“PPlease send a synopsis of your story”. Words which strike fear and loathing in the heart of any author. You want an agent or publisher to just read your story and then hand you a publishing deal, but before they’ll do any of that they insist on you sending them a summary of the book.
It’s annoying, yes. But it’s also a necessary evil. From the author’s perspective, the agent / publisher won’t look at your submission without it. From the agent / publisher’s perspective, they receive so many enquiries and submissions that they need a short and simple way to understand whether a story is really something they’d consider, before they start reading all 70,000, 80,000 or 200,000 words of your actual manuscript.
There are only so many hours in the day. Even for publishing types.
In theory it sounds simple enough: just summarise your story. Then you sit down to write and you either:
- Find yourself rewriting your book, almost word-for-word, and certainly more than the two-page limit the darned publisher/agent asked you to stick to, or
- Freeze up, not knowing where to start, what to cut out, what to include, how much detail, how little, whether… Argh!
We feel your pain. As writers ourselves, we’ve sat there and agonised over that same question with our own books, spent many a sleepless night struggling to fit a novel-length masterpiece into a short two pages. It’s like trying to fit an elephant into a shoe box: there’s a lot of swearing and effort and, no matter how much you try, it’s just too big. And often there’s a lot of weeping, strange noises and faeces.
(Apparently we’re over-sharing again, so moving on…)
Rumours that we made the leap into publishing to avoid having to ever write our own synopses again are totally wide of the mark. Well, mostly wide of the mark. OK, it certainly entered into our thinking.
In short, we know how hard it is, and so here’s our short and simple guide (because we’re short and simple people!) to writing your own synopsis.
What’s A Synopsis and What’s It For?
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly are agents or publishers asking for when they request a synopsis?
The dictionary definition of a “synopsis” is: “a short summary”. That’s it: a short, concise summary of your story.
Note: it’s a summary of your story, not your book. The purpose of your synopsis isn’t to set out every single part of your book, page by page. Instead, you want to outline and summarise the story you are telling within that book. Yes, you will have interesting and intriguing subplots and side characters and settings in your book; but unless they are central to the story which drives your book, those things have no place in your synopsis.
Remember: you’re going to be limited to a set number of pages or words. Anything you can strip out, you should.
Agents and publishers want a synopsis so they can understand what the story is about, whether it shows promise as an idea, whether it develops the main characters, sets up an interesting problem and then solves it. They will typically read the synopsis before they look at your manuscript – so they can see whether it’s the sort of story they are interested in. This may sound harsh and unfair, but bear in mind that agents and publishers will often receive tens or even hundreds of submissions a week (or even a day). If they read every single book they received cover-to-cover, they’d never publish anything.
So in this way, your synopsis is a key marketing tool: it’s your way of showing that you’re a professional, that you have an interesting story with a satisfying conclusion, a story that should be read as soon as possible. It puts your foot in the door, gets the attention of the reader and makes them want to know more and (hopefully) get your book published.
So with that in mind, what should you bear in mind when you come to bash out your synopsis?
R.T.F.Q.: Read The (ahem) Flipping Question
Check the requirements set by the agent or publisher who’s requested the synopsis. If there’s a word or page limit for the synopsis, then make sure you stick to it. Likewise if they’ve asked for a set format, in terms of font size and paragraph / line spacing then make sure that your submission is in line with that formatting.
Don’t be tempted to cheat. If the synopsis should be no more than two pages long but you can’t get it less than four pages, don’t reduce everything down to font size 5 just to make it all fit in. Your publisher also needs to be able to read it. And ideally without the use of a microscope.
Please Don’t Tease
A common mistake new authors make is to confuse a synopsis with a blurb. One of these “synopses” might read something like this:
“Luke Skywalker is an ordinary farmboy on a distant planet a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. When his only living family are killed by Imperial Stormtroopers just after he comes into possession of two droids, he is forced into the arms of Old Ben Kenobi, a mysterious hermit with a dark past. Uncovering a strange message from a beautiful princess, they team up with a renegade bounty hunter and his Wookie co-pilot. Can they rescue the princess–and the galaxy–from the evil Darth Vader before it’s too late?”
This might be enough to hook a reader in a bookshop and get them wanting to read on, but 9 times out of 10 it will have agents and publishers grinding their teeth in frustration. “I don’t want to be teased,” they will howl as they toss the paper aside. “This doesn’t tell me anything beyond the first half of the book!”
Never end your synopsis with a teaser or a question. Remember: the point of your synopsis is to show the reader exactly what your story is about, including whether it has a satisfying ending. Don’t worry about ruining the impact of your killer twist or amazing ending; the agent or publisher wants to know whether those things are in there and whether they make sense in the context of your story. Remember that many agents or publishers will only read your book if they like the synopsis, so if you have an unbelievably good twist or ending and you don’t include it in your synopsis, then they will just assume that there is no twist, or the ending is run-of-the-mill.
Tell Us All About It
So your synopsis should tell the reader everything about the story, including (and especially):
- What sort of story it is – such as what genre it is
- Who the main characters are
- When and where it’s set
- What the main story problem is
- What happens to the characters during the story
- How the characters solve the story problem
- How the story ends
You should not include:
- Subplots and characters which aren’t central to the main story. As a test here, if you remove a subplot or character from your synopsis and the story still works and makes sense, then they shouldn’t be in your synopsis
- Long passages of prose from your book. Remember, space in your synopsis is limited. Its purpose is to set out the story; if an agent / publisher wants to see what your writing style is like, they’ll read your manuscript
- Teaser questions. See above…
Make It Easy To Read
Agents and publishers receive a lot of submissions. A LOT. You want your synopsis to stand out from the crowd, to be a joy to read.
Make it as easy as possible on the tired agent’s eyes. Use a font and font size which is easy to read: Arial, Calibri or Garamond are often safe bets, with size 11 a good readable size. Avoid trying to be funky and creative and using comic sans or the like: it may make you stand out, but for all the wrong reasons!
Also make sure there’s plenty of white space on the page: there’s nothing worse than seeing a page full of dense text. Split your text into short paragraphs, with double spaces between each paragraph and nice wide margins to either side and top and bottom.
It’s often a good idea to capitalise the names of the main characters and settings when they’re first mentioned so it’s easy for the reader to spot that a new one has been mentioned and so they can scan back to where they first appeared if they need to remember how they first came into the story (for example: LUKE SKYWALKER is a farmboy…”).
Also, don’t forget to include a heading at the top of all pages with your name and the title of the book, and page numbers in the header or footer. If an agent prints a whole batch of submissions and then drops them on the floor, you don’t want yours to get mixed up with someone else’s, do you?
Get Some Distance
As we said at the start, though, we know that writing a synopsis isn’t the easiest job in the world. Often it’s because you’re too close to your own story; why wouldn’t you be? It’s your story, that you’ve slaved over for months if not years of your life…
As the renowned Australian philosophers Crowded House once said: “It’s only natural”.
So if you’re struggling, chances are it’s because you’re just too close to your own story. Stripping out a certain bit, deciding it’s not relevant, is like asking you which of your own limbs you’d like to hack off. So take some time out, put your story to one side for a few weeks or even months and do something else. Then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Or, if someone else has read it – an editor, family member, or friend – ask them to summarise your story for you and then use this as the basis for your synopsis.
It’s Worth the Effort
A synopsis is important as a way of selling your book to an agent or publisher. It’s also a useful way to sense-check whether your story works, giving you a fresh way of looking at your book and make sure that it really does make sense and hang together when you strip away all the dialogue and descriptions. With practice, in this way, it can help make you a better writer.
So good luck! Feel free to comment below your synopsis fears or sticking points – we might be able to help. And when you’ve got that synopsis done, we’d love to read it (and your book!) – check out our submissions page for the genres we’re looking for and how to get your story to us.
The Burning Chair Team