6 Steps for Writing a Book Synopsis
Confession: I enjoy writing query letters. I know that most writers loathe them, but I always thought the query letter was kind of a fun challenge. The challenge of trying to distill your novel down to its essence, giving just enough information to draw the agent or editor in to the story, but without giving away so much that the manuscript loses all sense of mystery.
However, I feel quite differently about the second-most dreaded item of many submission packages: the Synopsis.
The book synopsis is that three- or four-page snapshot of the book, that essentially tells your story from beginning to end, while seemingly stripping it of any intrigue, humor, or emotional resonance. To me, writing a synopsis that could leave a reader still wanting to read the actual manuscript always seemed like a much bigger challenge than the query letter.
Unfortunately, it turns out that getting published does not necessarily mean we don’t ever have to write a synopsis again.
Last January, when it came time for my agent and I to start talking with my publisher about My Next Book (which was the Super Secret Project I wrote during NaNoWriMo last November), the submission package we pulled together was remarkably similar to the package we’d used to sell the Lunar Chronicles:
- A pitch letter (similar to a query), illustrating the concept and major conflict of the book.
- The first 50 pages, edited and polished to a glowy sheen.
- The synopsis of the book (although some plot points are subject to change).
So rather than whine and complain about how much I hate writing synopses, I decided to take the opportunity to embrace the synopsis writing challenge, and figure out a process for writing the synopsis that didn’t seem quite so painful and intimidating and, in the end, left me with something I was pleased to show my editor.
I’m not allowed to really talk about my new project,* so I’m going to use examples from the synopsis I wrote for CINDER way back when.
Step 0: Write the book!
If the book isn’t written yet, I feel like you’re writing an outline, not a synopsis, and I’ve talked about outline writing at length in previous blog posts. For the purpose of this synopsis-specific guide, let’s assume you have the book drafted out, or even completed.
Step 1: Skim through the manuscript, noting the important events of each chapter.
Try to boil every chapter down to just one or two sentences. What is the point of this chapter? What is the most important thing that happens?
Some chapters will be significantly longer than a sentence or two, particularly the opening chapters (as they tend to introduce a lot of information about the world and the main characters) and the climax (which could revolve around lots of complicated reveals and twists).
And yes, include the ending! From who wins the final battle to whether or not the protagonist hooks up with the love interest in the end. One of the main purposes of a synopsis is to show the full arcs of your plot and subplots, so don’t leave out those all-important resolutions.
Step 2. Embellish the beginning.
Just because you can’t use pages and pages to set up the world and protagonist’s character in the synopsis doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give the reader a little bit of foundation to stand on. The first paragraph of the synopsis should give the same basic information you convey through the book’s first chapter: where and when does this story take place, who is the protagonist, and what problem are they facing right off the bat?
Example: LINH CINDER is a cyborg, considered little more than a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother, ADRI. But her brain-machine interface has given her a unique skill with mechanics, making her, at sixteen, the best mechanic in New Beijing.
Step 3: String your short chapter summaries together, using standard synopsis formatting.
Here, it will begin to look like a story, but an incredibly sparse and drab one. Don’t worry about that. Just focus on getting all the technical formatting stuff figured out so you don’t have to re-write it all at the end.
Standard Synopsis Formatting
- Written in third person, present tense, regardless of what POV or tense the book is written in.
- The first mention of each character’s name is put in all-caps (so that they can be easily spotted).
Example: When she arrives home, she discovers her two stepsisters—arrogant PEARL and vivacious PEONY—being fitted in ball gowns.
Step 4: Read through, with a focus on plot.
Distilling each chapter down into just a sentence or two can lead to lots of apparent plot holes and lost information. Read through what you’ve written and check that every event in the story naturally leads into the next. Imagine beginning each sentence with a Because / Then structure, and insert further explanation or character motivations as necessary.
Example: Cinder is worried that if she doesn’t fix the hover, Adri will sell off IKO in order to pay for the repairs herself. That night, Cinder goes to the junkyard to find replacement parts…
(Could be read as: Because Cinder is worried . . . then she goes to the junkyard…)
Step 5. Read through, with a focus on character arc.
Now that the plot makes sense from beginning to end, check that you’re adequately showing how your protagonist evolves as a result of the events in the story. Do readers get a sense of who they are at the beginning and how they’ve changed by the end? Look for those Big Moments in the story that change your protagonist’s attitudes and goals. Indicate how those moments effect the protagonist emotionally, and show how their goals and motivations change as a result.
Example: Without Iko and Peony keeping her tied to Adri, Cinder vows to fix up the abandoned car she saw in the junkyard and run away.
Step 6. Trim and edit.
Now that you have all the necessary information, read through a few more times and trim it up as much as you can. Be ruthless when it comes to removing excess words and phrases that don’t help you tell the story. Choose your descriptive words carefully, ensuring that you’re using words that carry a lot of weight. My book synopses for CINDER and New Secret Project both came in around the 1,500-2,000 word range, and that’s not a lot of room to work with! So edit, edit, edit.
Happy synopsisizing, everyone!
* Okay, what I CAN tell you about my Super Secret NaNo 2012 Project is that YES, Macmillan did buy it, woot! That must have been one heck of a synopsis, right? More information to come… someday.