Peter Richardson sent in a question on a topic that I am fairly sure most writers agonise over: My difficulty is the synopsis. I find it harder to write a one page summary than an entire book. Any tips?
Before giving tips on the nuts and bolts of writing a synopsis, it’s worth spending a few moments questioning who the synopsis is for and what they actually require.
Many agents and publishers ask for a synopsis of no more than a single page, others are more generous and will allow between two and five pages, and then there are those who don’t want a synopsis as such, but require the author to supply the type of blurb found on the back and/or inside jacket of a novel.
So, before you begin, your first port of call should be the submission guidelines. If the guidelines allow several pages, why make your task harder by keeping it to one page?
Okay, so we now assume you know how long the synopsis has to be and we need to move on to the actual writing.
The thought of sitting down and condensing an entire novel is always daunting, but it needn’t be. Break the task down and approach it step by step.
One of the best methods is to sit down with your ms and a notepad. Note down what happens in each chapter, so that you have the entire book in summary. Look out for the various themes and make a note of them – this knowledge will be invaluable when you write the synopsis.
Right, now you have a chapter by chapter outline of the book and from that you can pick out the important aspects to go in the synopsis. While doing this, don’t forget that you need to entice the synopsis reader, so make sure you include plenty of conflict and show how the story and characters are driven as a result.
Something I saw on a website many years ago struck me as clever. Imagine you have met a friend at a party and you want to describe a film you saw the night before. You’d only give the bare bones of the story, but you would include all the exciting and/or moving aspects of the film leaving your friend wishing that they hadn’t missed out on the experience. This is what you are aiming for in a synopsis. The bare bones, but told in such a way that the person reading the synopsis can’t wait to get hold of the book.
If you bear the above paragraph in mind, you’ll realise you do not have to mention every character in the book, but you must include all the important ones. Similarly, you do not need to detail every twist and turn of the plot, but you must show clearly what the book is about, the highs and lows of the story, what is at stake for the main characters, and how the heroes deal with the plot shifts.
Do make sure the storyline follows a logical sequence and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Always give the ending of the novel. Apart from anything else, this shows the agent you have worked through the plotline and ironed out any hitches.
The synopsis should be written using the present tense and third person point of view, even if the actual novel is in first person.
Write in the same style you’ve used to write the book, always bearing in mind that this could be the first and only chance you get to show off your own unique voice. If the novel is humorous, use humour. If the book is a rollercoaster thriller, then so should the synopsis be. If the setting is unusual or in some way affects the plot, include a few lines to show this.
Open with a hook which will grab the reader’s attention and show the main characters’ emotions and motivations, including any information that is absolutely necessary (don’t try to tell the reader everything). Make the conclusion seem even more exciting by using shorter sentences.
Synopsis still too long? Go through it again and again taking out all the unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Put it away for a week at least between pruning sessions. You need to come at it with fresh eyes each time.
When it comes to formatting, you do not need a title page for the synopsis, your contact details go in the covering letter, and the novel’s details go on the same page as the synopsis. Start by putting the following information in the top left-hand corner of the page.
Or, if writing for children, put: Genre and age group:
Use single line spacing. Block the first paragraph to the left and indent all subsequent paragraphs. Write only in the present tense, using the third person. Each time you introduce a new character, put their name in capitals, but revert to lower case thereafter.
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