Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How to Write A Synopsis for Your Novel

Many of the questions I've been receiving from folks lately fall into the nuts and bolts of writing techniques category. A big one I struggled with was, "How do you write a novel synopsis?" I finally heard a great response to this question from Randy Ingermanson. He spells it all out for us in great detail. My one comment is in bold.

The Dreaded Synopsis
by Randy Ingermanson

Sooner or later, virtually every novelist has to write a synopsis. This is a little odd, because most of my editor friends tell me they hate reading synopses ("they're boring") and most of my writer friends tell me they hate writing them ("they're boring.")

Seems like there's a pattern here. And yet we still have to write the miserable things. I'm not going to speculate on why the synopsis is such a staple of the process of selling a book. It just is. The best thing to do is to write the wretched beast right the first time and get it out of your hair.

First things first. Always find out how long of a synopsis you're expected to write. Generally, the
editors I've worked with wanted about two pages. If you find an editor who wants only a page, send her a page. If you find one who wants more, then send more.

Formatting for a synopsis is pretty simple:

* Use 12 point type that has a serif. Times-Roman or Times-New-Roman are good readable fonts with serifs. Helvetica and other sans-serif fonts are less readable.

* Use one-inch margins on all four sides.

* Single-space your synopsis.

* Either indent the first line of all paragraphs or else add an extra blank line between paragraphs.

* Number your pages in the center of the footer.

* [Optional] I normally put my last name on the right side of the header of each page. I don't use the title of the book, because the title may not work for the editor, and I don't want to keep reminding the editor that I have rotten taste in titles.

If you follow this formatting, then a two-page synopsis will run roughly 1000 words. If your novel has 80 to 100 scenes, then that gives you 10 to 12 words to explain each scene, which is not enough.

Let's repeat that, because it's important: You can't describe every scene of your novel in your synopsis. You don't have enough word count in two pages.

What's a writer to do?

That's actually pretty easy. You're going to have to combine scenes into "scene sequences" and write a paragraph that summarizes each "scene sequence." I got this idea from the book STORY, by Robert McKee, who develops the notion of sequences of scenes.

This is absolutely fundamental to writing a good synopsis. Break up your novel into 10 or 15 "scene sequences." Write a paragraph on each one.

Keep doing that until the end. That's your synopsis.

If you have a book with multiple point-of-view characters, then you'll need to go heavier on the
scenes that deal with the lead character and lighter on the scenes featuring the other characters. You don't have any other choice.

You may be worrying that this isn't enough, that your editor won't be able to understand the story unless you give her more details.

I don't believe this for a second. Your editor is smart. What she wants is the big picture of your story with only enough details to prove to her that you have some idea how your story works. Two pages is plenty for that.

If you think two pages isn't enough, then remember that you can summarize your story in a paragraph of 60 words if you strip it down enough. You can slash it down to a sentence of 15 words if you cut it all the way to the bone. Compared to a sentence or a paragraph, two pages
is a scandalous waste of words.

Here is a simple checklist for writing your synopsis:

* Write a "scene list" that contains one sentence telling what happens in every scene in the story. This is convenient to do in a spreadsheet.

* If the ordering of the scenes is out of whack, then feel free to reorder them slightly so that the related scenes are together in blocks.

* Color-code the scenes in groups of related scenes. Each group should be roughly three to seven scenes. The colors that you use don't have any meaning, so just use any convenient colors. You might make one set yellow and leave the other set white.

* Count the number of groups of scenes you have. You're looking for roughly 10 to 15 groups. If you've got too many or few, then either combine groups to get fewer, or split groups to get more.

* For each group, figure out the main story idea and focus on that. Write a paragraph that summarizes this plot thread. If you can end the paragraph with a major setback, then that's ideal.

* Read the whole synopsis and edit it for flow. Are the paragraphs well-connected? If not, tweak them so they are.

* If you have a brilliant surprise ending, should you tell your editor? That's up to you. You can tell it all, or you can be vague. You might even opt for an ending that appears to be a brilliant surprise ending but which still doesn't give away certain critical details which make it even more of a brilliant surprise. That way, when your editor reads the story, she'll get to enjoy at least some of the surprise. [Many books I've read have said to ALWAYS include the ending of your book, but then again, rules are made to be broken, eh?]

When your synopsis is done, have a writer critique it, preferably a writer with experience in writing synopses. Edit the synopsis based on the critique you get back.

Above all, don't spend three months writing your synopsis. It's only two pages. Write it. Edit it. Move on. If you're going to spend extra time polishing something, spend the time on your sample chapters, not your synopsis. If your synopsis is a little boring, well, your editor expects a boring synopsis, doesn't she?

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit

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Liz Johnson said...

Oh, I so needed this today. I've been fighting with a terrible synopsis. It just feels so boring, not at all like the book I'm trying to write. It's good to know it's supposed to be boring. :) My problem is that I'm a seat of the pants kind of writer. Plotting out every scene in my book--even just a sentence for each--sounds terrible to me. But thanks for the advice from Randy. Very helpful!

Hemant Kumar, New Delhi, India said...

Thank you very much for your detailed and stepped guide to writing a synopsis. I have come to realise the importance of a well-written synopsis after 200 submissions and 100 rejections.

I look back on all those months of writing the novel, and my struggles with myself. But those struggles were a picnic, compared with the absolute horror of writing a synopsis - the synopsis.

Thank you once again.