Writing a Synopsis That Works

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If you’re querying agents or publishers in 2023, you might be interested in my pre-recorded Queries and Synopses course, which includes either a query or synopsis critique! Watch in the comfort of your own home, on your own time. Check out the details here!

In my two most recent posts, we went through some pitches and queries.

Now comes what is arguably the toughest part of putting together a query package: the SYNOPSIS.

So many people dread writing this because the instant mindset is that you have to take your entire 80-100K+ novel and squeeze it down into a page or two. And that’s where the stress comes in. Stress leads to procrastination, and that leads to the wrong frame of mind to be in when you finally force yourself to sit down to write it.

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Below, you’ll find tips and advice on how to navigate it and change your mindset about it.

But first, let’s look at what a synopsis is.

If you’re at all like me, the first time you sit down to tackle the synopsis of your first completed manuscript, you’ll agonize over how the hell you’re going to explain your entire novel in only a page or two. You’ll end up typing a several-page-long summary of your book. It’ll have details flying from every direction, it’ll be exhausting to read, and you just won’t feel good about it. You’ll worry: is it too much? Is it not enough?

And then, once you realize how long it is, you’ll stress even more about having to compress it even further and it just compounds the stress.

Why do we do this? Because we know the story inside and out. We’ve looked at it more times than we’d care to remember. We’ve produced blood, sweat, and tears over this baby and as much as we love it we just want the hard part to be overrrrrr. And we put all.of.the.details into the synopsis because our brains are so entangled in the story that we can’t wade through the main points to decide which ones to leave in and which ones to take out. We get stuck in a thick swamp of words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters and we just want to bang our heads against a wall.

But I’m going to throw you a life preserver.

dark, moody image of an old orange life preserver with a reflection in the water below

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Kat, we already talked about this with the query and the pitches. Extracting the main points and laying them out in one or two paragraphs for the blurb, and then getting even more extractier and crafting a 250-character pitch.

Yes, but there’s a difference between a query and a pitch, and then a synopsis.

The query is the first thing the agents see. It’s our first connection with them. We want to dazzle them with our ability to hook them into the story with voice, characters, plot, goals, and stakes. We also want to tell them a little bit about where the book will be in the market, and about ourselves.

With pitches, we have an extremely limited amount of space, so we have to pick out those crucial elements and splash them onto the screen in less than 280 characters. The hookier, the better. Mic drop lines are highly recommended.

But a synopsis is different. A synopsis comes after you’ve generated interest with the pitch (if you do pitch events), and after the agent has invested some time in the query and usually at least the first few pages or chapters. You want to tell more than what’s in the query blurb (or back cover copy), but less than the actual book itself.

So my goal with this post is to help prevent you from feeling like you’re doing this:

gif of one male in a workshirt and tie standing in front of a corkboard with all kinds of papers and red lines between them, with his hands on his head and gesturing, trying to explain something the another male worker who stands there looking confused.

And instead, show you how you can be confidently doing this:

woman wearing a blue shirt walking out of an office bringing her arm down in a "yes!" fashion. Text: That's how it's done.

One of the tricks I’ve learned along the way while I’m outlining and drafting is to keep notes on the most important parts of each chapter. I use Scrivener for drafting, and it has a handy-dandy lil feature called the corkboard. This is like the on-screen version of Post-it Notes on the wall. Either way makes it easier to write your synopsis after you’re done drafting because you’ve kept track of the main points of each chapter on a little side sheet. If you’ve already written your MS by the time you’re reading this, try doing this after the fact. Or, continue reading for some other ways of composing a synopsis.

Something else I’ve learned along the way is to try, at least in part, to write the synopsis before you start drafting. I do this at least with my query, back cover copy, and pitches. But the synopsis is basically a play-by-play of the story’s most important parts. All the parts that connect and move the story from beginning to end and the WHYs. And if you think about it, isn’t that what you’re doing when you’re telling yourself (and others, in your excitement) the story when it first hits you? So instead of just word-vomiting it to get your thoughts out, make a bulleted list of what’s happening as you work through that first amazing idea of the story. These are the major plot points that are going to come out on the pages in your draft. Yes, they might change a bit, and you might add to them, but this first skeleton draft of a synopsis is a great way to lay out the bare bones of the story without crowding them with a bunch of extra stuff. Whatever you add or change can be tweaked here later.

Doing it this way can also help you keep on track when you’re slogging through the middle and wondering what the hell you were doing in the first place.

A very confused-looking man with frizzy hair and glasses making lots of confused-looking facial expressions.

Something that often gets asked in the writing community is: “Do we need to put spoilers in the synopsis? I don’t want to give away the ending!”

The simple answer is yes. You do. The synopsis is helpful to the agent in that it gives a point-by-point breakdown of what’s in your story AND it lets them know you know exactly what’s going on. Because if you don’t have a good grasp on your story, how will anyone else? You need to know how to talk about your book, describe your book, and understand it inside and out. It’s going to have to show the story arc and the character arc. It’s going to have to show what exactly happens, using specifics, to propel the character out of the norm and into a new set of circumstances. It’s going to show what Big Bad Thing the character faces, what they stand to lose if they don’t face it, the Actual Bad Things that happen along the way, and how the character overcomes those obstacles and gets the want and/or the need in the end.

We don’t want hints here. We want the goods. Gimme the goods. Don’t leave any cliffhangers. The synopsis is not the place to leave the reader (aka the agent) questioning what happens. The questions need to be answered. The ending needs to be told. The query is the teaser; the synopsis is the meat and potatoes of the story. Most often, the agent will read the first few chapters of your manuscript, and if they’re interested, the synopsis will let them gauge whether or not the story is going in a direction that they’re going to want to invest their time in. So make sure you take the time to write it as clearly and concisely as possible.

The query is the teaser; the synopsis is the meat and potatoes of the story.

Don’t worry—the synopsis isn’t for anyone else but you, your agent, and those in the publishing world who will be deciding whether or not to make you an offer on your book. The general public doesn’t see it—they only see the finished product.

The tricky part about synopses is that some agencies want one page, some want two, some want three to five pages, etc. For the most part, the general rule of thumb is that it’s single-spaced on one or two pages, and under a thousand words. A pretty safe range is between 500-800 words.

Ask yourself: if I remove this detail, can the story still move forward as told in the synopsis? If the answer is yes, you don’t need it in your synopsis. If, on the other hand, it is a crucial element to the character or plot development, and the story can’t exist without it, that’s what you need to include in the synopsis.

You don’t want to make it flowery and pretty. You don’t need voice to shine through here. This is literally a play-by-play of your book. This happened, then this happened, which led to this happening. But you have to lay it out in such a way that shows the character arc and what’s driving the tension and propelling the story forward. Each thing you mention should be in a cause-and-effect relationship.

Don’t start out by saying, “We begin with…” or “This novel is about…” No. Dive right in. What’s on your opening page? Start there. Tell us what is happening to whom, by whom or what. You only need a couple of descriptors about your MC, so you don’t need to get into a whole backstory about their life.

Don’t mention every single character. If your character is at the coffee shop ordering a latte and they chat it up with the barista, there’s no need to mention this in the synopsis UNLESS the barista is going to end up being a major character or reason that something big happens. And if it’s just a hint in the story, keep it a hint in the synopsis. Lay the synopsis out the same way the story is laid out. Reveal the details at the same time they’re revealed in the story.

You also want to write in the third person present, even if that’s not the way your story is written. Keep it direct and professional. Don’t include sarcasm, even if your MC is a sarcastic SOB. If your MC swears, it doesn’t need to be included in the synopsis.

Keep in a neutral tone. You don’t need to be voice-y here. Leave out the emotion—save it all for the actual novel (and the query).

The synopsis needs to follow the same structural outline as your book does. So if you have a non-linear timeline, the synopsis paragraphs need to reflect that.

Piece of cake, right? I know—you’re probably feeling overwhelmed with the thought of having to do this. But fear not! Here are some exercises you can do to bring it all together.

Exercise: Remember how I talked about using Srvivener’s cork board feature or Post-it Notes to keep a small summary of each chapter? Start by writing a few lines (really, just a few) as a summary of each of your chapters. If you were to give me a blurb about a chapter, how would you summarize it? Challenge yourself to 3-4 lines. Then, combine some of the paragraphs so the synopsis doesn’t look choppy; just be sure they flow nicely together. You don’t need to break to a new paragraph for each chapter. But if you have a dual-timeline, it’s a good idea to separate those chapters.

When you read it back to yourself, it’s going to sound boring. THAT’S OK. It should sound boring. Just make sure that you’ve covered WHY these plot points matter to the character and their journey.

I can almost guarantee it’s going to be way too long when you’re finished. This is where it’s a good idea to get another set of eyes on it to help with reducing the word count. Your instinct is going to be, “No way! I don’t want to give out spoilers!” But I promise you, giving your synopsis draft to a trusted critique partner or writer friend will help you take that synopsis from meh, to good, to great.

Why? Because as I mentioned above, just like with your query, your brain knows your story. It’s hard to pinpoint only the most crucial elements without getting bogged down by all the other details embedded in those 100K words. An outsider’s perspective is imperative to cutting out the words and elements that aren’t 100% necessary.

Remember that tip I told you I’d give you about changing your mindset about synopses? It is this: Don’t think of your query as something you have to scrunch, mash, pound, flatten, squeeze, and trample on to make it fit into something that’s too small to contain it.

Instead, think of it as starting from the ground up. And here’s another easy way to do that:

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, try using a Beat Sheet in the vein of Save The Cat. If you’re unfamiliar with Save The Cat, I highly recommend reading it! There are many craft books out there, but this one is widely known and used and it works wonders. You can grab a copy > here (just make sure to change it to your region before ordering). This is not an endorsement, I just really love the book!

The cover of the crat book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Orange at the top with the title in yellow, white at the bottom with a cat hanging by its claws from a rope, trying not to fall.

If you have a copy or you purchase one on your Kindle and can access it right away, take a look at pages 24-26. Grab a notebook and a pen. Space out the fifteen points noted there in the craft book. (Definitely read the book for in-depth help on plotting your next novel!) Fill in what happens at each of those fifteen points as it pertains to your story. Don’t get too wordy. Only put in the essential plot points and why it all matters to your MC.

In all of those areas, you should be able to pick out the things that are happening and jot down a few summarizing lines about them. If you’re having trouble, this could indicate some plot holes—and this is another good reason to do a synopsis because it helps spot plot holes. And you NEED to fix those before your manuscript can be ready for querying.

Somewhere in there, your MC should have a secret. And flaws. And a misbelief about themselves. Do we include these in the synopsis? Absolutely! Yes! These things are the reasons why what happens in the plot matter to the MC. It’s helping shape their character arc. But do we say things like, “This is [MC name]’s secret. This is her character flaw. This is her theory of misbelief.” No. We need to weave them in throughout the story as they are revealed in the story.

If you don’t want to use a Beat Sheet, you can also space out a few key questions:

  • Who is your character?
  • What do they want?
  • What is holding them back? A secret? A flaw? A mindset? A misbelief about themselves?
  • What happens to the MC to completely blow them out of their normal world and into a new one?
  • What will happen if they don’t decide to take this journey?
  • What and/or who stands in their way of getting what they want, or perhaps what they need (not necessarily the same thing!)?
  • What happens when those obstacles bring them down? HOW do they bring them down? (Be specific!)
  • What is the life lesson that they learn? How do they learn it?
  • How do they finally accomplish their goals? Detail how they overcome their Bad Guy (whatever or whomever that is). This is the epic final battle, or how they get their HEA (happily ever after), or win the competition they never thought they could—whatever they need to do to reach their goals will involve learning a life lesson and disposing of their misbelief, and usually with the help of another crucial character… explain how it’s done.
  • What does life look like now that they’ve gotten what they needed (and sometimes what they wanted)? How does this all tie back to the beginning of the story?

Go through each of those things as they happen in your story, write out a few lines about each point, and bring it together into a single document that flows well together from one paragraph to the next.

Remember, these aren’t the only ways to write a synopsis. Each writer has their own method to the madness. But hopefully, this will help you come up with a couple of options for your current manuscript and future novels you write. (No, the synopsis-writing doesn’t end when you find an agent. The editors want to read them, too—for each book you write!)

Don’t forget to get some feedback on your finished draft! It’s just like your manuscript—you need to have it critiqued to help ensure you’re getting all the main points on the page and leaving out what really doesn’t need to be there.

If you want a set of eyes on your synopsis, I do offer a service that covers that here.

If you got this far, thank you so much for reading. 🙏🏻 I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ve found it helpful, and I wish you luck on your querying journey!

If there’s anything I didn’t cover here that you have questions about, please comment below or contact me here. I’m always happy to help!

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