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How to Write a Novel Synopsis

What It Is and Why You Need It

A novel synopsis, written always in the present tense, is like a Reader's Digest condensed book in the extreme. Its purpose is not to tell "about" your novel, but to reduce 90,000 words to fewer than five pages as interesting as the original. If you can distil the manuscript to two or three pages and still make the story interesting, all the better. But remember, this truncated version must create interest in the same way the novel does-with strong characters, interesting action, beautiful language, and plot urgency.

The purpose of the novel synopsis is threefold:

  1. to sell your manuscript
  2. to highlight your writing skills and professionalism
  3. to describe the plot as sufficiently marketable

Both an agent and a publisher will want to see this concise summary of your novel before they even consider taking you on, so what you present must be a stirring distillation that leaves readers eager for more.

When your manuscript is finished and ready to send out, information on an agent's web site will most likely ask for a cover letter, a synopsis, and possibly the first three chapters of the manuscript. These are your sales tools, and if you can't raise interest with these three items, you're out of luck. The agent will not ask to see anything else and you will not have a second chance.

So, how do you get your novel synopsis right the first time?

Format

  • Aim for 1 - 5 pages
  • Double space
  • Write your name at the top of the first page, at the left margin
  • Follow with your complete address, telephone number and email address, on separate lines
  • Write the novel genre at the top of the first page, at the right margin, opposite your name
  • Below this write the word count of the novel, also flush right
  • Below this write the word "synopsis"
  • Six spaces below your contact information centre the title in UPPERCASE letters
  • Leave two spaces and begin writing the synopsis below the title.

To see a sample, click Format Novel Synopsis

Write

  1. First outline your novel. Go through the manuscript chapter by chapter, and write about the action in that chapter. Who wants what? Who or what gets in the way? What results? Wherever possible, use bits of text, description, or dialogue directly from the manuscript. Do all you can to make your summary an abbreviated version of each actual scene.

  2. When you're finished, name each chapter summary the way writers named chapters in previous centuries. This isn't strictly necessary, but it's a tool you can use to heighten interest. "The First Blind Man" is more interesting and will raise more interest than "Chapter One," for example. When you have the entire manuscript reduced to a chapter by chapter summary, you're ready for the next step.

  3. If you're like most people, your chapter summary will be long, twenty pages or more. So now you want to condense further. After you sell the novel, the publisher's editor may want to see this chapter summary before they forward part of your advance, so all this work has a dual purpose. As you wrote the chapter summary, you likely had a sense that some events were more interesting than others. (These observations can be useful to you later, when you make further revisions.) You'll leave those scenes out of this draft of the synopsis and will describe only the most interesting and vivid plot points. It's up to you to make these points vivid.

    You won't write, "Candace and Jack meet at a party and Candace thinks Jack is a pompous ass." Instead you'll write something like, "Jack and Candace meet at an art opening on her way home from work. Still in her navy skirt, walking shoes, and short socks, she meets Jack, impeccably dressed for dinner. As she stands beside the hors d'oeuvres table, careful to hold her wine glass by the stem and not the bowl, Jack, in loud conversation with a woman tagging behind him, pushes past her to scoop most of the caviar garnish at the table onto a single cracker."

  4. Go through the chapter summary to extract all the best bits in this way, making this reduced novel synopsis as compelling as possible. To get a sense of what is needed, take a look at the books on your shelves. I happen to have Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters on my desk right now. I flip it over and see this:
    Nariman Vakeel, the patriarch of a small discordant family, is beset by Parkinson's and haunted by memories of his past. He lives with his two middle-aged stepchildren, Coomy, bitter and domineering, and her brother, Jal, mild-mannered and acquiescent. But the burden of illness worsens the already strained family relationships. Soon, their sweet-tempered half-sister, Roxana is forced to assume sole responsibility for her bedridden father. And Roxana's husband, besieged by financial worries, devises a scheme of deception...
  5. Focus on the action of the protagonist and on the people or complications that get in the way of his or her desired goal and include enough description and dialogue to keep the writing lively, but remember that it all must follow in good cause and effect order, and you must include the full story. Agents and editors will not be amused if you end with a cliff-hanger meant to entice them to ask for more. They don't care if you ruin the surprise. They need to know that the story works from beginning to end. You'll skim over a lot, but the highlights must make an agent forget all the chunks left out, so that you end up with something akin to a good short story.

  6. Allow tension to build throughout the novel synopsis in the same way it builds in the novel. The beginning will unravel slower than the end, where you should forego description and raise tension with short vowels, shorter sentences, and a sense of urgency.

  7. Finally, edit and polish your novel synopsis until there is nothing left to remove. Sentences should be dense and tight, dialogue swift, crisp, and sparse. Solicit the help of a professional if you need to because this is important.

    • make solid transitions
    • avoid repetition or redundancies
    • avoid adverbs
    • replace vague pronouns
    • check cause/effect and action/reaction sequences

    For a longer editing list CLICK HERE

Novel Synopsis Checklist

  1. No more than five pages
  2. Double space
  3. Indent paragraphs (no extra space between them)
  4. Write character names in UPPERCASE letters the first time you use the name
  5. Write in the first person
  6. Include a brief character sketch of each major character
  7. Be sure the main character's goal is clear
  8. Cover all the key plot points (beginning and end with a few key complications in the middle)
  9. Examine the conflict at the centre of the story


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