10 Secrets Of A Synopsis That Sells

Absolute Blank

By Melissa Muro

If you’re a writer and there is a novel sitting on your desk, waiting to be sent out to prospective agents, there will come a time that you have to formulate a synopsis.

Cooking up a hot synopsis is not something that writers need to fear, yet they do. If there is one thing that really gives them reason to procrastinate, it’s that daunting task of compressing a single novel into a single page or ten pages, depending on what the agent or publisher has requested.

Is ‘daunting’ the correct word to define the task of writing a synopsis? Many writers think so, but it does not have to be. First, we must take a closer look at what the word ‘synopsis’ means. A synopsis is a narrative summary of the main action of your finished or unfinished book-length manuscript. The way I like to define such task is quite simple: condense the entire novel into a short story.

There are slight variations on how to write a successful synopsis, but the basic elements are the same.

Background Image: Pete O'Shea/Flickr.

Background Image: Pete O’Shea/Flickr (CC-by).

  1. Begin by getting off to a fast start with an opening line that has been crafted into a truly stunning narrative hook. Then, move directly into the story. Do not make a shaky entrance. Start where the action and excitement of the story starts, not before. It’s a good idea to avoid telling the back story because your chance of losing the reader becomes greater. Open your synopsis, as you open your book, with conflict. This increases your chance of the reader wanting to continue on.
  2. Determine what the main points of the story are. This will help you avoid writing your synopsis in a chapter-by-chapter format. In a novel, there are usually several points that are profound and it is important to recognize what those points are. Once you’ve identified those, write them down in order and then expand on each one. What factors do I look for? There are several factors which make up a single main point: Meeting—the conflict facing the character or characters; Purpose—why is such an event occurring?; Encounter—what is the air around the story like, the drama; Final Action—win, lose or quit; and Sequel or Aftermath—state of affairs, then lead into your next scene.

I usually go through my novel and pick out five to six main events or turning points. One event is fleshed out a bit and looks something like this:

  • Meeting–between the daughter and her father.
  • Purpose–of the daughter is to convince her father to change the curfew from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. Why? Because she feels that all of her friends get to stay out late and she feels left out when the party is still going on and she has to go home.
  • Encounter–as arguments sway back and forth. The father says that the curfew stands; that he has a responsibility as a father and it’s important to follow the laws of teenage curfew. Tempers flare.
  • Final Action–again the daughter rejects her father’s argument.
  • Sequel–the daughter leaves in anger, determined that she will get her father to see her point of view. This points towards the next scene.

After one ‘scene’ is complete, go ahead and continue on with the other four or five, or however many are needed to write a compelling short story. Once that is done, bring everything together and the hardest part of the synopsis is done.

  1. Write the synopsis in the present tense and the third person. Make sure the tone matches the style of your novel. If the novel deals with family drama, then make the synopsis dramatic. Similarly, with a humorous novel the synopsis should be funny, and with a romance, romantic. An editor will be confused and be more apt to reject your work if she/he reads a funny synopsis, then reads the first three chapters of your work and learns that it’s all about death and melancholia. If you find that preparing your synopsis to match the tone and style of your novel is difficult, one recommended technique is to tell the story into a tape recorder, always in chronological order.
  2. Be sure to include a brief description when a character is introduced, concentrating on the individual’s nature and personality rather than physical appearance. The names of the main characters need to be capitalized the first time they are introduced. Do not include their ages. When mentioning secondary characters or location, there is no need to add intricate details. It’s best to keep descriptions to a minimum unless they are significant to the synopsis.
  3. Whether it is a one-page, 10-page or 20-page synopsis, the format is the same. A one-page synopsis should include all the main points in sharp, concise sentences. For longer works, the standard expectations of agents, editors, and publishers are that the first two pages open the door to your exciting novel, the middle pages advance the story along with scenes filled with drama, and finally the last two pages wrap up the end scenes. If the above method in # 7 is used, the sequence of events will flow naturally.
  4. Make sure that your synopsis is filled with emotions. Don’t tell the emotion, show the emotion. Readers, from an agent reading a manuscript to a person in the store with a book in her hand, want to be lost in stories filled with emotions. On the most basic level, we all have the capability to feel and when something makes us feel, good or bad, there is a sense of connection.
  5. Resist the urge to insert comments in the synopsis that address the reader directly to ensure the reader “gets it.” For example, you might write, “The conflict is…” or “At this point in the story…” Do not do this because doing so jars the reader from the flow of the story.
  6. Read your synopsis aloud. Reading your work in silence is not the same as reading it aloud. Many times I have read my synopsis aloud only to catch errors. What looks good on the screen or on paper doesn’t necessarily sound pleasant when it’s read aloud. Plus, I find that if I’m stumbling over a sentence or the flow of one paragraph doesn’t sit right, then it’s time for a minor rewrite. The edited version always sounds better.
  7. Once everything is complete, check the formatting and make sure it’s correct. Some tips:
    1. Double Space.
    2. Use 1 inch to 1½ margins on all four sides.
    3. Use white, clean paper. Print on one side only.
    4. Use a high quality printer, no dot matrix or typewriter.
    5. Left justify.
    6. Do not bind papers.
    7. Use a header with name, title and page number.

Example:

Name of Author
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone #

Synopsis: Title
Category:
Approximately XX,XXX words

Synopsis
TITLE WRITEN IN BOLD AND CAPS

  1. Find a positive affirmation. I believe that words are power and when you say them out loud, they manifest into truth. Instead of saying or thinking, “I can’t do this synopsis,” or even, “I write such great novels, but yucky synopses. The editor will never buy it.” If you wrote a compelling novel, then you can write a compelling synopsis. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, find a simple phrase such as “I am the master of synopsis writing,” or “Synopsis writing is easy to do.” Say your new affirmation seven times and it will come to fruition.

I live in Louisiana, which is a fertile ground for imagination considering all of the history behind this state. I have written and produces several plays for the deaf, as well as screenplays, novels (pending publication), non-fiction books and short stories. E-mail Melissa: dragonflies [at] wnonline.net.

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