If you’re hoping to get a book deal before you’ve written the entire manuscript, it’s essential to get your synopsis ready before you sit down to write the first draft.
Publishers looking to commission a manuscript look first and foremost for a good, strong synopsis.
If it’s any consolation, everyone struggles to write the synopsis – even seasoned writers on their twelfth or twentieth books.
Why is something so short often more difficult than an entire 100 000 word manuscript?
Because we have to distil a giant story into a short, clear, unfluffy description.
A synopsis helps you distil the key points, challenges, character journey and style of your story so that you can refer back to it if you feel you’re getting off track as you draft.
Having a 350 – 400 word synopsis nearby will help you nip any writer’s block in the bud, too. It’s OK if you don’t know the ending when you draft your synopsis – you can tweak it – and you will – when you finish the book.
For a publisher, the synopsis gives an overview of the story, genre, major locations / character turning points and challenges the ‘world’ of the story will discuss / explore.
For you, the writer, it gives you a clear overview of the main points in the story that you need to cover.
Read on for my three steps to writing a great synopsis.
1: Start with the story hook (not the backstory)
This is where something happens to someone or something (which then leads to the key theme or plot of the story).
Begin with a strong paragraph which identifies the protagonist, conflict, and setting.
If you’re stuck for what your hook is, think of the catalyst event- ie. What triggered the story to come. This could be a question, an event, a health diagnosis, etc etc.
For example, in Almost French, the first line in the back cover blurb is:
One night in Bucharest, a chance meeting with a charming Frenchman changes journalist Sarah Turnbull’s travel plans forever…
Notice how that one sentence tells us the most important information about the two characters who will form the majority of the book.
Sarah is a journalist, and her new beau is a Frenchman…the book is going to cover a changed ‘travel’ plan… So we know, immediately, the genre is travel memoir.
2: Follow with the change initiated by the catalyst event / hook
Write a paragraph which details any major plot turns or conflicts and any other key characters that will be central to the story.
This gives the reader (and you) an idea of what’s to come in the story. Think of the ‘new world’ the protagonist (you, if it’s a memoir) enters once they’ve moved from the catalyst event.
So to use Almost French again – (even though we don’t have the full synopsis, just the back cover blurb) –
Put a very French Frenchman together with a strong-willed Australian girl and the result is some spectacular – and often hilarious – cultural clashes. Sarah’s clothes, her laugh, her conversation – even how much she drinks – set her apart.
This gives the reader the idea of the genre and type of book they’re about to read. But most importantly, it gives you – the writer – an idea of what sorts of details to include (and how to map out your Chapter Outlines).
I’d imagine the full synopsis of Almost French would have detailed the cultural clashes in even more detail – perhaps even mentioning the scenes with some of Frederic’s social circle, etc.
If you’re really struggling with the middle part of your synopsis, detail three to four major challenges / events that will be included in the story and devote a sentence to each.
3: Finish with a paragraph summarizing the theme, style, questions or challenges the story raises.
The synopsis should include the conclusion or ‘result’ of the quest of the book, and what the reader will take away at the end of it. Because the synopsis isn’t the back cover blurb, you can include the ending. But if you don’t know it yet, just put a vague allusion to the resolution or result of the story’s quest. You can tweak all of this later.
Remember, the synopsis is more to help you as you draft the manuscript and give a publisher an overview of the book they’re commissioning.
But to use a final example from the last line in the Almost French blurb – you get a short summary of the themes, questions and style of the book – without knowing the ending in detail.
Funny, perceptive and poignant, Almost French is the story of an adventurous heart, a magical city – and finding love.
- Your synopsis should be between 350 – 400 words
- Once you’ve written it, leave it and come back to it after you’ve had a break – you’ll see a few things you forgot to include, and make tweaks much better with fresh eyes.
- Look at some of your favourite book blurbs – these are short versions of the synopsis and can give you some great ideas for writing the ‘hook’ line.
- Always write your synopsis in the active voice in the third person.