Synopsis writing is hard! I used to be terrible at it—it’s one of those things that you sit down to do thinking, “I’ve written a book, how difficult can it be to write a synopsis” only to discover it’s not so easy. And there must be something happening in the writing world at the moment because I’ve had 3 people email me about writing synopses in the past couple of weeks. So I thought I’d share with you the process I’ve developed that helps me write a synopsis for a book.
1. What Needs to be in a Synopsis?
You only need 4 things in your synopsis: your working title, the genre of the book, the word count and your extended pitch.
The genre should simply be a few words, using the publisher’s language i.e. rural romance, contemporary women’s fiction, historical fiction. If you’re not sure exactly how to describe your genre, hop onto a few publishers’ websites and look up titles similar to your own. In the description on the website for each of these books, there will be a statement of what genre it is.
Your word count should obviously be appropriate to your genre. Don’t send in a 150,000 word romance novel! It is unlikely to be read.
2. What’s an Extended Pitch?
It’s a summary of the story. It’s usually around 200-300 words. Bear in mind, your synopsis really shouldn’t be more than 1 page.
The key here is the word “story”. A synopsis isn’t a summary of the themes of the book; the publisher will be able to work that out if you’ve described the story well enough. People don’t read for themes, they read for story. Your story is what will catch the attention of the publisher. A synopsis shouldn’t tell the publisher how to read the book either. It’s just about the story.
3. So How Do I Summarise the Story in 200-300 Words?
Good question! Obviously you have to leave a lot out. That’s the thing that most people find the hardest to do. You really want to focus on the main plot and maybe one or, at most two, subplots.
In the synopsis I wrote for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, the main focus of the synopsis was the key plot thread. I also wove in a very small amount of my biggest subplot, and an even smaller amount of two other subplots. When I say an even smaller amount, I mean each of those subplots got two key sentences each in the synopsis. There are many subplots I didn’t even mention in the synopsis because those subplots aren’t the ‘hook’ of the book.
You don’t need to order the synopsis in the same way that the book is ordered. Perhaps the chronology in your book jumps around all over the place. Imagine if you tried to jump around all over the place in the synopsis?! It would be a mess to read.
For example, in The Painted Face, my fourth book, I have some scenes set in the 1920s and some in the 1940s. These are intertwined throughout the book. But in the synopsis I sent to my agent and publisher, I simply went through the 1920s story for the first 3 paragraphs of the synopsis and then I moved into the 1940s part of the story in the last couple of paragraphs.
4. The Six Sentence Method
I find the six-sentence method really helpful. Try to summarise your story in 6 sentences, then expand a little on those six sentences in the synopsis.
The six sentences I focus on are:
- what is life like for my main character at the start of the book
- what is the thing that sets the protagonist off on their journey (the inciting incident, described in a compelling way)
- what is the journey or the goal of your character and why is it so important to them
- what are a couple of obstacles that get in the way
- what is the biggest obstacle of all (doesn’t need to be described fully if it gives away too much, but the drama needs to be hinted at)
- end with a question/hook
Then, in my synopsis, my first two paragraphs will be about points 1-3 above. The next 2 paragraphs will tackle a couple of the obstacles. The final paragraph will be about the big obstacle, and the question/hook.
5. What is an Ending Question or Hook?
It’s the kind of question you might find on the back cover blurb of a book.
For example, my second book, If I Should Lose You, was about a woman who was an organ donor coordinator and whose daughter needed a liver transplant. In my synopsis, I set up the fact of this woman’s job giving her privileged access to information about organ donors, and I set up the fact of her very ill daughter. I ended the synopsis with the question: How far will Camille go to keep her daughter alive and what might it cost another child waiting on the list?
It’s a question that hints at the drama that will unfold, that makes your story sound compelling, that lures the reader (in this case the agent or publisher) in to wanting to know more about the book.
6. Should I Give the Ending Away?
I never do. I want the publisher and/or agent to want to read the book. So I will end the synopsis with the question and leave it at that.
However, there are some circumstances where you might have to reveal the end of the book. If your book relies on a twist at the end for its impact, then you might need to include the ending so that the agent or publisher understands the full impact of the story.
I hope that helps! If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below. And, don’t forget, I have a brand new on-demand course available through the Australian Writers’ Centre all about Pitching Your Novel. I teach the course through a series of videos and handouts and you can take the course at any time. I cover synopsis writing, as well as lots of other info about pitching your novel.