I’m excited. I’m seeking representation for my novel. I’m nervous. I’ve never done this before. I have to write a synopsis for a literary agent who’s looking at me. I’m lost. Ah, the lovely synopsis; that nice little document some agents want to see in order to gain a concise yet powerful rendering of your novel’s story and the growth/development of my characters.
All of this must be, mind you, distilled down to a one-page document that not only hits all the key points of your story but also piques their interest to read the entire manuscript, while providing enough information so as not to bog down or turn the reader away. Yep, it’s the dreaded synopsis.
Some agents aren’t a fan but others want (and need) it to decide if your work is worth reading another word of. I’ve done a fair amount of research over the past week on how to write an effective and meaningful synopsis for your fiction novel, which I will share with you momentarily. One thing I will say that a synopsis is NOT: a brief plot summary of your story. It is not a play-by-play either. You have to provide just the right amount of pertinent and valuable information to convey that your tale is worthy and developed to the point of potential publication.
So, without further ado, here’s what I found out after hours of scouring the internet, checking out as many publication guides and synopsis books I could find at the library (the librarian thought I was crazy), and asking my writer friends for their two-cents on the matter:
Fiction Novel Synopsis Checklist:
TOP MISTAKES TO AVOID-
- Do not create a bare bones plot summary.
- Do not summarize EVERY chapter.
- Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of character names.
- Avoid character backstory. Only use flashbacks if it progresses the story.
- Avoid dialogue, unless it represents a major moment in the book.
- Don’t ask rhetorical or unanswered questions.
- Don’t split your synopsis into sections, or label the different plot points.
- Tell, don’t show. Keep it concise and to the point.
- Keep it tight, not wordy.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT SYNOPSIS-
- Capturing the emotions (anticipation, fear, hope, excitement, and disappointment).
- The elation of victory at the end, or the agony of defeat.
- Emotional twists (especially of main character) and turns make a novel appealing.
- Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph.
- Simultaneously describing your sequence of key plot events.
- Use energy and vitality. Synopses should usually be written in active voice, third person, present tense.
- Keep it short, or at least starting short. Write a one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—and use that as your default.
- Make us care about the characters.
- Define the protagonist’s core conflict and how he succeeds/fails in dealing with it.
- Help us understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.
- To decide what characters/plot points stay or go in a synopsis, ask yourself: “will the ending make sense without this character or plot point? If it’s no, it stays.
- Broadly generalize less important areas.
- Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement).
- The ending paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved.
WHAT A SYNOPSIS DOES FOR A LITERARY AGENT-
- A synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending.
- The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense.
- A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story.
- A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure.
- A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.
- Shows whether your story has an original idea or premise.
- Shows whether you have an interesting main character.
- Shows whether your subject matter and theme are either topical or intriguing.
- Shows whether you can create a sound plot that makes sense.
- Reveals if you can build tension and lead to a satisfactory conclusion.
CREATING A SYNOPSIS, STEP BY STEP-
Take the major story points and edit them into something resembling a short story (without dialogue or description). Write a synopsis that addresses both the plot and the emotional sides of your story.
- Start With Plot Basics
Identify the several basic stages. These include…
- The inciting incident that gets things moving and sets the protagonist on a path.
- Opposing event(s) going against the path/goal.
- The crisis event or turning point that that leads to meeting or failing the goal.
- The resolution or the climax, which reveals the meet/fail of the goal and aftermath.
- Add the Main Character’s Arc
The emotional side of the story will be expressed by the main character’s progression Answer the following questions:
- Who is your main character at the start of the story?
- What kind of person is he/she? What is his/her approach to life?
- Describe how your main character is thrust into a situation and pressured to change.
- Does your main character decide to take a leap of faith and change?
- Does he adopt a new approach or take some uncharacteristic action?
- Does he hold true to who he is and become stronger?
- At the end of the novel, is the main character better or worse?
- Does the reader feel that the main character has done the right thing?
- Consider the Impact Character’s Role
The impact character(s) are responsible for pressuring the main character to change, generally with a different approach or outlook. He or she shows why and how the main character might need to change. Answer the following questions:
- When the impact character enters the novel, how does their approach or attitude from the main character?
- How does the impact character pressure or influence the main character?
- If the main character changes at the climax of the story, the impact character typically remains fixed in their ways. If the main character stays the same, the impact character may be forced to change. How is this illustrated in your novel?
- Is the impact character better or worse off at the end of the novel?
- The Major Relationship
Another aspect to a well-rounded story is the progression of the relationship between the main and impact characters. They could be romantic, the hero and villain, hero and mentor, etc. Regardless, the relationship between them will also exhibit an emotional arc. Answer the following questions:
- How does their relationship start at the beginning of the story?
- How does their relationship develop or is tested in the course of the story?
- What is the climax of their relationship (a decisive change)?
- How is their relationship at the end of the story different?
NOTE: All of the “#1”s from each of the steps above will go into the first part of your synopsis. All the “#2”s will go into the second part, etc.
- Include Thematic Considerations
If these points are a crucial part of your novel, write them down.
Answer the following questions:
- What issues do your characters struggle with in your novel?
- What themes will be addressed and weighed in the story?
- What is the message or moral?
- Include the 8 Basic Plot Elements
Write an index card for each of the 8 basic plot elements, describing how it is illustrated in your novel. Once again, put each card into the appropriate pile, according to where the illustration appears in the story.
- Edit All Your Points Together.
By now you have a set of over 24 index cards, each describing an element of your novel. The cards are in four piles, representing the four acts of your story. Your final step is to arrange the cards in order within each pile and write/edit them together to create a summary of your story. If you have included all of these elements, you should find that your synopsis covers not only the events that make up the plot but also the emotional side of your novel.
You may find it useful to write each point on an index card or piece of paper. Then you can sort them into four piles representing the order they will appear in your synopsis.
The above checklist was in part, compiled from the wonderful tools and information provided by Jane Friedman’s wonderful post about the topic. Very helpful stuff! 🙂
Take from this what you will and happy Synopsis-creating!