How To Write A Novel Synopsis

I imagine that most authors wait until their novel is ready to be sent to a publisher or agent before writing the synopsis. Since I need to submit a synopsis with my New Writers Award application, I am writing it now, before the novel itself is finished.

At first it seemed an impossible task. What laws of physics would have to be violated in order to compress 200 pages of prose onto one side of A4? I didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I turned to the internet for clues. Three articles in particular – from essortment, Marg Gilks at Writing World and Fiction Writer’s Connection – shed some light on the problem.

Now practiced at condensing texts, I have compiled a summary of synopsis-writing-advice gleaned from those articles.

  • Style: A present tense narrative summary of the novel. The opening paragraph needs to hook the reader. Each paragraph should lead logically to the next. It should be written in the same style as the novel, e.g. humorous, suspense-filled.
  • Content: What are the themes of your novel? What is the setting? Include all major events that move the story forward and resolve all the important conflicts. Do not leave off the ending hoping to entice an agent or publisher to read the manuscript. They need to see that you know how to conclude your story. Who are the main characters? What are their goals and what stands in their way? What is at stake? You can use snippets of dialect and quotes from the novel to give an idea of the characters’ emotions and motivations.
  • Length: As a general rule, one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of novel, but check individual agent’s or publisher’s guidelines. Whittle it down to a tight, gripping narrative. Be ruthless: all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs must go.
  • Presentation: If the synopsis is less than one page it can be single spaced. Longer synopses should be double spaced. Don’t put spaces between paragraphs – indent them. The first time a character appears, their name should be in capital letters. Include your name and the book title. Check and double check for spelling and grammar mistakes.

It seems that writing a novel synopsis is not all that different from writing a script treatment. Once I realised that, I was back on familiar ground and was able to hammer out a rough draft. Marg Gilks even suggested including a one-line story summary in the synopsis, which is basically the novel equivalent of a film premise.

Writing the synopsis at this stage has proved to be a very useful exercise, especially in identifying the themes of my novel. It has given me a much clearer idea of what I need to do to tie the four narratives together and I think it will make my rewriting more focused.

Now that synopsis is underway, I’ve reached another challenge: how to encapsulate the whole blinking story in a well chosen title.

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9 thoughts on “How To Write A Novel Synopsis

  1. I’m slogging through my synopsis right now too. I’ve spent hours staring at the screen, writing, deleting, and re-writing. It’s so hard to condense!

  2. I feel your pain, Caitlin. I’m chipping my synopsis down one word at a time till it fits on a single page. Hang it there, it will be worth it in the end!

  3. Ahh, the title.
    For myself, if they are not born with one, it is just awful finding it!

    Good for you that your synopsis is done. All the best with the contest, or is it grant?

  4. I always have problems with titles, Jennifer. All the best ones have already been taken! The New Writers Award is a grant/mentoring scheme. It looks like a fantastic opportunity for unpublished writers so I’m working very hard to make my application as good as it can be.

  5. Yay, glad you got there with the synopsis. They are no fun at all.
    Titles are a very personal thing – not sure you’re going to find much worthwhile advice on the net re. those. I have to christen all my ideas pretty much when they’re born or I’ll lose track of them (I’m a terrible father), but I’ll usually wind up renaming them three or four times before I’m finished. No wonder they all have issues.

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