By Kris Maze
When sending out work to an editor or publisher, you will most often need a specific set of documents they will request. Query letter, check! First fifty pages, check! Synopsis, wait what? I don’t know why, but many of us balk at the thought of creating this tidy little summary of our book baby. We know our story, line by line, and know our characters intimately, so why is this difficult for many writers?
Fear not, dear writer. I’m going to list ten tips for a synopsis that can aid your journey to publication. Read on to craft an effective synopsis that can catch the attention of an agent and increase your chances of getting selected.
You have researched agents and what they represent. You have found out which books are the closest comparison titles and have identified the unique aspects of your book. Be sure to also know the specific way they prefer your synopsis.
Agents and publishers have guidelines for submitting work. It is very important to follow their instructions exactly. What they ask for may be as varied as the agents themselves. Here are some requirements I have encountered.
Don’t let a formatting mistake lead to a rejection before an agent reads your work. Find out what they want and take the time to make it easy for them to read. This also gives a perspective editor a feel for how it would be to work with you. Let them understand you are willing to follow their rules.
Jane Friedman has a thorough post on how to write a synopsis and which pitfalls to avoid. It begins with why a synopsis is so important to agents.
When you are submitting your work to various agents, have a couple of variations ready in advance. Create a synopsis that can be altered easily to your needs and save yourself some time and stress.
This still is a tight amount of words, so the key is to edit and trim away all the excess. Be sure your synopsis is between 2 to 5 standard formatted pages when you prepare to submit your work.
Several editors have said to use a third person point of view in your synopsis. Even if you write in first person. The synopsis is a taste of your story, but the focus is on the story itself. Stick to the standard so your potential agent can focus on your character, key events, and fabulous story.
Be brutal. Editors are getting a very trim version of your entire book, save the elegant elocution and clever turns of the dialogue for your first pages. Avoid filling your precious few synopsis words with too much world building or background. Your ability to state clearly what happens in your book will attract a publisher if it fits their needs.
Impossible, right? Agent Carly Watters offers this advice for crafting a synopsis in this post as a “play-by-play” of your story. She continues to describe a simple synopsis as including:
Watters shares the importance of not leaving out major turns in the plot and to reveal the ending.
“Yes, please tell us the ending! This is a common misconception. A synopsis isn't a query letter, and it isn't your back cover copy. Tell us how things resolve. Being able to resolve your manuscript is a big writerly skill and we want to see you can do it well.”
The tone of your synopsis should be plain and business-like. Save the fun and snarky for your manuscript. Reedsy offers a blog post filled with synopsis examples and tips that helps a writer whittle down their work to an easy-to-read summary of your book.
There is very little room for description, so build your world around the events with specific vocabulary. Find the words that best demonstrate your world and characterizations in your story and make them count. For example, when describing how a critical injury occurs to a main character, saying the weapon was a revolver, shotgun, light saber, or AK47 makes setting the time and place of your story easier.
Your synopsis must be to the point, but it shouldn’t be boring. Crafting a compelling synopsis that hints at your writing style will help agents know how you handle words. They want to know that you can write a focused piece describing your work and maintain your voice, too. Keep it quick and interesting and your synopsis may be the key to selling your book.
Do any parts of your synopsis seem flat? Repetitive? Now is the time to fix those plot holes and make alterations. It is amazing how rendering down a story can reveal tiny flaws (or big ones!) You want to send in only your best, so make the changes before you hit send.
And celebrate your hard work. It all comes down to chance and cosmic timing sometimes, but writing a solid synopsis can help keep the odds in your favor. When in doubt, go back to number one in this list and follow the agent’s instructions. Happy submitting and enjoy the process of submitting your work. You are building a reputation and taking steps to put your work into the world. It’s a big deal, and it is worth celebrating.
Tell us a story about your worst synopsis nightmare. Or share a tip about how to create a perfect synopsis. We'd love to hear it.
Kris Maze works in education, teaching Spanish through stories. She writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. Maze published a YA dystopian novel by a small press in the summer of 2020. Lately, she has been entering and placing in writing competitions, such as NYC Midnight’s Short Story and Micro fiction contests. You can find her Sci-fi, dystopian, YA series, this summer and keep up with her author events at her website.
Here is a sneak peek of a scary short story collection coming out on her sister site KrissyKnoxx.com. Also available this summer in various formats.
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Hi Kris! The synopsis is always so daunting. Thank you for bringing it into better focus with a few key logical points to keep in mind.
Glad you appreciated the post. It's daunting for sure. Sometimes a few little tips can make it seem less so! Thanks for your comments.
Helpful post. Thanks.
Thanks, SR! Glad you like it.
Great tips, Kris. After spending thousands of words crafting a novel, I find it very difficult to tell the story in a synopsis but these tips will help. I especially like the last one. It made me smile.
It tough, right? Melding down your elaborate book into a tiny summary can be frustrating. A little levity can make it easier. Plus, we can't forget to celebrate that hard work.
Thanks for the comments, Lynette. 🙂
I'd suggest having several author friends (if you can rally that kind of support) read over your synopsis before submitting it. More eyes on it can catch what you're lacking. I had one crit partner think a synopsis I did was fantastic and I subbed it. I bombed. Hat in hand, I went to a different author for advice. She pointed out that I hadn't fleshed out my heroine's "why" enough and it hit her right in the face. It hadn't hit the other partner, so different people will spot different things in your work. That's the closest I've come to my worst synopsis nightmare because I got a rejection from an editor I really wanted to work with and I would definitely have rewritten it if the second author had read it over.
All eyes on deck!
It's a good mantra, for sure. And maybe your first critique person was already familiar with your story... sometimes that could mask the missing parts in your synopsis. If you can have someone unfamiliar with the story read it, that may be even better. I loved that you kept going and got more feedback.
And I hope your story has found a wonderful home. Thanks for your nightmare submission story, Laurie!
Helpful post, Kris!
I believe having lots of eyes-on helps. But sometimes I think it's easier to write a synopsis for someone else's work than to write my own.
Regarding the use of third person, I remember being asked to use present tense as well. Does that seem right?
I've been making a synopsis and it happens to be in present tense, but I'm not sure if that is standard or not. I would have to check on that. 🙂
It is good to have someone else summarize the story for you. I may have to ask you about that in the near future.
I despise synopsis, so I looooove this checklist. Thanks bunches!
Thanks, lady! Happy to write it and hope it can take the edge off this challenging task for a few writers.
I find if you liken a synopsis to a one pager, but make it slightly longer, it makes it easier to write. write a logline and a one pager for the WIPs near the beginning of the process.
It also helps me to write the blurb using this process, but it's a little longer than the logline.
that was supposed to be I write a logline and one pager...
but it might help someone else.
Love this, Kris. I need to use it. Someone asked me for a synopsis today and I just went... ummmm....
It is tricky to pull off a strong short version of our stories, right? I thought a handy list of tips could inspire us and make the dreaded synopsis a little less daunting.
Thanks for you comments!
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