the volume is about? That’s not a synopsis. It’s a marketing tool put together by copywriters attempting to sell the book to prospective readers browsing available titles. Your agent, editor or publisher isn’t concerned with that — at least, not at this stage.
A Synopsis Is Not A Summary
A summary is a retelling of the whole story in shorter form. Writing a summary as a synopsis is how many novice writers end up with a synopsis that’s too long for most agents and publishers to bother reading. Summaries attempt to tell the whole story without most of the dressings, including every pertinent scene and important twist. A synopsis need not bother with that much detail.
When writing a synopsis, your goal is to write a short document that accurately tells the important points of your story, from the initial conflict to the resolution. And by short, we don’t mean a 20-page summary. Instead, a synopsis should stretch to no more than two pages (ideally one) when typed in a single space layout. You want a short document that answers the question “What happens in this story?”, giving the agent or editor reading it a clear idea of its most important parts.
Note: forget about teasers and cliffhangers. You’re not building suspense with a manuscript. Instead, you’re selling a story, so put down what really happens in your story. That includes giving away special twists, surprises and endings. Basically, you serve the steak — leave the sizzle to the manuscript.
Writing The Synopsis
Step 1: Write Down What Happens In Each Scene
Considering most novels will have 70 or more scenes, this could go long. Don’t worry. This is a rough draft — a way to account for every important thing that happens in your story. Ignore the chapters and jot down your notes per scene — condensing each scene into a single paragraph. Expect around 15 or more pages from this first stage, which we will look to cut down in the succeeding steps.
Step 2: Condense The Scenes Into A Single Story
Go through each paragraph and condense them, combining those that make sense to go together into a single paragraph. Focus on the high points — those things that show the reader where the story is going. Remove everything else that doesn’t fulfill that criteria.
Step 3: Remove Dressings
Take down all the mood, humor, wit and similar elements. Basically, remove everything that’s supposed to make your prose beautiful. Also, get rid of the traces of vivid descriptions, character development and brilliant pacing. They’re not necessary. A synopsis should concern itself with “what happens” in the story and nothing more — no clever tricks necessary.
At this point, your synopsis should be very short. Hopefully, you’ve chopped it down enough to fit into two pages or less. If it still runs longer than that, repeat steps 2 and 3 until you get there. The goal, at least at this point, should be to pare it down to a single page (or a page and a half), so you have room to add stuff for polish.
Step 4: Tie It All Together
During steps 2 and 3, you revised to cut down on words. Here, you revise to ensure your synopsis flows in a manner that’s both interesting and easy to understand — these are the main goals. If you have the room, you can throw in a few story-telling elements, provided they can enhance the effect on the reader, as a secondary goal (note: skip this if the synopsis already runs long).
Step 5: Proofread
Like all writing, you want to proofread your synopsis, ensuring there are no errors in grammar, spelling and information. Basically, this is a last review — your final chance to put in changes. Once you’re done with this step, the document is done and ready for submission.
The Quick Synopsis
Think that process is too long? Yes, it is and intentionally so. The synopsis is your primary selling tool for the manuscript so it deserves that much attention paid upon it. In case you find it hard working with that much structure or you’re seriously pressed for time, here’s a quick and dirty trick for coming up with a synopsis.
Paragraph 1: Establish the main characters and their initial conflicts. End with these conflicts creating a difficult situation for the protagonist.
Paragraph 2: Detail the initial efforts done to deal with these conflicts. End with the failure of these initial efforts.
Paragraph 3: Tell the main part of the story — the points where the hero deals with the conflict head-on and makes great progress.
Paragraph 4: Detail the climax.
Paragraph 5: Tie up any loose ends by offering explanations.