Novel Synopsis: How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel
Deep within the Stronghold of Seclusion, in the Ice Woods of Perpetual Revision, far beyond the Thrice Barred Gates of Insanity, sits a Superhero.
Who is this masked superhero? Nobody knows. All we know is they have given everything. Everything.
A single tear of joy slides from beneath The Writer’s mask as they type the last words on the last page of the Manuscript of Destiny.
The Writer pauses. The very atmosphere shivers with anticipation. The masterpiece is complete. Soon the world shall know of its power.
The Writer consults his Book of Arcane Writing Knowledge. Written in gold on the page is a horrific command. The Writer’s blood freezes at the sight:
Submissions should include a one-page synopsis of the novel.
The Writer’s scream of despair echoes through the frozen corridors of the Stronghold of Seclusion, unheard.
The Dreaded Novel Synopsis
Why do we writers hate producing a novel synopsis? Probably because, as authors, we’re very close to the story. We know every sentence of the novel and how it fits with all the others to tell the story. Now we’re being asked to throw 99% of that away. Which makes us feel a bit like this:
Plus, a lot of stories sound a bit rubbish when we summarise them. All the subtlety disappears, we eliminate most of the characterisation. Even the twists and turns of the plot sound lame when stated baldly.
No wonder we hate the synopsis.
Are all these problems inevitable? To an extent. You can’t take a hundred thousand words and turn them into five hundred without something going missing. Does that mean your novel synopsis has to be a limp, pathetic document that doesn’t do your awesome story justice?
We need something powerful, a heroic novel synopsis. One that’s:
- Faster to read than a speeding bullet.
- Clearer than a polished diamond.
- Able to leap entire chapters in a single bound.
We need a:
Short Synopsis of Power!
The Synopsis of Power: Format
Length: 500 – 600 words (one page of A4, single-spaced or two pages double spaced).
Tense: Third-person, present tense regardless of the tense you wrote the novel in.
The Synopsis of Power: Content
First read Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate and find your story’s archetypes – particularly the:
PROTAGONIST, ANTAGONIST, QUEST, PRIZE/GOAL and GUARDIANS
- Start with the SETTING – when and you set the story.
- Next, introduce the PROTAGONIST.
- Explain the first PROBLEM that the protagonist faces.
- Introduce the ANTAGONIST who is causing the problem.
- Show how and why the protagonist sets out on their QUEST.
- Describe the chronological sequence of GUARDIANS (friends, enemies, clues, events, etc.) the PROTAGONIST deals with.
- Explain how CONFLICT (internal or external) complicates the protagonist’s QUEST.
- Finally, show how the protagonist completes their quest and to what extent they reach their PRIZE/GOAL.
Tips on Writing the Short Synopsis of Power
- Remember, the antagonist is not necessarily another person.
- Cut adverbs and adjectives from your synopsis – write as minimally as you can
- Mention any characters you don’t have to. Just include the Protagonist, Antagonist, and the main Guardians.
- Include the subplots in the synopsis.
- Include any unnecessary detail, description, or explanation.
- Write a ‘blurb’ of the sort you’d find on the back cover of a novel. The Synopsis of Power tells the entire story – it doesn’t tease the reader.
How to Boil the Novel Down for the Synopsis
Use the Killogator™ Formula
One trick to try when cutting chapters down to size is the same one we used in Writing a Killer Logline. In the same way we can cut the story down to a single sentence, we can cut each chapter down to a sentence.
So, try using the Killogator™ formula on each chapter:
In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).
Having each chapter summarised in a single sentence will be a brilliant start to building your synopsis.
Talk to Someone
Another trick is to get a friend and sit down with a voice recorder. Then tell them the plot of your novel. Listen to the questions they ask. Transcribe the conversation and pick out the best bits. You might find that your story flows more naturally in a conversation.
Do What Works
Test, test, test! Combine the best bits from trying the processes above and keep working until you have the one-page synopsis your novel deserves. In the end you should be able to read the synopsis to a friend and their response should be “Wow, sounds great!” Keep working until you get that response.
Examples of Novel Synopsis
All my book reviews include single page synopsis. Here’s a few:
- The Riddle of the Sands
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- The Thirty-Nine Steps
- Casino Royale
- Rogue Male
- Ice Station Zebra
- The Day of the Jackal
By the way: writing a synopsis of another writers’ novel is a great way to practice summarising, because it’s a lot easier than doing your own.
Having helped multitudes of people with their synopsises over the years, I realise they generate a lot of angst. A good synopsis is vital, so you certainly need to be sure yours works, but don’t fall into any of the common traps below:
My Novel Synopsis Misses Out Too Much!
Many people get concerned that their synopsis “isn’t accurate”. That’s not necessarily something to worry about. The synopsis can only give a sense of the story, not all of its nuances.
Think of it this way, the purpose of your synopsis is to get the agent or publisher to read the whole novel. They will discover its rich characterisation and beautiful prose when they read the novel, but they won’t read it unless they like the synopsis.
If your synopsis gets the agent or publisher to pick your manuscript up, it works, otherwise it doesn’t.
My Novel isn’t Plot Driven!
Another problem I see is authors who think writing a synopsis of their novel is impossible. Obviously there’s such a thing as a character-driven novel, but something happens in any story.
Some things to consider when writing a synopsis for a character-driven novel:
- The Protagonist’s Goal might not be an external one.
- It could be an interpersonal Goal, like romance.
- It may be an internal Goal, like happiness.
- The Conflict doesn’t have to be external either.
- For stories about internal Conflict, the Protagonist and the Antagonist may be different sides of the same person.
This method of writing a novel synopsis worked for me. When I entered the Terry Pratchett Prize, I had to submit a one-page summary of my novel, A Kill in the Morning. They shortlisted my novel for the prize, which led to it being bought and published by Transworld.
Read the opening of the published novel for free by clicking here or on the cover:
So, next time you’re trying to write a one page novel synopsis, don’t despair, just remember:
If you’d like to discuss writing a novel synopsis, or need help with your synopsis, email me. Otherwise please feel free to share the article using the buttons below.