How to Write a Synopsis
By Anne Perry
Posted on July 7, 2016 in Books, Fun Stuff with tags Writing Advice; Open Submissions
Why include a synopsis with a manuscript? And how do you write one, anyway? What makes a good synopsis good? Today we’ll talk you through the basics (and give you a very silly example or two.)
Agents and editors (and everyone else who asks for a synopsis) want a few things from it. They want to see that you have a clear idea of how the book will end. They want to be reassured that your vision of the book as a whole doesn’t have a crazy twist or go totally off the rails. And they want to know if it’ll be as exciting as your partial suggests it might. The synopsis is your chance to reassure your reader/potential agent or editor that you know what you’re doing and you have a plan to do it.
My advice below is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ sort of thing, but I’ll tell you about the kind of synopsis I like to see.
Start with an outline.
Build a skeleton and then flesh it out: that will help you stick to the important details and plot developments and keep you from getting waylaid by extraneous details.
Tell me the story.
I want to know about the main characters, the things that happen to them, and how your book resolves. Beginning, middle, end. Boom, boom, boom. Here’s an example I wrote:
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are four siblings who are displaced from their home in London during the blitz, and sent to the country to live with their eccentric uncle in a huge, empty house. One day, while exploring, Lucy finds a portal in the back of a wardrobe that leads her to an extraordinary wintery fantasy land, called Narnia, where she makes friends with a faun. When she returns home she tells her siblings but they don’t believe her.
Later, Edmund follows her to Narnia and meets the evil White Queen, who has cast a spell on Narnia so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. The White Queen convinces Edmund to trick his siblings into coming to Narnia, telling him that she’ll make him a prince.
Eventually all four of the siblings get to Narnia, where they discover that Lucy’s friend the faun has been arrested by the White Queen. Several allies secret the four away, telling them that they’re the realisation of a prophecy that spells the end of the White Queen’s reign, but Edmund, who doesn’t believe the White Queen is evil, sneaks away to go find her and betray them.
Lucy, Peter and Susan go on a journey in search of Aslan, the mystical lion who is king of Narnia. When they find him the realize that the long winter is finally ending. Aslan musters an army to fight the White Queen, who is heading out to do battle with him with an army of her own. Edmund finally realizes that the White Queen is truly evil.
The night before the battle, Lucy and Susan follow Aslan up a hill and watch, horrified, as he offers himself to the White Queen as a sacrifice to save the others. The White Queen kills Aslan and leaves. The next morning, however, Aslan reappears, reborn and more powerful than ever.
The White Queen and her army lose the battle and Aslan declares the four siblings, who are now reunited, the rulers of Narnia. Many years later and now grown up, the four go out hunting and follow a white stag, which leads them back to the wardrobe that leads to the real world. They go through the portal and find that hardly any time has passed at all.
Now let’s try a not-so-great example:
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are four siblings, ages 13, 12, 10 and 8 years old. When the Nazis attack London during the Blitz in 1940, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are evacuated to the country to live with the eccentric Professor Digory Kirke. The professor lives in a huge house in the countryside that is often visited by tourists. One day, while hiding from a tourist group, Lucy sneaks into an old wardrobe in an empty room and hides amongst the fur coats. But she discovers that the wardrobe doesn’t seem to have a back and instead leads into a pine forest. Lucy emerges into a snowy landscape, dominated by pine trees and a single lamp-post, where she meets a faun named Mr Tumnus. Mr Tumnus invites Lucy to have tea, intending to alert the authorities to Lucy’s presence. Over tea and cakes, Mr Tumnus tells Lucy that they’re in a magical land called Narnia, which is ruled by the evil White Queen, who can turn people to stone. Lucy doesn’t know it, but Mr Tumnus is one of the White Queen’s agents.
As they start to talk, Mr Tumnus realizes that he likes her and doesn’t want to get Lucy arrested. He sneaks her back to the wardrobe, and Lucy returns to 1940 England, excited to tell her siblings about her trip. Because she’s very young and has a wild imagination, no one believes her.
The next time Lucy goes through the wardrobe her brother Edmund follows her. While Lucy is having tea with Mr Tumnus, Edmund wanders through the snowy landscape and hears the jingle of bells. He meets a beautiful woman all in white and her servant, an ugly dwarf. The beautiful woman offers Edmund his favourite thing in the world, Turkish delight, to eat and manipulates him into telling her about his siblings and about Lucy’s visits with Mr Tumnus. The White Queen recognizes that the four Pevensie siblings may be the children mentioned in a prophecy about her overthrow, and promises Edmund all the Turkish delight he could ever eat if he’ll bring his siblings to her castle.
I can’t bring myself to write an entire synopsis of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in this style – but you get the point. There’s too much detail!
Don’t worry about style or literary merit.
Just tell me what happens. Write efficiently, not beautifully. The synopsis above is a relatively short one that leaves out a lot of detail. And it’s not incredibly exciting. But it tells the reader who the main characters are and what’s going to happen.
(But try to avoid typos!)
Tell me how it ends.
Don’t worry about spoilers! Just tell me the resolution of the plot. (Sadly, the editorial life means that I can’t really demand to be surprised by the way a book ends.) Definitely don’t end your synopsis by saying something like ‘I can’t tell you what happens next because I don’t want to ruin the surprise!’ or anything. Just tell me what happens.
Keep your sentences short and to the point; keep the number of characters you introduce to a minimum (main characters only!), and don’t go wild explaining your themes and character arcs; this should be clear from the way you tell the story rather than any extra paragraphs you drop in.
Don’t get bogged down by unnecessary details. No matter how much you care about your details, leave them out unless they are of primary importance.
If you introduce too many characters I’ll lose interest. Without having the entire book to serve as context, extra characters can be exhausting.
Compare these two examples. I’ve bolded the proper nouns and italicized the extraneous details to give you a sense of how overwhelming it can be when every sentence is crammed full of characters and detail.
Don’t worry about taking up all the space you’re given.
If, for example, the submission details say you can send a synopsis of up to three pages, don’t feel you must fill every inch of those three pages. It’s much more important that you write a solid synopsis that tells the reader what the rest of the book will be like.
Do not send a longer synopsis than you’ve been asked for. Don’t fiddle the margins or font size or anything. (I hate that.)