Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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The synopsis: what it is, what it isnít, how to write it

Publishers and agents require a synopsis of your novel before you submit the MS (thatís "manuscript" – might as well learn the jargon now). The synopsis is your most powerful, in fact your only, selling tool. Your cover letter is less important, and I'll cover it in a future article, but what you are selling is your novel, and your novel's representative is your synopsis.

Before I get started, I want to quote a wise editor I know, who said that, to the author, writing the synopsis was writing the story's obituary. The story is done, the characters are gone from you. It is over, and now you are summarising them in what you hope is an honest and compelling way. You have to be professional in your approach to your synopsis, but don't forget that mourning might interfere with the clarity of your perception of your own work. The synopsis is hard to do because you are grieving.

Now let's get briskly back to business...

A quick look at the submissions guidelines from both agents and publishers shows that they seldom want to see the full MS, and often don't want to see more than the first three chapters (or first 50 pages) and a synopsis. Sometimes they want only the synopsis.

What a synopsis is not

The word "synopsis" is sometimes used to mean "plot plan" or "story outline," that is, the guideline you write yourself as a map to write your novel. That is a specific tool for you alone. In the writing of your novel, you probably deviated from your original plot plan, modified it, perhaps even discarded it. Whatever happened to it, this is not what you send to a publisher or agent. I try never to call that the "synopsis," as beginner writers get all excited and think they've done the work already. Sadly, no. That work is yet to come.

The synopsis is not your thoughts on your novel. It is not your view of its themes, its potential, its rivals out there in the market, its greatness, or the greatness of you (although I'm sure you are).

The synopsis is not something that sounds like a jacket blurb. Often people call the breathless attention-getter on the back cover a "synopsis," but it is in fact a marketing tool, aimed at potential purchasers. If you write this sort of thing as your submission synopsis, you will get a swift rejection. You donít sell to publishers or agents that way.

What I mean by jacket blurb is something that reads like:

Patrick Hanrahan is a down-on-his-luck journalist, dreaming of being a white knight on the mean streets of Hollywood while he scrounges sleazy stories about two-bit crooks and chiselers. On a stake-out he witnesses a crooked agent and his goons murder a young woman.

But when the police get there and the lights go on, there's no blood, no body. Miliana Rostova, a police detective, traces him as the caller of the anonymous tip-off. Convincing her that he wasn't pulling a stunt is as easy as showing her his photos.

Together, they begin to puzzle out a crime that isn't there, a girl who isn't missing, and soon find themselves up against a crime-lord who won't be thwarted, not by one of the shrewdest detectives on the force and certainly not by a washed-up reporter who dreams of being a hero...

This might sell the book to a reader in a bookstore, airport or on the internet, but it won't sell it to an agent or publisher, because it doesn't tell her what you're offering. It's a thriller/mystery, yes, but is it a good one? Is it a mystery that plays by the rules, is it a thriller that twists your guts as you turn the pages faster and faster?

A good synopsis will tell her, because it tells what happen and she can see for herself.

What a synopsis is

The synopsis is a summary of the plot of your novel. It is a one-to-two page summary of what happens (and more usually one page). That's it.

I stress "of what happens." The synopsis has to tell the publisher or agent what happens in your novel. She needs to know what the book delivers. Publishers and agents are professionals and have seen it all before. They are not a market to be intrigued by a cliff-hanger or enticed by mystery. They donít get their excitement from wannabe novelists who try to pique their curiosity. They are excited by something that will make them money. As this money-making ability is something you want them to share with you, you have to give them what they need to make an informed decision about what you are offering.

But a good synopsis is more than a bald statement of the action in the book. It is your first and your only chance to command their attention, so you have to make it as compelling a piece of writing as it can be. If I may modestly offer my own experience, I once had a publisher say "if the book is as well written as the synopsis, we want it." (The history of that book {sob} is not for this article.) I told them what happened in the book, and I did so in a way that showed that I could make even a summary of a novel into a gripping read.

If I can do it, you can do it.

The writing of the synopsis requires a few stages, and none of them is easy. It's a tough job, but getting into print is a tough job, too, and real writers are willing to do the tedious stuff as well as the lovely creative stuff.

Stage One: list your scenes

Go through your MS and jot down what happens in each scene. A novel usually has between 60 and 80 scenes, grouped into chapters. Ignore the chapters and look at the scenes. Your first jot-down might read something like:

Patrick (hero) on surveillance of Oscar, crooked agent, at Oscarís office, from his car. Car filled with night's worth of junk food. Patrick bored, feeling his tip-off that Oscar is doing something very illegal was a bum steer. Then light comes on in office. Patrick grabs camera-binoculars. They're old and cheap and don't work properly (typical of Patrick), but he focuses them enough to see Oscar and two goon-like guys with a clearly frightened young woman. Argument in office. Girl man-handled by goons. Patrick squeezes off photos, angry but elated. Then, to his horror, one of the goons hits the girl hard. The other joins in and they beat her until thereís blood everywhere and she is clearly dead. Oscar is shouting through it all. To stop it? To cheer them on? Patrick is shaken and sick. The lights go out.

His first instinct is to go to the girl, but doesn't want to be found at scene, doesn't want to mess with the evidence, and he wants the scoop. Chews piece of beef jerky, his cigarette-substitute and decides to phone the police with an anonymous tip-off. He doesn't want to drive away, in case he is spotted, and he wants a ring-side seat. Scrunches down in his car and decides if the police roust him, he will claim to have been asleep in his car the whole night.

The police turn up. Patrick eases up just enough to watch through his binoculars, ready to take more photos of gruesome scene. But when the lights go on again, the room is pristine. No body. No blood. Even chair the girl was seated in is gone. He watches the police search the premises and leave, mind stunned with disbelief. Sits in his car for hours, trying to figure out what happened, and then drives home.

All too early, a knock on his door. A plain, tough-looking woman flashes a police badge at him. She explains that his cellphone call was traced and she knows he called in that anonymous report. She has looked him up and knows of his reputation. The police are not amused to be dragged out to nothing. What is Patrick's game? He protests that he really saw something. The police detective suggests he might face charges. His agitated protests, his detailed descriptions, start to convince her. He hauls out his camera-binoculars and transfers the shots to his laptop. They are terrible quality, but it is clear that something happened. The police detective is convinced.

This is a lot of jotting down and all you've done is summarise the first chapter-and-a-bit of your novel, that is, the first four scenes. You keep going through all the other scenes and you end up with about ten to twenty pages of jottings. You have finished stage one.

Now you have to condense and combine the action in those scenes. You do need eventually to give the reader (the agent or publisher) a little bit of the incidental information that comes along with the action, but you aren't at that stage yet, and you certainly can't include all those details you've jotted down, or your final synopsis will be too long by a factor of ten.

Stage Two: condense your jottings into a summary

Taking those first four scenes, your synopsis would begin:

Patrick, a scruffy freelance journalist who feeds on the dirtier end of celebrity tittle-tattle in Los Angeles, is nosing into the unsavory contracts made by Oscar, a model-and-actors agent who leaches off the wreckage at the bottom of the pond. While maintaining surveillance on Oscarís office one night, Patrick witnesses what looks like a murder. He calls the police anonymously and hangs around to grab the scoop, but they find no blood, no body, no evidence. One of the detectives on the case tracks down his smartphone number and grills him, thinking he has used the police for his own purposes. He insists that he saw something real, and Miliana, the police detective, finally believes him when he shows her his photos.

Notice that you start with the first action. You give a line setting the scene, explaining where the protagonist is and what he is doing, and then you give the starting point, the kick-off of the novel's arc of action: Patrick witnesses a murder. This is the action from which all others follow. This is what your novel is about: a murder and its consequences. Notice also that you ignore your chapters. Chapter breaks are an impediment to reading a synopsis and add nothing, so don't put them in.

The condensation above has turned the 479 words of the first-stage jottings into 126 words. Short is good. The shorter the better, if you are going to cram the action of your entire novel onto no more than a page.

The condensation should begin after you have completed all your jottings, as you will then see where you can mention a later fact earlier, or an earlier fact later, if that makes the explication clearer. The synopsis should, on the whole, follow the development of the story as it happens, but sometimes you need to rearrange a bit for clarity. You are telling the story of the action, not making a record of a legal trial.

Notice that the condensation retains motives and emotions and is quite chatty. You might the sort of writer who can go from stage one to stage three without the condensation step, but most writers can't be that ruthless that fast. It takes more than one step to get used to this icy sea. So do this condensation stage before Stage Three.

Stage Three: paring down

Patrick, ne'er-do-well freelance reporter, watching the office of Oscar, crooked Hollywood agent, one night, sees the murder of a young woman by Oscar and his two goons. He phones in an anonymous tip. He watches as the police turn up and find nothing at all. Patrick is contacted by the police the next day. The detective, Miliana Rostova, accuses him of involving the police in a hoax and threatens prosecution. Patrick downloads his night's photos to show her his evidence, and she is convinced.

That works as a synopsis, but these 86 words are a little stark. Continue to pare down, in any case, because the leaner you can make it, the better. It is hard work to shorten a whole novel and you have to be ruthless. You have to write these pared-down sections well. Very well. They have to be clear and concise. The beauty of your prose is gone, all romance, mood and humour stripped away. You might be tempted to stick with your condensation, but trust me: this paring-down stage is necessary. You have to let go of the idea that you can keep those parts of the story of which you are especially proud: the subtle character development, perhaps, or the descriptions.

Even more: you have to lose minor characters, lesser plot arcs, and all the complex interwoven action that is essential to the story but not actually essential to the synopsis. Eliminate them ruthlessly. Say goodbye to Patrick's wacky neighbour, who is a funny, mothery presence throughut the story and who sees, at a crucial moment, something only Patrick knows is significant. Rather than spelling it out even in a summarised form:

"Mrs Tiffany, Patrick's quasi-friend, living in the unit next to his at the motel, parks her empty beer-bottles outside her door at 6 am sharp every morning, and tells him: "That guy was around again last night, that guy with the funny eye, looking at your car."

You have reduced it to:

"His neighbour at the motel gives him a vital clue."

But her purpose in the plot (that thing you are summarising) is to give him this final clue. It's the clue that's important. So you drop her from the synopsis entirely and say:

"He discovers a vital clue."

Lose Mrs Tiffany now, lose it all now, because soon a vestige of it all will reappear (although maybe not Mrs Tiffany, not even then). It begins in Stage Four.

Stage Four: enrichment

This is where you very gently add a touch of flavour, a touch of story-telling, perhaps even a flicker of the other characters, to that pared-down skeleton. Not too much: you don't want to inflate the word-count, but just enough to give the agent or publisher a sense that you can write. Not a sense of how the story is written, its tone of voice, but a sense of your own skills ("if the book is as well written as the synopsis, we want it").

Take that pared-down version and, with one eye on the condensation, add in just enough – just enough – to flavour it.

Patrick, a seedy freelance reporter in Hollywood, has staked out the office of Oscar, crooked agent, one sultry Hollywood night. He witnesses the murder of a young woman by Oscar and two of his goons. Shaken, but wanting the scoop, he phones in an anonymous tip and stays put. The police arrive and find nothing: no blood, no body. Patrick drives home, mind reeling, to be woken early the next morning by a police detective, Miliana Rostova, who has traced his call and now threatens him with arrest. Patrick's honest distress surprises her and his downloaded photos, despite their poor quality, convince her.

This is 101 words, a mere 15 more than your pared-down version, but now with motive and emotion (shaken, wanting the scoop, honest distress, surprise). The action is all there, enough description is there to give the reader an idea of who Patrick, Oscar and Miliana are, and you have added in some human action: Patrick, though not admirable, is human enough to be horrified, and Miliana is observant enough to change her opinion of him. You donít need to add that Patrick's home is a dump of a motel room, or that Miliana is an older, world-weary police detective who thinks she's beyond surprises, or that Patrick's secret dream is to be a modern-day Philip Marlowe. You can only hint at the richness of your characters by these tiny touches, but your reader will be acutely aware of what you are telling her; she will pick up on all these touches as if they were from a loudspeaker.

The synopsis should mirror the genre of the story. If it is a limpid romance, it should flow like a romance, delivering its unfolding love story in a charming, beguiling way. For a mystery mystery, it must become more tense and even thrilling as it goes. While still summarising and giving the action with a few tiny "colour" touches, you can make it exciting. Yes, you give away the ending, because you must tell all the action, but you can do so in a way that the agent or publisher finishes it saying, "Wow!"

But, more than this, she will have read a synopsis that demonstrates that you can take an opening scene, develop the action in an arc of subsequent actions that logically derive from that first scene, and end it with a satisfying conclusion that closes all loops and which 'delivers'.

Stage Five: sense-check

Yes, you have a bit more work to do. This is your sense-check, your last read-through of the synopsis. You must judge whether you think it is an accurate and honest representation of your novelís action, whether it delivers an emotional impact as well, and whether it is, in and of itself, a good read. As this is the only reading experience the agent or publisher will have of you, it has to be the best you can give. If your synopsis tells a good story, if it IS a good story, then they will trust that the novel itself will be a good story, too.

Final Stage: reflection

The synopsis has another use, and that is to you. As you begin to condense and pare down, flaws and omissions in your story may well come to light. You might only now realise in the condensation stage that you forgot to 'close off' a loop about one of Oscar's goons. The story needs a scene of his arrest, to give closure. Aren't you glad you spotted this now? Go and write it. Or you might suddenly see that the big character-signal you stuck in early (Patrick re-reading The Maltese Falcon and ruminating on the motivation of Marlowe) is, in fact, unnecessary and can be removed. Go cut it now. The writing of the synopsis might send you back to rewriting the whole novel, and this is a good thing. When you come back to write the synopsis, you will have a better story to tell and to sell.

It is also a chance for you to reflect on what you have achieved. You have written a novel. It now has its synposis and is about to enter the world. It is a big moment. Acknowledge it.

This synopsis is your "elevator pitch," the one and only opportunity you have to sell your novel, your five minutes of an agent's or a publisher's busy day. Get it right, and it will be the best five minutes of her day – and, when her call or email comes through, of yours.

Boot Note

I cannot stress enough: Do Not Exceed the Word Count or Page Limit the publisher or agency has set. If they specify one page, make it one page. If 750 words, make it no more than 750 words. Because lack of self-discipline is a pitiful thing in a writer.

Housekeeping: don't forget to put your name and book title at the top of your synopsis (on each page, if it is longer than one page). If in an email, add your details to the body of the email and don't rely on the email header information. This ensures that your details are on anything forwarded, handed around, and printed off in multiple copies. (This copying and handing around at a publisher's or at a literary agency is a very a very happy thing.) Make it easy for them to come back and say: "If the book is as well written as your synopsis, we want it."