It’s not easy to distill an entire novel into a single page (two if you’re lucky), but pretty much every writer has to do it at some time in their career. Not only do a lot of agents require them along with queries, but so do many contests and paid critiques.
The synopsis’s main job is to outline the entire plot of your book – yes, including the ending. (Note: I’m describing a story synopsis here, not the synopsis part of a query letter, which doesn’t include the ending. For more info on writing those, see this post.)
There are a few different ways to break your novel down into its essential parts. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, so long as you can find a way to condense your story.
Some people write out a description of the events in each chapter, then winnow it down to only the most important parts. (Personally I find this one can be overwhelming, as it still requires you to write out pretty much everything that happens in your novel, and then try and condense it, but YMMV.)
Other people go back their very first outlines (the ones they made while plotting) and use that to write their synopsis. There’s definitely something to be said for writing your synopsis before you write your manuscript, as far as getting to the essentials – however, if you’re like me, the story you end up with may not resemble that first outline very much by the time you’ve finished all your revisions.
My personal favorite method requires answering a few simple questions:
- Who is your character at the start of the story?
- What changes? (ie what’s the inciting incident?)
- What challenges do they face? (depending on the synopsis length, you may have to go with the single largest one)
- How does the main character win in the end?
Once you answer these, you have the bare bones of what’s needed in a synopsis. Of course, you still have to make it interesting – and one of the best ways to do that is to make it specific.
That means, when you’re answering your first question, don’t just write that your MC is “a typical twelve-year-old” (is there really such a thing?) or “the smartest girl at school.” Use a specific example. “The most exciting thing twelve-year-old SOSUKE MITSUDA has ever done is beat his older brother at Fortnite.” “When sixteen-year-old TRINITY BROWN isn’t doing homework from her college-level classes, she’s building robots out of parts she scavenges from the dump.”
(Technical notes: the first time a character is mentioned, their name should be in all caps. Synopses for children’s books should include the age of the main character. No matter what tense or POV your manuscript is written in, your synopsis should be in Third Person, Present Tense.)
The same specifics should be applied to your main character’s challenges; don’t write that “Mitali needs to stop the evil wizard before he ends life as she knows it,” explain that “Mitali needs to stop the evil wizard PHRED before he turns every firstborn child – including Mitali – into a chicken.” (Yeah, I know these are weird examples, don’t @ me.)
Once you get all your specifics sorted out, the next step is to make sure the elements of your synopsis flow logically into each other.
(My first synopsis sounded like my seven-year-old describing the show he just watched: and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened, the end.)
To avoid sounding like a grade school book report, I suggest concentrating on the connections between events. Think about how one event affects, causes or impacts the next thing that happens. Sosuke’s life is boring until… Trinity spends all her time building robots. But when… Mitali needs to stop Phred before…
As you’re writing your specific, logically flowing synopsis, try to keep the voice of your story in mind. I know it’s hard with only 250 words, but make sure the tone of your synopsis reflects the tone of your manuscript (a synopsis for a Middle Grade comedy should sound pretty different from one for a Young Adult issue-book).
Finally, once you think you’ve got your synopsis done, see if you can find a friend or critique partner who hasn’t read your manuscript to read your synopsis to ensure it makes sense to someone who doesn’t already know the story.
Right, hope that helps make synopses a little less dreadful.