Many people are daunted at the prospect of having to write a synopsis to accompany the two or three chapters of the book to submit to an agent or editor.
A synopsis is a selling tool.
You have probably spent months writing and polishing your children’s novel and now it’s ready to send out. Ready to be sold to an editor or sent to an agent so that it can reach its intended audience. On the synopsis alone, plus the couple of sample chapters, hangs the future of this book. The sample chapters will show the editor how you write, the synopsis will show him/her what you write. If you fail to interest the editor your story will never be read, not even by her.
Once accepted, your synopsis may also be used to present your book to the sales and marketing departments and even to the jacket designer, although an illustrated story will be read carefully by the illustrator.
So what should be in a synopsis and how should it be written? What should we put in and what should we leave out? There’s no mystery, really. No reason to dread writing it, though many writers do.
Any story more than about five thousand words in length is too long to send in its entirety and be guided by whether publishers or agents require two sample chapters or three to accompany the synopsis.
The goal of a synopsis it to provide a bare sketch of your book, the characters, the problem and the resolution. It is not a blurb. That is the bit on the back of the book whose function is to entice the reader to buy or read the book, and which does not give away the story.
Unlike the blurb, the synopsis must tell all. The editor does not want to guess what you have in mind for the resolution, it will not induce her to ask for the rest of the manuscript so she can find out what happens, it will just mark you out as an amateur. The resolution, or denouement, is a vital part and she wants to see how you have handled it.
A mistake made by many inexperienced writers is to describe the first half of the book in detail and then condense the remainder into one sentence such as: Rebecca has lots of adventures but succeeds in the end, or they end with a question like: What will Pete do? Will he succeed in his quest or will the mountain king’s superior strength overcome him?
Synopses like this can mean that the author hasn’t yet decided what is going to happen and maybe hasn’t even finished the book.
Never leave questions unanswered.
Don’t send out a synopsis and chapters unless the book is complete. You may well change it out of all recognition during the writing, and if the editor is interested and asks for the rest of the book which you haven’t yet written, they will have forgotten or lost interest by the time you have.
Like the opening of your story, the opening of a synopsis should grab the reader’s attention. Some editors give it the ‘three paragraph test’. If it hasn’t interested them by then, it’s rejected. Don’t put Jack and Lisa are two children who move to a house in the country… Better something like When Jack and Lisa discover the entrance to an old mine near their new home…
In terms of length, probably one page or less for books of up to 25,000 words and two pages for longer books.Make sure you explain what your major character wants, why they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it. Then at the end, show how they have changed as a result of their experience. That will help ensure your readers care about what happens to them. Read your story through again and note the theme and the most important plot points, those events which move the story forward in a major way and reveal your characters’ personalities by their reactions.
With some examples of which points to include, from a story of mine called The Lord of the Isles (finished length: 12,000 words).
1: The HOOK Start with the main character and trigger event which sets the story in motion. Reveal the character's emotions and motivations, those points which explain why a character does something.
2: The BODY of the Synopsis. Write the high points of your story in chronological order. Keep these paragraphs tight, don't give every little detail.
High point 1 Halfway through the tunnel Ben realises that the rails are no longer rusty, but shiny with use, and what’s more, he feels the vibration of a coming train. Having caught the cat Ben runs out of the other end of the tunnel just in time before a steam train rushes through.Cassie does not believe Ben’s story of the train, as none emerged from her end, and her cat is still missing, having jumped out of Ben’s arms in fright. She agrees to continue the search the next day.
Highpoint 2 Together they go through the tunnel, which, along with the old photo, acts as a passage into the 19th century. They meet Tom, the chimney sweep.
Highpoint 3 Ben, who is quite thin, is captured by Mr Burns, the Sweep Master and sent up to clean a chimney. After this terrifying experience, he manages to escape through a window of the house.
Highpoint 4 Tom is fascinated by tales of ‘their time’ and Ben gives him his grandfather’s wind up watch. Tom knows where the cat is and promises to bring her.
3: The DARK MOMENT when all seems lost
Highpoint 7 Cassie causes a diversion involving a pie man and a herd of pigs so that the boys can escape from Mr Burns through the coal chute. With the evil man on their heels, the three of them plus the elusive cat, rush back into the tunnel, hoping to bring Tom into their time.
Highpoint 8 They hear the train whistle behind them.
5: The RESOLUTION
Highpoint 9 Tom does not emerge into the 21st century and they are left to wonder what became of him, especially as the council is blocking up the tunnel entrance so they cannot return.
Highpoint 10 When Ben looks more closely at his photo of The Lord of the Isles, he notices that the driver, who has one arm resting outside the cab, is wearing a wrist watch long before they were invented. He guesses it must be Tom, fulfilling his wish to be an engine driver – and obviously having escaped Mr Burns’ clutches.
Highpoint 11 Shows how the main characters have changed. Ben and Cassie have become friends through their adventure together and have both learnt to accept each others’ virtues and weaknesses. Ben realises that he had prejudged her.
A synopsis is NOT* A chapter by chapter detailed account of the plot* A blurb to entice the reader
A synopsis IS* Your principal selling tool* A concise account of what your book is about with nothing left out* Always written in omniscient present tenseIt’s well worth spending as much time polishing and honing your synopsis as you did your novel.
© Stephanie Baudet. First published in Writing Magazine October 2008