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  Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis - Condensing Your Novel
by Lee Masterson

Writing a synopsis is one of the most daunting chores a writer must face. After spending months lovingly crafting a complex plot, realizing and nurturing a cast of characters and painstakingly selecting the right prose for descriptions, how do you then summarize your masterpiece in just 2 or 3 pages?

There is simply too much information in a 400 page novel to condense into a brief blurb.

How will an editor ever catch all the nuances and clues you've woven into your plot? And what if he misses the connection between your hero and your villain? Won't the ending seem contrived if all the by-plays aren't included?

The great temptation for many writers is the urge to explain the connection between characters and events, just to be sure the editor can't miss the by-plays. Unfortunately, doing this will make an editor wonder what's left to read in your manuscript, and so probably won't request to see it.

Here are some tips for keeping your synopsis short and focused, and keep an editor interested at the same time.


Write your synopsis in the same format you would use for your manuscript.

Use black type on clean white paper. Double-space your work. Set your margins for one inch (about 2.5 cms) around ALL sides of the text. Do not right-justify your text - the lines on the right-hand side of the page should be staggered.

Use a standard font, like
Courier or Times New Roman. Serif fonts allocate the same amount of space for the letter 'i' as they do for the letter 'm'. Don't be tempted to use the prettier options on your word processor.

Put a header on every page. Your book title goes in the upper left corner. Your last name (or your pseudonym's last name) and page number go in the upper right corner.

Start with a bang!

All writers fret over the perfect opening line to their novel. Do the same for your synopsis. The rest of the synopsis will need to be precise and tightly written, so use the opening sentence to set up a strong hook.

Remember, an editor has hundreds of submissions to go through every day. Make sure yours doesn't let his attention wander with an opening that reads: "John was 34 with brown eyes and blonde hair." BORING!

Create a hook to lure the editor into reading further into your storyline. Open with a bold, evocative sequence that forces the reader to want to continue.

Key Plot Points

After your spectacular 'hook' opening, the big challenge is to outline the basics of your novel's plot, without going into too much detail, and without making the story seem boring.

The key is to focus on the major plot points, or turning points of your novel. Omit secondary characters, sub-plots, minor events and individual scenes.

For example: If you have written 12 pages on an amazing fight scene, your synopsis would not need to expand upon this by explaining the fight in detail. A simple, active sentence will convey the right message, and still highlight your fast-paced plot.

Know Your Market

Determine your intended audience, or market, before you begin. This will help you to aim your pitch to the editor, and appeal to the market he knows at the same time. For example, if you write Science Fantasy and you are pitching to a publishing house more used to science fiction, place more emphasis on the science fiction portions of the novel, and play down the fantasy. The same is true for all genres. In the field of romance, the distinction is particularly important, as romance publishers tend to lean strongly toward one favored genre over another.

Know your target publisher's priorities before you write your synopsis, then write accordingly. It shows professionalism, and the editor will be more likely to continue.


The purpose of a synopsis is to tell the editor what your book is ABOUT - not how things happen. Secondary characters and sub-plots, although probably important to the story's outcome, are not important in a condensed version of your book, unless they contribute an integral portion to the resolution.

Keep focused on the primary characters and major events.

Show, don't tell

"This brilliant new author will be the next Stephen King."
"An exciting blend of John Grisham and Jackie Collins."
"The most unique romance novel to hit your desk all year!"

Opening a synopsis with this kind of statement will urge the editor to think, "Oh yeah? Prove it!" Or worse, he could just reject it out of hand. He wants to see good writing, not great hype. If your book is good, show it by establishing a fast-paced, intricate plot.

Empty Questions

"Will John save the day?"
"Is Marcia going to get her man?"
"Will they survive to fight again in Book 2?"

DON'T ask empty questions in your synopsis. They do not entice the editor to request your manuscript. Leading questions like the examples above only serve to pull the editor out of 'story' mode and remind him that the narrator/author is trying to tug at his sense of drama.

The other downside is that your synopsis is a tool used to explain your story, so asking questions will mean that you must answer them too. This wastes precious space.

Present Tense

Regardless of which tense you have chosen to tell your novel in, always write your synopsis in present tense. This gives the outline a sense of urgency, and reminds the editor that he is reading a much-condensed version of something bigger and better.


Do not rely on your computer's spell-checker or grammar-checker. Re-read your own work thoroughly several times. Do not submit anything that has not been proofread by a human set of eyes more than twice.

Edit out any 'passive' voice sentences - this is your one shot to impress that editor. Keep it active and your chances of hooking that editor increase.

Delete any redundancies. Repetitive words, weak adverbs, clumsy descriptions - all will weaken your synopsis.

When you are as sure as you can be that your synopsis is a tightly written condensation of what your book is ABOUT, send it to a friend, or another member of a critique workshop, and ask one simple question: "Would you be tempted to read the entire novel after reading this outline?"

If the answer is no, rewrite it.

If the answer is yes, start preparing your submission package!

Copyright Lee Masterson. All rights reserved


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