When you’re ready to start querying your manuscript with agents, there are three components that are generally required:
A query letter
The first three chapters or 50 pages
I’ve already discussed on this blog how to write a query letter for agents, and I’ve covered the different ways to self-edit and prepare your opening pages for submission. Now it’s time to tackle what many consider the most challenging piece: the dreaded synopsis.
I don’t know what it is about the synopsis, but whenever I think about having to write one, I hear ominous music playing in my head and I get goosebumps. But fear not – we’re going to tackle this one together. Every traditionally published author has been in this position, and they’ve lived to tell the tale.
So without further ado, let’s get into this.
What is a synopsis?
This is one of the things most authors get wrong when it comes to preparing their query package. To answer what a synopsis is, we’re first going to look at what it isn’t.
A synopsis is NOT:
A blurb – it’s bigger than that.
An outline – it’s smaller than that.
So what is a synopsis? It’s a brief account of the events of your novel that introduces the main characters, the conflict, and – importantly – the resolution. Yes, that’s right, you’re supposed to give away your ending in a synopsis. Reveal who the murderer was, tell us whether the protagonist gets what they set out to obtain, unmask the villain. No secrets here.
But your synopsis should be more than just a mechanical description of the key beats in your story. You need to bring in the emotional impact that these events have on your character. Most character arcs are internal so you need to clearly establish where your protagonist’s mind is at the start of the story, their motivations for going on their journey, and where they are at the end.
Of course, you have to do all of this without being too wordy.
How long should a synopsis be?
To make querying more fun (read soul-destroying), there isn’t actually an agreed-upon length for a synopsis. Generally, you don’t want it to be longer than two pages of A4 – and don’t try to give yourself more wiggle room by using a tiny font and thin margins. The purpose of a synopsis is to summarise your plot in a clear and concise format. If you’re really struggling to do this, then that is a sign that your story has flaws and isn’t ready for querying yet.
Some agents will have different requirements, however. On my querying journey, I’ve seen some ask for a one-page synopsis and others ask for five pages. It’s good practise to create synopses of different lengths, not only to challenge yourself, but to make sure you’re ready for whatever the querying trenches throw at you.
How to format a synopsis
Again, the desired format for a synopsis can change from agency to agency. Some will want double-spaced, others might ask for a certain font size etc. It’s very important to read each agency’s submission guidelines carefully and adhere to whatever standards they ask for.
In the absence of any specific guidelines, it’s advised to simply make your synopsis clear to read and stick to the following defaults:
Reasonable font size (11pt or 12pt is good)
In terms of the writing style, it’s also best to write the synopsis in third-person present tense and to write your character names in block capitals on first use.
MARY is in a loveless marriage to JEFF and longs for freedom. When a letter arrives from her high-school friend SARAH, now living her dream life in Paris, she sees an opportunity to make a change.
Tactics for writing a synopsis
The way I see it, there are two ways you can approach your synopsis: broaden the hook, or slim down the book.
Broaden the hook
This method involves starting with your hook – the one-sentence summary of your whole manuscript – and building on it. By doing this, you are starting with the core of your story and gradually adding more and more details until you reach the desired length of your synopsis.
Slim down the book
If you’re less of a builder and more of a cutter, this method starts with a detailed outline of the manuscript and works down from there. Once you have every beat and plot point identified, you can start to take out the bits that aren’t crucial to the synopsis – the extraneous characters, the subplots, the fluff scenes you’ve thrown in to slow the pace.
Try both methods and see which works best for you. Some writers find it easier to start small and expand while others prefer to bring out the shears and slice off what isn’t needed. There is no right way, and it might be that neither of these methods work for you. Perhaps you can simply sit down and type out a 1000-word synopsis right off the bat. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you arrive with a synopsis you can be proud of.
What not to include in a synopsis
Every character in your book. The synopsis is not the place for a full cast list. You really don’t have enough space to talk about all of your characters, so only mention the ones that have a direct impact on the main plot.
Every subplot. As with your characters, there’s only so much room in the synopsis, and you won’t be able to fit in every subplot. If it ties into the protagonist’s motivations, then mention it, but be wary of going into too much unnecessary detail.
Rhetorical questions. These should ideally stay out of every aspect of your query package because they’re so overused nowadays that they tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth. They don’t drum up the suspense you think they do and they can almost always be rephrased to a much more exciting statement. Also, remember what I said about not having secrets in the synopsis? There should be no unanswered questions.
Weak: Can Phoebe overcome her fear of spiders and beat the Arachnid King?
Stronger: Phoebe learns to face her fear and stand up to the Arachnid King to save her little brother.
Discussion of themes. I’ll say it again – you do not have room in your synopsis for this. Don’t waste your precious word count discussing how love conquering evil is a key theme for your manuscript. Instead, show that through the narrative beats.