Writing a book synopsis can be even tougher than writing your entire manuscript. Or it certainly feels that way. The reason is that it is often done after the fact, when you just want the book over.
But there’s no escape –in order to send off your book you HAVE to write one. In fact a good synopsis sells your book. This is what you will send a publisher. Remember you DO NOT send a publisher your entire book. You only send a query letter and a synopsis (and sometimes the first three chapters). So you are going to have to put a lot of time into this one document.
Here is a guideline to help.
1. TITLE AND GENRE
All documents about your book start with this.
2. THE TIGHT BLURB
This is not strictly synopsis material but I like writers to include this. You will use this as your query letter and paste this in your query email.
Think of this short section as your executive summary / back cover copy / pitch / elevator pitch or hook. This blurb needs to sell your book and make it sound exciting and engaging.
It will be one or two tight paragraphs that should identify the essence of your story.
After your title and front cover image, the back cover is the next thing readers look at when deciding whether to make a purchase. The back-cover copy also functions as the primary ad for your book.
Not only will it appear on the book itself, but you’ll probably use it as your Amazon description.
The blurb should contain a few elements:
1. Your lead character. A one liner that anchors WHO they are.
2. What happens to them - what is the invitation to adventure?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or helped hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.
But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him . . . if Harry can survive the encounter.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before– and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
If I Stay: Gayle Forman
On a day that started like any other…Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, adoring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the only decision she has left-- the most important decision she'll ever make. Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.
3. THE FULL STORY LINE
This working part of your synopsis is not really a sample of your style, it is a solid working document to enable an agent or editor to decide whether to look at more of the work, or not. That said, it does need to have some flair. But we will keep the flair to the executive summary section. First get the basics of your story down, then work on the flair.
Keep it simple and direct. And don’t, under any circumstances, write how wonderful the book is. A synopsis is not a review and the agent or editor is certainly not looking for your judgment of the work, you are looking for theirs.
And in that space you need to introduce the key characters, key events and turning points. Striping away minor plot lines or minor characters.
Dive straight in. Start where we meet your character.
So in the synopsis, you definitely want to capture how the novel begins and the hook and include all of the major climaxes and the big climax at the end. Between those points introduce major characters and their relationships, and make sure you're conveying the core of the conflicts between all of these elements. But then, rather than just filling in with more and more plot and more and more characters, connect the dots between them with your own summarizing, in order to make the synopsis easy to read and compelling on its own.
JK Rowling might have opened her synopsis with, "Harry Potter, an orphan, thinks he is an ordinary boy when an owl brings him a letter inviting him to attend wizard school."
You don't need to:
4. ABOUT YOU
End your synopsis with a brief heading 'About the Author'.
Keep this to one paragraph or a few lines that feel relevant. Include any other books or things you have written.
EVERY STORY IS DIFFERENT
There is no one way to write the perfect synopsis. Every story is different. A memoir synopsis will need a strong sense of the main character (you) and what makes their story extraordinary. A crime thriller synopsis will need to be strong on characters. For non-fiction you will need to explain why you are the best person to write such a book. Literary fiction writers will need to show a captivating story line and well thought-out structure; romance writers will need to show the shape of the plot and the obstacles the characters face.
Like writing the manuscript itself, the only way to arrive at a great synopsis is to practise: hone, rewrite, revise, and do it all again. You may end up with dozens of versions of your synopsis written at different stages of the manuscript’s development. That’s okay. The challenge of distilling your work into 500 words is an important part of the process of understanding and shaping your manuscript. It may give you insights into what is and isn’t working. Go on, give it a go.
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, agent and book editor. She is a structure fanatic and coaches writers on how to write and get published.