How to write a novel synopsis

A few months ago, I sold my unfinished second novel, The Recollection, to Solaris Books on the strength of the first fifty pages and a synopsis. But what is a synopsis, and how do you go about writing one?

When I first set out to write my synopsis for The Recollection, I found many contradictory articles on the subject. Some said it should be a single page, others that it could be up to ten. The only points they all seemed to agree on were:

  • The synopsis should be written in the present tense. No matter which tense you use in the book, write the synopsis as if you’re commentating on events that are transpiring as you write them: “He goes to the back door and sees the zombies…”
  • The synopsis should be written by an omniscient narrator. Even if your novel is written from a first person viewpoint, you should still write the synopsis in the third person.
  • The synopsis should tell the prospective publisher (or agent) what happens in the book. It should be a complete account of the plot, from start to finish, including any twists or denouments.
  • Don’t hold anything back and don’t try to tease. If you end your synopsis halfway through the plot, the publisher (or agent) isn’t going to be intrigued, they’re going to be irritated. This isn’t a cover blurb you’re writing, it’s a book proposal, and in order to judge whether this is the book in which they want to invest their time and effort, the agent (or publisher) needs to get a picture of it in its entirety.

This wasn’t much to go on, but it was a start. So one evening I sat down at my word processor and started writing, trying to turn a box full of scribbled notes and ideas into a coherent narrative outline. I typed out the main points of the plot, using a separate paragraph for each key scene or chapter, and this came to 2500 words and covered just over five pages. To it, I added:

  • A couple of introductory sentences describing the novel, giving details of its genre and expected length.
  • A 100-word cover blurb. Like an executive summary on a briefing document, I hoped the inclusion of a blurb at the top of the synopsis would snag the publisher’s attention, and give them an idea of how I was envisioning this novel as a commercial product.
  • A bullet-point list of the major themes. To put the story in context, I included a very short list of the major themes I wanted to address in the book, as some of these wouldn’t come across in the simple plot description of the synopsis itself. Not only does this help sell the book as a concept, it also forces you to really consider that it is that your book is about – something you really need to know before you try explaining it to anyone else!
  • A short biography giving details of my previous publications, to show that I had the experience needed to write and complete this book.
  • A bullet-point list of USPs. Like it or not, publishing is a commercial business, and I had heard stories of other writers having books turned down because the publisher (or agent) thought they were too similar to another book they’d recently handled. To avoid this, I jotted down a list of five Unique Selling Points: five things that (in my opinion) made this book stand out from the competition. These included my particular writing style, and two of the unusual technologies included in the story. I could also have included any relevant life experience or details of any ready-made following that I had.

The first page now looked like this:

The Recollection

A science fiction novel

Planned length: 80,000 words

By Gareth L Powell

The Recollection is a character-driven science fiction novel placing modern twenty-first century men and women into a far-future, action-packed space opera setting. The story has two interwoven strands: one set in contemporary London and the other in space, on board the trading starship Ameline, four hundred years hence:

I followed this with the cover blurb, my bio, and the list of themes. Then came the main body of the sysnopsis: the five pages of plot description; and the USPs came last.

The final touch was to add my address, phone number and email to the top of the first page and the bottom of the last.

This left me with a seven-page document of approximately 3000 words. I submitted it to Solaris Books along with the first fifty pages of the novel and, a couple of months later, the Editor-in-chief came back to say he wanted to commission the book.

Now, I’m not suggesting you slavishly copy my example. The main point I want you to take away from this is that I followed as many rules and conventions as I could find. I wrote the outline in the present tense, from a third person perspective – but I let it be as long as it needed to be in order to get across the main events of the book, and I added my own touches, such as the blurb and the list of themes.

A lot of authors moan about the need to write a synopsis. The thing to remember is that this is YOUR book, and you have to sell both it and yourself. You have to find a way to inject your personality and professionalism into the document.

(But please bear in mind that some editors have very strict guidelines that they want you to follow, so it’s worth checking their requirements in advance.)

I’m not saying that what I’ve described here is the only way to write a synopsis; it’s just the way that’s worked for me.

At the end of the day, if you have what it takes to be a writer, you should be able to sum up the plot of your novel in a handful of pages. Learning to write a synopsis is just like learning to write short stories or poems: it’s another discipline you need to master.

And if (like me) you haven’t finished writing the book yet, you’ll find the synopsis serves another purpose: you can use it as a plan, keeping you on target as you work towards the final chapter.

Now, get out of here and get typing!

If you have any tips of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below…

Author: Gareth L Powell

Writer

11 thoughts on “How to write a novel synopsis”

  1. Jo Fletcher of Gollancz talked about blurb writing at FantasyCon this year. Basically she advocated writing the blurb you’d like to see, because it makes things much easier for publishers.

    As for the list of major themes, it’s probably the first thing you should think about, even before outlining a plot. Getting this down at the synopsis stage is brilliant advice.

  2. The other thing Jo suggested on our panel, and Jonathan (Solaris) Oliver and I concurred with, is that you should write us a one-sentence elevator pitch if you can. The “this is a character-driven SF novel etc etc” is OK, but far more useful is a very snappy, exciting one-liner – because if it’s cool enough that is what the editor or publisher will use to convince salesmen to back his/her suggestion that they buy the novel.

  3. Thanks Ros and Marco, two excellent pieces of advice. I shall immediately start working on an elevator pitch.

  4. Love the bullet-point list of the major themes; I’m sure that helps. I’ve trawled the Web for synopsis advice and only found a couple of useful pages. One gave a plan of one sentence per page, which comes to about the same as your paragraph per scene (unless you’re Dan Brown!)

  5. I’m currently struggling with the complexities of writing a synopsis for a completed novel, and I have also found the wealth of advice on the subject contradictory and unhelpful.

    I finally found some that helped me find a starting point and yours matches nicely with that. I’ll certainly be going back to the synopsis and see how my efforts match your advice and how it can be tweaked further.

    Cheers.

  6. I’m glad people are getting some benefit from this. As I said, I’m just relating my own experience of what worked for me; if it helps others, then that’s good.

  7. Hi Gareth, I like the elevator pitch idea; I something similar at the beginning my blurbs, and included the same on the front covers; seems to work well.

    Lots of good advice here, thanks for taking the time to include it all!

  8. I am just writing my first ever synopsis (for an incomplete novel) and it’s over 2,000 words so far. Is that normal or taking it way too far?

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