How to Write a Novel Synopsis


by Terri J. Huck

synopsis artIf you plan to approach editors, agents, or publishers, you will need to provide a synopsis of your novel. And even if you plan to self-publish, you should write one. If nothing else, the process is invaluable for revealing flaws in your story arc and character motivation.

At Possibilities Publishing Company, we ask for a 500- to 750-word synopsis with all submissions. And we’ve seen our fair share of story lines that flounder and fizzle out instead of building to a satisfying conclusion. It’s possible to craft a synopsis that’s better than the novel you’ve written, but more often than not, it’s only as good as the story you’ve conceived.

That’s why it is especially useful to create a synopsis after you’ve written a rough first draft of your book and are preparing to start revising. It can be an eye-opening experience, so it’s to your benefit to do it long before you start querying agents and publishers. Use the synopsis as a tool to make your book better.

Unlike a query letter, a synopsis does not have to be flashy. It is more important to show your plot from beginning to end and the main character’s emotional arc. According to editor and author Chuck Sambuchino, who runs the “Guide to Literary Agents” blog for Writer’s Digest, a synopsis must show four things:

  1. The core conflict.
  2. Characters worth caring about — and who change in the course of the story.
  3. What’s at stake for the main character (what he or she stands to gain or lose).
  4. A satisfying conclusion that resolves the core conflict.

The people who will read your synopsis — at PPCo or elsewhere — want to know whether you have an original, complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. A clearly written synopsis that accurately conveys the nature of your story and characters can go a long way toward generating interest. In other words, a beautifully written first chapter means nothing if it isn’t the beginning of a compelling, well-rounded story.

Some agents and publishers will want a multi-page synopsis that breaks down the action by chapter, but most prefer a page or two, tops. (This should go without saying, but always follow the agent’s or publisher’s guidelines when you’re submitting a manuscript. Not doing so can land you in the rejection pile without a glance.)

It’s a worthwhile exercise to summarize your story from beginning to end by writing a 500-word synopsis. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Use present tense, the way you would describe the plot of a movie to a friend.
  • Write in third-person, even if your novel is written in first-person.
  • Set the names of characters in all caps — but stick to the main players. One trick is to limit yourself to five names. Which means…
  • Leave out subplots.
  • Don’t be coy. Clearly explain what happens in the story and why. It’s important to show how the characters’ actions propel the story forward.
  • Tell how the story ends.

People in the publishing world rely heavily on synopses when making decisions about whether to take on a book — or even whether to ask for a copy of the full manuscript. In addition, a synopsis can help a freelance editor determine where you are in the writing process and how best he or she can help you.

For synopses of famous movies, check out Sambuchino’s blog. And remember that the synopsis is your friend!

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com.

Sharpen your quills and fill your ink pots. Possibilities Publishing Company wants your scariest, creepiest, ghostliest, weirdest, original stories for a Halloween-themed anthology to be published — you guessed it — right around Halloween 2015. Click here for more info or to submit a story.

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