How to write a compelling novel synopsis for submission

October 27, 2021

A synopsis is an essential item to pitch your novel to publishers, agents, and editors. It’s also one of the hardest things to do – fitting your entire 100k word novel into one to two pages feels like an impossible task.

If that sounds like a hard task, it is. But there are some simple ways to break it down to make it easier to write.

Before I show you how to write one, a synopsis has a few industry conventions that you need to know about.

A synopsis must:

  • Be in third person, active, present tense
  • Contain the key plot points and character arc for your novel
  • Include the ending – no cliffhangers allowed
  • Be one to two pages long. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be double spaced.

It’s also helpful to think about the purpose of a synopsis before writing one. It’s to show publishing professionals that you can create a story from start to finish. It also demonstrates how your characters develop and change through the book. The action should escalate through the synopsis, and it should demonstrate a strong character arc. If you’re writing the synopsis and find these things aren’t there, it might be time to revisit your novel before sending it out.

How to write a synopsis

Plan it

First up, it’s much easier to write a synopsis from a novel plan. If you’re a planner, then you’re in luck. I write from chapter breakdowns, so when it came to writing my synopsis, I used the original chapter plan, checked it against the final novel, then wrote the synopsis from there.

If you made the novel plot up as you went along, the best way to break down the synopsis into manageable chunks is to take a set of index cards, and use one for each chapter. Write some notes on the key events that happen in that chapter. Keep it simple – you don’t need every single detail. 

Then, when you sit down to write the synopsis, it won’t feel so overwhelming.

Keep it short

There are two standard lengths for a synopsis: one to two pages. They’re both incredibly short. When you first write the synopsis, try to keep it as short as you can, but don’t stress if you can’t fit it straight into two pages at first. You can cut it down later. 

Keep it active

Take those palm cards or chapter outline, and write out what happens in active, present tense.

You don’t want passive – take this excerpt from a synopsis I wrote:

Threatened by creditors, tabloid editor Richard Garrett desperately needs cash. So, when the beautiful Adelaide Grimsby begs him to investigate the murder of Sir John Constance, he sees an opportunity for a scoop and the chance to save his failing newspaper. Sensing a windfall, he enlists the help of washed-up detective William George, an alcoholic senior-surveyor with the Thames River Police.

Imagine how much less interesting this would be if all the verbs were passive and in past tense!

Use strong verbs

This is a tip which stands for novel writing as much as writing a synopsis, but strong verbs are your friend! They do so much heavy lifting in creating a sense of action for the reader. Think of the word begs – I could have used asked here but begs implies a sense of desperation. Some other examples include:

Talks – confronts, challenges, begs, demands, pleads, interrogates, reasons, interviews, confesses

Looks – spies, examines, searches, seeks

If you’re out of creative juice, use a thesaurus tool to find similar words. I also use Pro Writing Aid to assist me in finding stronger verbs for my writing.

Use adjectives and adverbs

Don’t be afraid to use adjectives and adverbs to create a sense of your characters. I know it goes against the common writing advice to eliminate adjectives, but you don’t have the space for elaborate descriptions in a synopsis. Adjectives and adverbs help evoke character in a short space. I’ve done so in the example above: beautiful Adelaide, washed-up detective, the desperate editor.

Clauses are your friend

Once you’ve written the whole plot of the novel out, it might feel a bit like ‘He said this, she did that’. Break up the sentence structure by prefacing the action with clauses that clarify character motivation. Some examples of this include:

  • Sensing a windfall, he enlists the help of washed-up detective William George, an alcoholic senior-surveyor with the Thames River Police.
  • In the line of duty, George retrieves the body of an old woman washed up in the Thames.
  • Both obsessed with Adelaide, George and Richard vie for her attention.

These add both character detail and a sense of forward motion in the narrative. Of course, if you’ve written a novel, you’re likely an expert on sentence structure!

How to edit your synopsis

Now for the hard part – getting it down to one to two pages.

The best thing to do is to focus on the spine of the story. That is, how the main character changes through the novel, and the events that lead them to that change. Or in the case of many noir, horror, and grimdark stories, why the main character chooses not to change through the novel.

But what if you have multiple point of view characters? 

The example from the previous synopsis I shared I had three point of view characters, but the story began and finished with that of Richard Garrett, tabloid editor. While the other characters changed and transformed, it’s really his story.

Think about something like Wheel of Time. It’s a huge sprawling fantasy epic with a cast of thousands, but the main story hangs off Rand al’Thor’s journey. Likewise, Lord of the Rings – if you had to pick one character to hang the synopsis off, it would be Frodo.

Pick one character who is the focus of the novel and structure the synopsis around their journey.

Cut out non-essential events and characters

Now that you have selected the main character and their journey, cut out or reduce everything that is not essential to their narrative. To use Lord of the Rings as an example, you’d likely cut down the major battles that don’t include Frodo to one to two sentences and remove the minor ones.

In my one-page synopsis of the above novel, I cut out one of the point of view characters. Dramatic, hey? But I wanted it to focus on the main character’s journey, and it worked well enough to get full manuscript requests. 

In the same vein, you don’t need to include every detail about the novel – the sprawling history of the elves can wait! But you would be wise to include some details about the one ring, how it affects Frodo, and why Sauron wants it so much.

Be ruthless

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Thomas Jefferson

Be ruthless when editing down your synopsis. Can something be replaced by a more efficient phrase or word? Do it. I can’t say it better than Thomas Jefferson.

Conclusion

Writing a synopsis is gruelling, but it can be done. Take a few days to work through and revise the synopsis – it needs to be short and sharp, and it’s better to come back to it multiple times than to try and write it all at once.

If you have any questions about writing a synopsis, ask away in the comments below. 

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