Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Writing the Novel Synopsis

Sheila Kelly
©2003, Sheila Kelly

lmost everyone hates or dreads writing a synopsis for their novel; for the longest time I couldn't stand the damn things.  I mean, look at the task:  first, you have to condense a five hundred page manuscript down to ten or twenty pages.  It also has to 1) still make sense, 2) cover all the important points of the story and 3) be interesting enough to catch the eye of a jaded editor who probably reads thirty or forty synopses a week. 

Seems like you'd have better luck realigning the Hubble with a PDA, right?

Yet the synopsis represents the writer's first and foremost selling tool, and it's safe to say that composing an effective synopsis is as important as writing a great novel.  In today's market, you simply cannot sell your novel without a synopsis, so it's imperative to learn how to do them the right way if you want to get into print.

When you create a synopsis, what you're doing is presenting an overview of your novel.  The main goal is to outline the characters, setting, plot and conflicts in your story.  Let's go over what you need to put one together:   

I.  Format

The format of a novel synopsis is: double-spaced, one-inch margins, in submission font (Courier 12 pt. is my font for everything I submit) on plain white paper.  Avoid dot matrix printers, and if you send a photocopy, make sure it's as dark as the original.  All pages are numbered in the upper right hand corner with a header or footer of AUTHOR LAST NAME/Book Title (i.e. VIEHL/StarDoc) on each page.  Important note:  before you write the synopsis, always check the publisher's guidelines for specifics:  some want certain information such as name/address/phone number printed on the first page; some have a certain page length cut-off; some have content restrictions.

II. Ingredients

Now that you have your format prepared, it's time to write the synopsis.  You'll need the following information from your novel:

1. Characters – identities, goals, motivations and conflicts of the characters central to the plot.

2. Setting – a brief description

3. Plot – the main and subplots of your story

4. Sequence of events – how the story progresses

5. Theme – what's the point of this novel? 

You're already getting nervous, right?  Relax.  Writing a synopsis is like drawing a very detailed map to show a stranger how to get to your house.  You know where you live, you know how to get there, you only need to tell someone else who has never been there how to do that.  Same thing with a novel synopsis.    

III. Basic composition

Begin your synopsis with an opening paragraph that presents a clear, brief view of your protagonist, his/her world, and the situation he/she is in when the novel opens.   Going back to the map analogy, this is like telling someone about the neighborhood where you live.  Example:

"When the Allied League of Worlds withdraws from the Pmoc Quadrant to pursue the enemy Hsktskt Faction, Lieutenant Jadaira (Dair) mu T'resa and her squadron of SEAL (surgically enhanced/altered lifeform) pilots remain behind to provide planetary patrol.  They have to; the aquatic pilots can't survive away from their native underwater environment on Kevarzangia Two for more than brief periods.  Mainly they deal with remnant ordinance and space traps left behind by both sides, and which are hazards to the influx of refugees fleeing the war." –BioRescue by S.L. Viehl

In that opening paragraph, I've briefly introduced you to my protagonist, Dair, her world, and the job she's performing as the novel opens.  I've also touched on three of the most important conflict elements of the novel:  Dair and the other pilots are aquatic lifeforms who are dependent on their world, their bodies have been altered/enhanced, and they're a peace-keeping force who helps refugees.  By reading this paragraph, you know a little about Dair and her neighborhood. 

Another important note:  all synopses are told in omniscient present tense.  There are no exceptions to this rule.

The next paragraph(s) of the synopsis are what I refer to as the trigger, or where you present what sets off the main conflict of your novel.  Ask yourself:  What's going to happen to shake up the characters and the world that you've just shown the reader?  You don't have to present the entire plotline in a nutshell, but you should introduce the element of change that triggers the main conflict.  Example:

"New Orleans Homicide Detective J.D. Gamble doesn't need any more headaches.  Mardi Gras starts in two days, his caseload is a nightmare, and his mother Elizabet wants him to quit the force, marry socialite Moriah Navarre, and enter the political arena.  Being called in on an arson case at an abandoned warehouse by the Chief Fire Marshal, his brother Cortland, is the last straw.  After J.D. arrives at the scene, he's astonished to learn that the only witness and sole survivor of the fire is Sable Duchesne, the girl he once loved and lost.  When gubernatorial candidate Marc LeClare's burned body is recovered, he has no choice but to take Sable in for questioning."  – Into the Fire by Jessica Hall

The main conflict trigger in my novel is when my heroine is detained for questioning by her former lover.  That single event sets all of the other events of the novel in motion.  Look at your story to find the same kind of key moment, event or trigger, and present that after your opening paragraph.

The body of the synopsis follows the opening and the trigger paragraphs, and this is where you present the sequence of events in your novel.  Don't try to write a summary of every chapter in sequence.  Select the most important elements of each chapter and present them in the order that they make sense.  Give your reader directions to make their way through your story.

Finally, you should have a wrap-up paragraph(s) at the very end of the synopsis, which clearly states your ending, and also resolves the main conflict.  Example:

"Jax dreams that she and Matthias stand in the center of a circle of ten glowing figures.  A spirit-image of Gideon joins them, and tells the council that Jax and Matthias have proven themselves by finding his killer, and are worthy of Alenfar.  Matthias suggests that because they let Unger become possessed and murder Gideon, the council is powerless, and their threats are nothing but bluffs.  Before he fades away, Gideon smiles at Jax, who finally understands why he chose her – not just for Alenfar, but for Matthias, who has been like a son to him. 

Jax suggests to the council that matters such as their actual power and the overseers' personal lives should remain the private business that they are.  The important thing is that from now on, she and Matthias will work together to keep Alenfar in balance. 

When Jax wakes up, she's alone, but on her pillow is a single rose, glowing white in the sunlight." – White Nights by S.L. Viehl

In this ending, I was able to resolve the main conflict and the central plot threads by how I presented the final events of the story.  One note on personal style – I like to end my novels with a personal metaphor or symbolic gesture, act, or object, and I try to do the same with my synopses (hence the final paragraph about the white rose.)   

IV. Synopsis Secret Weapons

Trimming down everything from your novel to fit into a synopsis is tough, there's no question about that.  There are no shortcuts around the task, but there are some things you can do to make it easier:

A.                Eliminate excess adverbs and adjectives – write as spare and clean as you can.  When you give someone directions, you don't tell them what color all of the other houses on your block are. 

B.                Create catch-phrases and buzz words – present ideas in short form as much as possible.  Example:  "She was raised by nuns until she came of age to inherit her family fortune" can be converted into "convent-schooled heiress." 

C.                  Read TV Guide and movie listings – this sounds funny, but it's an excellent way to learn how to condense.  Hollywood can reduce a two hour movie into a single ten-word sentence and still make it sound exciting.

D.                 Tell someone about your novel – "talking out" your book with someone else can help tremendously.  See if they can follow your plotline as you describe your book, and listen to the questions they ask.  What they want to know should probably be in your synopsis

E.                  Practice using other writers' books – if you're too anxious about writing a synopsis for your novel, try writing one about someone else's book.  Make it one of your favorite books and you'll be surprised by how much you know and how easy it is to write.  

V. Some Final Thoughts

I really didn't like writing synopses until I did a strange thing – I wrote one for myself.  I was working on a novel I'm writing for my children, and I decided to put together a synopsis to organize my notes.  I have no intentions of ever selling this book, so for once I wasn't trying to impress an editor.  To my surprise, I actually enjoyed writing it, and it turned out to be one of my best.  No dread involved, because there was no editor involved. 

Now I try to keep the same mindset when I'm writing any synopsis – I write them for me, not an editor.  It's been much easier ever since.

Putting together a novel synopsis may never be the writer's favorite task, but it is necessary if you want to pursue a professional career.  Relax, practice, and have fun with it as much as possible.  Remember – you know where you live.  Now tell the rest of us how to get there.