Updated: Mar 14
On Writing Synopses
First things first: see this Pub Crawl link for the best article on writing synopses that I have ever seen. I could not hope to improve on it, so I didn't try. However, as an editor and past agency intern, I've been through dozens of synopses and I've started to see a few trends that I think newly-querying authors can learn from.
So here goes:
Tip #1: It doesn't has to be perfect.
The truth is that a synopsis doesn't need to be perfect for you to attract an agent. A synopsis is not there to put your writing prowess on display. Agents fully recognize the difficulty in writing queries and synopses, and they know that your skill at writing them may have no resemblance to your skill in writing a book.
However, keep in mind the reason synopses are included: for the agent to see if your plot has any glaring flaws. They read a synopsis to check for an overabundance of tropes, a lack of conflict or stakes, slow or nonexistent progression, or a lack of character agency (where the story happens to the character, rather than the character making it happen). A synopsis will tell them if the book ends with a hand-waving "It was all a dream!" sort of thing; if a mystery book's big reveals all happen the same (read: boring) way; if a big twist is sorely obvious; if a villain is flat; if the setting is the general-medieval setting we've seen a million times; and if character development seems nonexistent. These are the main reasons an agent rejects.
So, when writing synopses, don't worry about the prose. Though I'd always recommend putting your best effort forward, a synopsis doesn't have to "match" your writing style or be a pleasant, lyrical read. A synopsis is there to put a strong plot, characters, and concept on display--that's all.
Tip #2: You shouldn't jump right into the action.
The opening paragraph of a synopsis should clearly set up the setting (time and place) and the status quo of the character (name, age, career, relevant backstory, etc). Basically, your first goal in any summary (including those in queries) is to firmly anchor your reader in the basics, so they won't be confused later. Aim to end your first paragraph with your inciting incident, or possibly open the next paragraph with it--but don't jump right in, or you'll lose clarity. Regardless, a synopsis isn't there to be entertaining. It's there to be a comprehensive outline of the plot. However...
Tip #3: Don't be too technical.
A synopsis must cover all the main plot points, and thus reveal the technical story elements: climaxes, twists, resolutions. But don't use those terms themselves. A synopsis should read like a story, usually in present tense and following the main character's perspective. Think Harry raises his wand to fight Voldemort, certain that he will die not In the climax, Harry and Voldemort must face off. That takes you out of the story and character. When you are reading a book, you don't think this is the climax or this is the resolution. You picture what is happening However, agents probably won't reject you over this.
Tip #4: Aim for 600 words or fewer.
Most agents ask for a one or two-page synopsis, but don't really clarify what word count that should be (double-spaced? inch margins? size 12 Times New Roman?). When a word count is mentioned, it's generally around 500 words. But almost no one asks for more or less than this. Therefore, I recommend your synopsis be 500-600 words (about 1 page single-spaced) because this will fit about 90% of the agent guidelines you come across, so you'll rarely have to rewrite or tweak your synopsis. Submitting to agents takes long enough as it is without adding to the work pile every time. Note: My experience here is with genre fiction. The norms may differ elsewhere, especially in nonfiction.
Tip #5: Aim for naming four characters or fewer.
When you name a character in a synopsis, they had better show up more than once, and be meaningful each time. If they don't, nix their name and settle for "her brother" or "his boss" or "the druid," etc. This is because trying to shoehorn too many names into a synopsis in too short a time is going to get very confusing very fast. A good rule of thumb is to name three characters: the protagonist, the ally, and the antagonist. A fourth can be added if they're important enough, but try not to go beyond that if you can help it (though if someone it integral to the story, recognize that). Remember, too, that each named character should have their name in ALL CAPS the first time it appears in a synopsis.
Tip #6: In multi-POV stories, consider your frame.
So your book has multiple POVs... and keeping a word count around 600 is proving impossible, and the thing feels like it's scattered all over the place. (This is generally a problem when we go above 2 POVs.) There are several ways to go about fixing this:
Frame the whole synopsis through a single character's point of view.
Frame a 3+ POV story through only two characters.
Tell the story in omniscient perspective, including everyone, but not dwelling too deeply on any one of them.
This final option is my preference, but it can be tough to keep this from getting confusing, as well. One thing to note is that you are showing the agent a single plot. Try to integrate all the characters together into one continuous, chronological storyline, rather than repeating the same plot point three times through different people's perspectives. For example, this makes a brief but engaging multi-character description of what would be a large chunk of chapters: While Dalinar fights for his life on the plateau, Kaladin goes against his master's wishes and directs his men to help. The two manage to survive, and in thanks, Dalinar purchases Kaladin from his master at the steep price of a full set of Shardplate. Kaladin is not inclined to like any of the lords, but after a few more battles beside Dalinar, they build a strong rapport with one another. Meanwhile, back at the palace, Jasnah has just ....
In this example, the story stays in chronological order, and two characters have their experiences integrated to save word count. The transition into another character and place is brief, but should lead us into another significant event happening simultaneously or shortly after this one. As in any summative writing, be economical. Clauses are your friend, and not every character has to see the spotlight in every scene; choose those most relevant to the moment.
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