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A Novel Synopsis: How to Craft One Without losing your mind

A novel synopsis is a complete summary of your book, in brief. It outlines everything important that happens in your story--beginning, middle and end. It's an outline, slightly expanded to showcase your writing talent.

When I wrote my first novel, I was told to summarize in five pages or less. Now agents want to see a synopsis of one or two pages. I was told to double space and avoid spaces between paragraphs. Now single spacing is common and spaces between paragraphs are welcome, as they break the text up visually.

But however they have changed in recent years, the purpose of the novel synopsis is the same--to reduce 90,000 words to one or two pages that show exactly what your novel is about and if it's worth a full read:

  • Is the setting of the novel unique and fresh? 
  • Who is the protagonist and how interesting will she be to readers?
  • What has happened to upset the normal world of this character?
  • How does the protagonist respond to these changed circumstances? 
  • How is the central conflict of the story eventually  resolved?
  • Overall, is the story idea and characterization intriguing? 

Novel Synopsis Broken Down

Setting

You don't need to say a lot about setting in your synopsis. Just enough to show how it makes your character and the world of your story more  interesting.  

The protagonist in my first novel, Burning Ground, worked on a fire tower lookout watching for forest fires.  In my second novel, Madame Zee, the main character was mistress  to the leader of an historical cult. Both settings were a little out of the ordinary and that likely helped to attract publishing interest. 

In Steve Martin's novel Shopgirl, the main character sells expensive gloves in the glove department at Neiman Marcus. Who even knew there was a glove department? And what sort of person would work there? Someone quiet and romantic, as it turns out, and the story would have been entirely different had she worked somewhere else. 

The protagonist

 What makes your main character interesting and how do you impart that in only a few words? This is how it's done in a sample synopsis of The Way Way Back in an article by Chuck Sambuchino for Writer's Digest: 

14-year-old DUNCAN is in a station wagon driven by TRENT, his mother’s boyfriend. Trent questions where Duncan would rank on a scale of 1 to 10, and guesses aloud the boy is a 3. Though Duncan says nothing, the unkind remark hurts him deeply.

That example imparts the character's name, his age, the fact that his mother's boyfriend is a jerk. We also learn that Duncan is likely not one of the "cool kids" and that his temperment allows him to keep quiet, even though the remark hurts him. 

That's quite a lot to learn in only a few words, and his response to the unkind remark makes him immediately sympathetic as an "underdog" character. I  want to know what happens to him, and if his mother's horrible boyfriend ever gets payback.  

Most importantly, these are not just dry facts. They are facts that will affect readers emotionally--they cause us to think about emotional pain, and cruelty and what it's like to be a self-conscious teenage boy. Getting a sense of the emotional effect of a novel is crucial.

What upsets the normal world?

Also known as the "inciting incident" that changes everything for a character, the incident that moves a character away from whatever his or her life is like when the novel opens is as important to the story as the incident that creates the climax much later. 

For Duncan, the awkward outsider in the example above, the inciting incident happens when he discovers a waterpark and accepts a job there from the park's eccentric owner. That changes everything for him.

This moment needs to be clear in your synopsis, along with all the main plot points that follow.

How does your main character respond to changed circumstances?

This will be a series of important events as the character takes action to try to get his life back to normal. How to "get back to normal" is the central conflict of the story.

It doesn't matter if getting back to normal means figuring out how to defeat an alien enemy that has attacked the world, or if it means figuring out how to survive the death of a loved one, a stroke, blindness--anything that changes "normal" to "different." 

The story builds on the actions of the character and the results of those actions, so all these important efforts need to be described.

How is the central conflict resolved? 

What does the character do to achieve the goal he has been working toward throughout the entire story? This shows how it all ends for the character. Does he get the girl? The job? Does he escape? Is the world saved?

This is where you will write sentences like this: 

Even though no one believed it possible to save the baby, Janice  devises a harness from reeds that Rick will attach to the child. She lowers it into the well and the baby is safely lifted out. Then Rick follows the tunnel farther and the diggers are finally able to free him.

Don't think you will hold back here and leave an agent or editor guessing about the ending. They need to see that you have the ability to wrap the story up successfully.

Anna Davis, at Curtis Brown Creative literary agency says that including the ending is up to you, but even knowing that, I recommend including it, as the last thing you want to do is  irritate the agent or publisher who expects to see it.

Is the overall book idea intriguing?

That is the point of writing the novel synopsis--to show how interesting your idea is. But however interesting the idea is to you, it may not be to everyone else. Your synopsis allows an agent or publisher to quickly determine for themselves what they think of your idea and how you have approached it. 

Someone  not liking the story doesn't make it a terrible idea--unless it is. It mostly just makes it not right for that particular person.  Either way, if you've provided enough information for someone to make that decision, you've written a decent novel synopsis.

How to Format your novel Synopsis 

  • Double space or use 1.5 spacing to make the text easier to read (again, you'll see conflicting advice on this, and if you opt for single spacing, put a space between paragraphs) 
  • Use minimum of one-inch margins--don't cram the text on the page to keep it to two pages
  • Put "Synopsis of" and your title at the top of the page
  • Leave two spaces and begin writing the synopsis below the title. 

More advice on writing a Novel Synopsis

The following article also offers good advice on writing the synopsis: 

How to Write a Novel Synopsis by Jane Friedman

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