A Good Synopsis Sells the Story

Several publishing houses require a synopsis with the manuscript to ensure the manuscript/book “fits” with their selection. Since publishers categorize their products by genre, sub-genre, and audiences, they usually know what kind of manuscript they need to acquire. This information reaches literary agents, who use a writer’s synopsis to send the suitable manuscripts (and synopsis) in for consideration. A publishing worker reviews the synopsis and sends the submission to the correct department (such as Young Adult Fantasy, or Middle Grade Sci-Fi). Then an editor in the department evaluates the synopsis. If the editor think it fulfills their selection’s criteria, they’ll  read the entire manuscript for consideration. If the synopsis isn’t well-liked or found suitable to the company’s needs, they either send the manuscript back unread or tuck it away in a backroom for the far, far off future.

A marketing tool for the writer- if it’s composed correctly.

A manuscript can be sent in without a literary agent or a synopsis, but that only lengthens the time between submitting and hearing a response from publishers, which can last from four months to a whole year. On the other hand, if the publishing firm likes a synopsis enough they’ll even pay the author in advance for an unfinished or written manuscript (this only works with authors- previously published writers. As a general rule, publishers won’t pay someone who isn’t known for their work or may suffer writers block unexpectedly.)

What is a Synopsis? How Long is it?

A synopsis is about one page long, narrating plot in short paragraphs which summarize the story’s events from beginning to end. If it’s written before the manuscript the synopsis can improve transitions between scenes plus maintain tone and themes. A synopsis also ensures character actions and motivations are realistic by mapping character arcs throughout the story.

Writing a Synopsis

First, check out this year’s criteria listed by by agents and publishers. Many will specify length but others may want a chapter by chapter synopsis. If you can’t find any criteria, try phoning a few publishers you might submit to and ask them. A general rule of thumb is one single-spaced page with a maximum of six hundred words.

Once you begin writing, remember not to get ahead of yourself. A finished synopsis must be comprehensive and cohesive to other readers or interested literary parties. As you write use active voice and present tense. Even if the actual novel and manuscript will be written in first person the synopsis must be written in third. Just make a note of it at the start or in your query letter.

Structuring a synopsis is different from structuring a manuscript. Think like an editor, but write like a storyteller. Begin with the set up- who is the protagonist? The other main characters? What is the problem or who is the villain?

Now move on to the conflict – there may be more than one. Usually a catalyst sets the main conflict into motion. It usually helps if you ask yourself these questions: What keeps others from resolving the main problem or defeating the villain? What’s blocking the protagonist from achieving their goal immediately and in the future?

As you build on the conflict and it’s resulting events, be mindful of your characters. Characters go through changes because of conflicts and develop – the character arc. For this, you may want to look into Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

As you approach the end or the final battle, think like someone who doesn’t know the story’s direction. Decide what conflicts, plot twists and turns are really important; what do you need to include for the ending, the resolution, to make sense?

End with the resolution, answering the unanswered questions and tying up any loose ends that can be found in the synopsis. This paragraph should be as detailed as the rest of the synopsis, as the agent/publisher needs to know how your novel ends. You’ll probably need to review it a few times, and it’s likely to change as the manuscript is written, but keep each version of the synopsis. Sometimes an editor likes an earlier version of the plot rather than the current one. I’ve often found that I can re-use some of the scrapped events to get my protagonist out of a jam, or possibly add them to a sequel.

If you’re writing a synopsis for the first time, look into the narrative arc for other tips and ideas about spinning your story in short terms.