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Mastering the Dreaded
Synopsis - Condensing Your Novel
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
"This brilliant new author will be the next Stephen
"An exciting blend of John Grisham and Jackie
"The most unique romance novel to hit your desk all
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.
"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.
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
Copyright Lee Masterson. All rights reserved
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