If you want to get published, there’s no way around it. You need to write a synopsis for your book.
Nothing strikes agony into a writer (even one who’s written a 100 000 word draft!) more than writing the synopsis. But the synopsis is important for so many reasons, and if you don’t write a synopsis properly then you won’t be able to pitch your book to a publisher or even condense the story properly for everything else that goes into the query process.
If it’s any consolation, everyone struggles to write the synopsis – even seasoned writers on their twelfth or twentieth books.
A good synopsis is helpful to both author and editor. When you’re building your platform you can pull from elements of your synopsis and expand with essays and articles, and you can also use it when you’re redrafting and editing your book – to ensure you’ve included the most important, page-turning elements.
It’s also absolutely essential to pitch your memoir to a publisher!
The difference between the synopsis and the query
Think of it this way: your query letter is like a quick hello at a party – you include the strongest hook in your story to capture someone’s attention and leave them wanting more. But the synopsis is for later, when they’ve sat down next to you at the dinner table and want the complete start-to-finish overview of the story, including a hint at the resolution.
Why you should write your synopsis even before you start the query process
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 as you draft.
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.
Writing a synopsis that an agent / editor or publisher will love
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. It gives an idea of comparative titles, style, hook, time-frame and is basically a ‘high level’ overview of the most important and most marketable aspects of the book, and where it’s going to sit in the marketplace.
Read on for three steps to writing a great synopsis.
1: Start with the story hook (not the backstory)
This is where something UNEXPECTED 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 unexpected event or decision 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 (or two short ones) which details the major plot turns, conflicts and mentions 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.
To use the example of Almost French again (even though we don’t have the full synopsis, just the back cover blurb) –as an example
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 key scenes with some of Frederic’s social circle, the wine-pouring incident at the dinner party, the pumice stone, 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, and how it differs and is similar to two or three comparative titles.
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 or a hint at the question the ending resolves. 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.
- You must have also high-level sentence which shows exactly how the narrator (memoirist) changes as a character from start to end of the memoir.
To 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 (short) synopsis should be between 350 – 400 words (some publishers will ask for a LONG synopsis which is 2-3 pages).
- 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.
- Some publishers and editors ask for a LONG synopsis and some ask for a short synopsis. The key with the long synopsis is to put more detail about the resolutions to the challenges and obstacles, and include a longer bio for yourself at the end. Always follow publisher-specific guidelines when submitting your synopsis!