writing the novel synopsis

I suppose a subtitle for this subject could be: the writer’s bane.

Actually the synopsis is not the terror everyone claims it to be, it’s just a matter of thinking about your novel differently. However, when most writers find they must take their seventy-plus thousand word novel and cram the entire plot into one double-spaced page, they usually start having seizures.

So, everyone, take a long deep breath, get in touch with your inner peace, and let’s talk about [dramatic organ music, please] THE SYNOPSIS.

The first thing you have to understand is the synopsis is not meant to be a reflection of your prose. Remember, writing is a business and a synopsis is essentially a business proposal. When agents and editors say the synopsis is an example of your writing, they don’t mean the synopsis is an example of your ability to write fiction.

Agents and editors are looking at whether you know what your book is about and how well you can put forward ideas. If you can’t express yourself well with three hundred words, you won’t express yourself any better at ninety thousand.

Well! many authors exclaim, how can that silly agent-person possibly experience the greatness of my novel with one lousy page?

You will think your synopsis makes your novel sound trite and silly. Just get used to that idea right now. Agents are looking for the next sale, so if your synopsis states that your novel is about a teenaged protagonist who meets a vampire family and she falls in love with one of the vampires – whoops! In the trash in went. Why? Because that plot line and theme has been done to death (No pun intended. Okay, maybe a little one).

Agents and editors read the synopsis to acquire a general idea of your characters and plot. They don’t want to know about your sub-plots or minor characters, they don’t want to see dialogue, and they don’t want to see flowery language. Just the facts, Jack.

Some agents obviously feel they can intuit whether your writing is strong enough to carry a novel by reading a one page synopsis. Other agents will request three pages and some go as high as five. It depends on the agent, and since they aren’t uniform in their requests, I intend to write a one, three, and five page synopsis of my novel prior to soliciting agents. Yes, it is a monumental pain in the tuckus; however, being a writer is like any other occupation in that it’s not always one hundred percent fun all the time.

Yes, yes, yes, you say, but how does one inflict this monumental pain upon oneself?

Ah, my masochistic friends, I thought you’d never ask!

When you think of your novel in terms of the synopsis, you are stripping your story down to the bare essentials. Think about your novel as if it is a three act play. In Act I, you introduce your protagonist, your antagonist, and the trigger that starts your story. Act II will be about your protagonist’s struggle toward his/her goal. Act III will encompass the climax and the ending.

In a one page synopsis, you want to give only the barest details, so eliminate any characters that are not central to the main plot. Devote the first paragraph to Act I, the second paragraph to Act II, and the third to Act III.

Start by making a list of the pertinent facts that you need to convey in your synopsis. Who is your protagonist? Who is your antagonist? What is the essence of their conflict? If there is a secondary character that is absolutely essential to the plot, mention them. Condense the plot into one paragraph. Finally place your climax and the story’s ending in the third paragraph.

The first time a character’s name is mentioned, it should be in all capital letters. The synopsis should be double-spaced, and if you’re sending it via snail-mail, make sure you have your slug line in the header.

I think it’s easier to start with a one page synopsis and add details. Some of you may find that it’s easier to write a five page synopsis, then trim. That’s entirely up to you.

But, but, but, some of you scream, I write fantasy and/or science fiction and there’s a certain amount of world-building involved here!

Absolutely, and I’m sure that if the agent or editor you are soliciting accepts fantasy and/or science fiction submissions, they know that as well. This is probably another reason why you see some agents and editors will accept a three or five page synopsis rather than a one page synopsis.

In contrast, the romance genre has very specific guidelines so those agents and editors will prefer a one page synopsis showing only the characters and their conflicts.

Don’t worry if your synopsis goes over the one, three, or five page limit by a few sentences. The word police will not come to your house and shave your cat. However, if you go over the guidelines by a page or two or ten, you may have lost a sale.

I want to thank Lynda Gail Alfano for inspiring me to write on this topic, although, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to give her any help on her question. I’m like Lynda and wish all the agents and editors would get together and come up with standard guidelines. As it stands, I’m setting up a filing system, which will probably be a good subject for another post on another day.

A few links that might help:

“How to Write A Novel Synopsis” by Chuck on the Writers Digest site

How to Write a Synopsis” by Marg GilKs

How to Write a Synopsis” by Nathan Bransford

Hunting for an Agent” by John E. Stith (with a sample synopsis and I highly recommend reading Mr. Stith’s article)

Copyright 2009 Teresa Frohock


About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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11 Responses to writing the novel synopsis

  1. Jonathan Danz says:

    Thanks for the info and links. I’m not there yet, but look forward to giving it a go when the time is right. I suppose that if we can’t distill our stories into synopses, we probably don’t have a great idea of the story’s framework to begin with. Any time we have a tool that can help us better understand the essence of our own work, we owe it to ourselves to use it.

  2. kaykaybe says:

    Hey Teresa- If I shave my own cat, can I write just one three page synopsis and sent it regardless of what is requested by the ‘silly agent-person’? (Thanks for the extra query tip on whom to address my correspndence to.) -Kelly
    PS-I don’t have a cat for any of you PETA folks out there.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh my! I am behind (which is infinitely better than being a behind, I suppose)! 😉

      Apologies to all, but I’ve set a late summer/early fall deadline for myself to complete the final edits on AutTale, and I’ve had to start limiting my computer time *sniff*. The sacrifices I make . . .

      Jonathan: believe it or not, some sites I visited recommended that writing the synopsis before you finish the novel might be easier. I’m think I’ll do better when it’s finished, but I’m not so close to my novel that I want to impart every tiny detail. I find that uncovering those details as I read a novel to be the most rewarding part. Anyway, I’ve practiced writing a synopsis, both the one, three, and five page versions, sometimes just to clarify in my mind where I want this novel to go. I use them like a road map.

      Kelly: Stop being silly. Of course you can send a twenty page synopsis to Mr./Ms. Silly-Agent Person if you procure your own feline and successfully shave it. Your novel will be summarily rejected, and you will have an angry cat in addition to the aforementioned angry PETA people, but hey live dangerously, I always say! 😉 [This is a disclaimer to incredibly literal people who can’t recognize humor: Neither Kelly nor I advocate the shaving of cats unless they are exceptionally hairy and have matted fur. All cat shaving must be done by qualified groomers and for medical reasons only. Ahem, back to our topic.]

      Hi Lawrence, thanks for posting. I like your description of the synopsis as a way to show the framework of your novel, and from what I’ve been able to discern, that is all the agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis, the framework.

      To everyone: Thanks for stopping by!


  3. lawrenceez says:

    Good article. I think you make a good point when you write “if you can’t express yourself well with three hundred words, you won’t express yourself any better at ninety thousand.” So true.

    I’ve just about got used to outlining the basics of the plot in a one page synopsis and I’m still hoping to improve my skills.

  4. immortaldiva says:

    Hi, Teresa.

    THANK YOU for spending some time on this subject. I am sure it has been written about extensively, but I like your humor and insights.

    I posted a blog this morning as a follow up to yours, since you so generously credited me with inspiring you on this topic. My post today is titled: Oh, No! (Gasp) – The Synopsis Approaches

    I would much prefer it actually be the White Wizard approaching…than the synopsis. After all, maybe he can help me write it!

    Thanks again 🙂

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Lynda,

      I’d love for help from the White Wizard (or a wizard of any color variation!). My daughter is into fairies, and I’ve asked her to see if she can contact the publication fairy for me. It really frustrates me when she laughs at me, because she thinks I’m being silly. I’m dead serious.


      Have fun, I’m off to read your blog post now!


  5. jenniferneri says:

    “the writer’s bane” ABSOLUTELY!!!

    “The first thing you have to understand is the synopsis is not meant to be a reflection of your prose.” it is hard to do this without loosing my voice – the feedback I often get is that I am short selling myself.

    Good post, Teresa! Thanks!
    (by the way, this is one the things I least like to write)

    Do most agencies you come across ask for a synopsis? I have only seen one or two that have yet, usually query alone or with sample pages.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      If an agent likes your query and sample pages, they will often ask for either the first fifty pages and a synopsis or the first fifty pages and a chapter by chapter outline. I want to strike while the iron is hot, so if I have all the documents finished, then it’s just a matter of sending what the agent requests. I worked for attorneys too long, so I believe in being prepared! 😉

      Can anyone else answer Jennifer’s question?


  6. jenniferneri says:

    You are right to be prepared, Teresa.
    I began querying something before it was fully ready as I thought it would take too long to get a response. it was asked for right away, and then I killed myself to get it ready…You would think I would learn??? lol

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I know exactly what you mean!

      I think it’s really, really difficult, because you’ve worked so hard on something, and you’re so excited that you want to share it with the world. I can definitely appreciate that feeling, but I’ve read too many agent blogs that talk about rejecting writers who submit too soon. So then you wait and you prepare and they take forty-forever to get back to you! Like everything in life, it’s a process, but I learned a long time ago that instant gratification got me no where. I’m looking for some long term satisfaction here, and I’m willing to wait! 😉

      Thanks for posting, Jennifer!

  7. lawrenceez says:

    “Can anyone else answer Jennifer’s question?”

    Possibly…a lot of agents prefer not to see a synopsis first, but it’s better to have one prepared just in case.

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