Recently, I was asked to write up some tips that authors might use when constructing a synopsis for their manuscript. I thought I should share it with you all as well, in case you find it useful when planning your future submissions.
Synopses are often used during the query stage of book publishing, when authors are seeking an agent or a publisher. All publishers have different requirements and preferences, of course, but we here at the Porcupine’s Quill like to keep it very simple. Generally, a synopsis should be around two pages and answer the questions who, what, when, where, why and how.
Additionally, a good synopsis should…
1. Set the scene.
Make sure you tell us about the setting. In a sentence or two, let us know where—and when—we are. Whether your manuscript concerns a real place or a fictional world, mention it so we can situate ourselves in the world of the manuscript.
2. Make introductions.
Don’t forget to give us a little bit of information about the main characters. Mention the protagonist, the antagonist and, if necessary, the most important supporting characters. Over the course of the synopsis, we want to know who they are, what they care about, and what they are hoping to learn or achieve by the end of the book. If the characters are based on historical people or other real people, tell us. Make us emotionally invested in the characters … in as few words as possible.
3. Be comprehensive … but not too comprehensive.
The purpose of the synopsis is to communicate, in one or two pages, the entire plot of your book. Be sure to include only the major events that are important to how the story unfolds—don’t go crazy trying to include every detail of every subplot. You don’t need to write a bullet point for every chapter. Generally, think about including:
- the existing state of affairs at the start of the book;
- the complicating incident that gets us hooked;
- major developments, which take us to…
- the climax, where everything comes to a head; and
- the resolution, where you solve the problem, slay the dragon or otherwise give readers closure.
Yes, you give away the ending. If you have an amazing plot twist, dazzle us with it. Don’t hold back your nuggets of brilliance!
4. Go the extra mile.
If it makes sense for your book (and you have room) you might include an extra paragraph with any other information that you think is absolutely pertinent to consideration of your book. Let us know one or two of the most important themes you are trying to tackle. If your subject is particularly timely or important, consider explaining why. If you are particularly well qualified to tell a certain story or speak to a certain theme, mention it briefly. Generally this information would show up in a query letter, but it’s not a bad idea to reiterate, especially given that publishers and agents are so swamped with files and papers. Keep this very, very short, and only include it if it contains vital information!
5. A few more dos and don’ts.
- DO be concise. We are not looking for a summary of each chapter but a précis of the whole.
- DON’T leave us hanging. We should not be left with unanswered questions. The purpose is not to leave us wanting more. Tell us everything we need to know about your book in those two pages.
- DO keep it professional. Don’t waste space and time trying to demonstrate your talent for building atmosphere. Clarity and precision are key.
- DON’T work in a vacuum. When in doubt, ask for a second opinion. I always recommend handing your synopsis off to a friend who is unfamiliar with your work and asking them to give it a read. They’ll (hopefully!) tell you whether you’ve given them enough detail to understand the plot without getting bogged down in detail.
I hope all you writers out there found this little guide to synopsis writing useful. For more information about how to submit a manuscript, you might also want to check out this post on my submission commandments with bonus PQL submissions checklist.