Aside from queries--and maybe electronic hotel card keys--few things are as frustrating as writing a synopsis.
Condensing an entire novel to just a few pages means some things are going to be minimized or even excluded. I've found that approaching a synopsis similarly to how I approach outlining my novel helps me narrow down what to include.
Here Are the Basics
A synopsis is written in third person present tense, even if the novel is not. The goal is to show an agent or editor that you know how to plot, and you have a novel that does what a novel should do. Grab a reader, build on conflicts and stakes, and resolve the conflict in a satisfying way.
Just like in the novel itself, you want to show your story and make it active, but a certain amount of telling is going to happen just due to the nature of synopses. Don't fret too much if it sounds that way. If it sounds boring, then worry, but as long as the story sounds like something someone would want to read, you're okay.
You also want to convey a sense of building doom and escalating trouble, and encourage readers to wonder what happens next. A fun test here is to read your synopsis to someone paragraph by paragraph, stopping each time and asking if your listener feels compelled to know what happens.
There are usually a half dozen or so major moments in a novel--the set pieces. The elements that makes up the turning points of the story. Those usually unfold like this:
- Opening scene
- Inciting event
- Act one problem
- Act two choice
- Midpoint reversal
- Act two disaster
- Act three plan
- Wrap up
(Here's more on how to write a scintillating synopsis)
The Opening Scene
In the book: The opening scene is, of course, the way the book opens. It introduces the protagonist and the world and gives a taste of why this person is different or special enough to ask someone to read about them.
In the synopsis: One paragraph usually covers this, summarizing the key points a reader needs to know to understand the character, world, and situation. Without these details, someone couldn't understand the synopsis. For example, if the protagonist happens to have a magical ability to shift pain.
The Inciting Event
In the book: The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion. It's usually what the query hook is based on, and what you'd find on the back of a cover jacket.
In the synopsis: Another paragraph covers this event and why it matters. Motivation is very important in a synopsis, as that shows the story's drive and why these events are important. Don't forget to tell the why as well as the what and how (this goes for the whole synopsis, not just the beginning).
Act One Problem
In the book: This is when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your protagonist has just discovered she has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is what happened when she tried to deal with whatever she encountered in the inciting event.
In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs on what happens and why it's important. Don't forget your stakes, since this will show how the story problems escalate. She had problem A, but now it's worse and she has to do B. This is a key moment in a synopsis, because it shows you know how to take an idea (the premise and the inciting event setup) and actually turn it into a plot. It's proof you have some plotting skill.
Act Two Choice
In the book: The protagonist has done some digging and found out things are not what they seem. A secret is revealed that makes it clear she's in a bit over her head, but she has no choice but to go on. Or else. (Never forget the or else.) She has to make a tough decision on what to do next.
In the synopsis: Unless it's a complicated plot, you can usually get away with one paragraph here. The goal is to show you understand how to get your protagonist through the plot and that choices makes proactive protagonists (which agents and editors like to see). Show how the protagonist is stuck between a rock and hard place, and has to make a difficult choice. Up the stakes yet again. Don't forget why the protagonist need to do this.
In the book: Something happens to send the story sideways and gives readers something they weren't expecting. The reader thinks they know where the story is going, but wait! Suddenly it all changes. Midpoints can be anything, but they usually bring something new or unexpected to keep the story moving.
In the synopsis: One paragraph here that summarizes the protagonist's world being turned upside down and forcing her to act in a way she swore she never would. Or thought she couldn't. Or sends her off to face the unexpected or unknown. It's how you show an agent or editor that the middle doesn't bog down with "stuff" and that the plot keeps moving and keeps hooking the reader.
Act Two Disaster
In the book: This is when it all goes wrong for the protagonist and she has the darkest moment of her life. Her plans have failed, everything looks hopeless, and she probably wants to give up.
In the synopsis: One paragraph that shows the event and how the stakes have been raised yet again. This is a good spot to show how the protagonist feels about it all as well, since this will usually show what they're willing to risk to win. It's also a common major step and/or trigger in the character arc. Agents and editors will see from this that you understand how to develop a story and ramp up for an exciting climax and ending.
Act Three Plan
In the book: The protagonist has dragged herself up by sheer will (or encouragement from friends) and is ready (or forced) to face the antagonist. She comes up with a plan to do so. This leads directly into the climax of the novel.
In the synopsis: One paragraph usually covers this moment, showing what the climax is going to focus on, what the protagonist expects to happen, and how the stakes are raised again. You want to show that the stakes have escalated, choices and sacrifices have been made to get here, and there's no turning back. This is how the ending starts.
In the book: The final showdown with the antagonist. The protagonist has to face off with whomever or whatever has been making her life miserable for 400 pages, and because she's learned XYZ over the course of the book, she wins by a truly stunning and surprising action.
In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs that summarize this ending. Don't hold back on the details trying to save it for the novel. You want to show the agent or editor that you can deliver a solid and satisfying ending, and how the story wraps up. This proves you can end a novel in a satisfying way and that this novel is worth reading.
In the book: The happily ever after. Or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing. What the protagonist is going to do now that she's saved the day.
In the synopsis: One paragraph that ties it all up. If there's a moral or something the protagonist was supposed to learn in the story, this is a good spot to mention it. "Bob learns that trying to out do Jack in tequila shots was a bad idea indeed." It's a good indicator for a strong character arc (in novels that have them), since the wrap up typically shows the protagonist after the growth has fixed her life or made it better.
This format will give you a one- to two-page synopsis. If you want a longer synopsis, simply expand on these points, perhaps adding a major subplots as well. A common rule of thumb is to give the same ratio of space to the events in the synopsis as you do the book. So if the opening takes up 5% of the novel, it'll take up 5% of the synopsis. That can show the pacing and flow of the novel.
Get it Down First, then Fix it
For the first pass, don't try to limit yourself too much to fit those one or two paragraph recommendations. Just write it, even if it's bad and too long, so you know what details you want to include. The goal of the first pass is to get the basic information down, then see how much you have and edit to fit the synopsis size you need.
After you figure out what you want to include, then start tweaking. This is where all that practice you did cutting out weak verbs and adverbs comes in handy. You have to say a lot in a limited space, so every sentence needs to be as tight as possible.
Once you're done, find someone you trust who knows nothing about the story and have them read it. Ask them to mark where they got confused or didn't understand something. You want readers to be able to follow the story, even if some of the details are unclear. For example, they might not know what a Vexon capacitor is, but they know the bad guy uses it to blow up the hero's home world.
Oh, that reminds me...names. The human brain can only remember so much, so be wary about naming everything and everyone. You want the key players mentioned (protagonist, antagonist, major supporting characters), but you want to be wary about throwing in so much it all starts to blend together.
Some advice says to use all caps for names the first time they're used, some says all caps for just POV characters, some says don't use all caps at all. This varies by taste, so do what feels right to you, or what the person you're sending the synopsis to prefers (many agents and editors state a preference online). No one is going to reject you for picking one over the other.
It's a good idea to let your synopsis sit between readings. Just like your manuscript, time away gives you perspective and lets you spot those awkward sentences you gloss over when you've been reading it over and over.
How do you feel about writing a synopsis? Love them? Hate them?
If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:
In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.