SO, WHAT IS A SYNOPSIS?
A synopsis is a functional document summarising the story of your novel. It usually fits on a single side of A4, but always check the agency/competition website for specific requirements.
Third-person, present tense, reasonable font size…
NAILING YOUR STRUCTURE
We all love a good rhetorical question in a juicy blurb, but your synopsis shouldn’t leave questions unanswered. Please tell us the WHOLE story. If the first line is:
‘Reporter JOSIE, 25, develops a crush on ancestry expert HORACE, 87,’
then the last line should be:
‘Josie decides that Horace is too old and suggests they stick to being friends.’
It feels painful to reveal the ending, we know, but it helps the agent/competition judge to know if the full manuscript will live up to the promise of your stunning sample pages.
Notice the ALL CAPS? It’s best to only mention the core characters of your novel, but if you’re working with a core cast that’s more than three people, using all caps for the first mention of each character can help the reader along.
It might be helpful to think of your novel in terms of the Eight-Point Story Arc, the Hero’s Journey or a similar plotting model. These are going to be the key points of your story to mention. Your synopsis might be split into three paragraphs:
1st – the stasis, inciting incident and story goal
2nd – the surprises and critical choices
3rd – the climax, reversal and resolution
Beginning, middle, end, and all that.
The middle section is often the hardest. Try grouping story surprises into one sentence: ‘Josie’s ancestry news piece flops, her boss threatens to fire her, and Horace’s family tell her to back away.‘
WRITING STYLE (OR NO WRITING STYLE)
There are differing opinions on whether a synopsis should be bland and precise or should hint at the writing style in your manuscript.
It’s great if your synopsis carries a sense of voice, but it is not the time for figurative language or drawn-out descriptions. A good synopsis gets the job done. Try using a single adjective to describe each character. Think about varying sentence-length and utilising white space, not about sneaking in that gorgeous simile from chapter five.
PROCESS IS KEY
When writing the synopsis for my first novel, I jotted down every plot point in the manuscript, then tried to condense this five-page document into one. The result was cramped and failed to convey the emotional journey of the protagonist. For my second novel, I did the opposite, writing the story of my novel in one paragraph, then two, and building it up until I had an effective, succinct synopsis. I recommend this second process!
Try reading it aloud. Does it sound natural, like you’re telling a friend about your novel over coffee, or does it sound awkward, like you’re sweating as you describe it to an industry expert who put you on the spot?
Be honest: are you hoping the agent will stick with the sample chapters and ignore your synopsis, or do you think it’s actually a feature of your submission package? If the former is true, take the time to fix wonky sentences and clarify the protagonist’s journey.
COMMON ISSUES IN ‘BPA FIRST NOVEL AWARD’ SUBMITTED SYNOPSES
- Indenting the first paragraph (Never indent a first paragraph!)
- Ending on a cliffhanger
- Telling us what the themes are (They should be conveyed through the story)
- Using vague language e.g. ‘In the end, all motivations are revealed‘
- Mentioning supporting characters before the protagonist (Not wrong per se, but this makes it harder for the reader to grasp the core story)
- Paragraph about the beginning, paragraph about the middle, paragraph of rhetorical questions (Sorry, I have a thing about these!)
YOU’VE GOT THIS
Writing a functional synopsis is hard work. It’s more logistical than creative, and you are a creative person! But your manuscript deserves a strong synopsis backing it up, so we hope you will take this advice and feel confident completing your submission package.