It’s probably one of the most dreaded words in publishing. Any time I tell any author she has to submit or write a synopsis, I invariably get a loud groan. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and I know of very few authors who like writing them.
But what makes a good synopsis and how much do they really matter?
A synopsis can matter not at all and it can matter greatly depending on the editor and on the situation. To make things easier on you, I think you should always assume that a synopsis matters a great deal. If you’re submitting a full manuscript with a synopsis, the synopsis probably won’t matter as much (most of us would prefer just to read the manuscript). However, if you have reached the stage in your career where you are selling on proposal and no longer need to write a full manuscript before sending to editors, a synopsis is crucial. In this case, it’s the only thing an editor has to judge the rest of your book by. The synopsis is used as a guide to see if the plot and characterization follows through as strongly as it did in your chapters.
If you are submitting a proposal first (as many agents will ask you to do) you better have a strong synopsis. In that case, we often use the synopsis as a guide to see if we should be requesting the rest of the manuscript or not. We might love the chapters, but I’ve read some really screwy synopses (in which the plot took a dramatic turn in the wrong direction) that have pushed me to reject the book rather than ask for more.
How long should a synopsis be?
Well, for the most part that depends on the requirements of the house, the line, or the agent or editor. For me, my answer is to always tell you to send whatever you have. However, that being said, I prefer something shorter and more succinct (if you have it). I think the perfect length of a synopsis is 3 to 5 pages. That should be enough for you to give all of the important details of the story. To reiterate here, it doesn’t matter how long your synopsis is as long as it is strong and tells the story: 10 pages is fine too.
What do agents/editors look for in a synopsis?
And this is what you’re really here to read. Because believe it or not, a synopsis can make or break your ability to get a book deal. Numerous times I’ve received rejection letters from editors who were basing their feedback on the synopsis, because quite simply what they were commenting on wasn’t even in the chapters we submitted. When trying to sell on proposal (and yes, it is possible to sell fiction on proposal), an editor is going to place a great deal of emphasis on the synopsis. It’s the only way for her to figure out how the book plays out.
So how can you be sure your synopsis sings?
- The writing. Like your book, your chapters, and your query, your synopsis needs to be well-written and strong. A weak, hastily written synopsis is going to give the editor the impression that you’re a weak writer who doesn’t or won’t take the time necessary to really make sure that what you’re turning in is the best it can be.
- The voice. It’s not as easy to make your voice come through in a synopsis, but it should still be evident, at least to a small degree. The synopsis should not be a dull, dry play-by-play (or even chapter breakdown) of your book. It should never say something like, “Chapter three begins with . . .” Instead it should be your retelling of the story, in your voice. It should be a short narrative of your story.
- Showing, not telling. Like the writing in your manuscript, the synopsis should show the highlights of what is important to your book, what scenes move the story forward and show how the characters grow. We don’t need to know about every single secondary character and we don’t need to be told what happens every step of the way. We do however need to know how the core of the story plays out, the heart of the story.
- Conflict. This is a bit of a repeat of what I said above, but sometimes people hear things different, so let me reiterate, the synopsis should show the conflicts and challenges faced by your characters and in your plot. What is keeping your characters apart or bringing them together? What challenges does your sleuth face or your warrior? How is the crime solved, what are the red herrings?
- Genre. If you are writing a paranormal romance, for example, make sure that your synopsis has an equal balance of showing how both the paranormal and the romance come into play. Editors are buying your book partly based on hook, which is the paranormal element, but also want to make sure that the romance is strong enough to place this on the the romance list. If you’re writing a mystery or suspense, you want to show how the characters solve the crime, and in suspense, you want to show the suspense. If you’re writing fantasy you want to show the world building, but you also want to make sure the plot is equally strong.
I have to admit, I hate a synopsis as much as you do, but they are a necessary evil of the business, especially when you reach the point in your career where you get to sell on proposal, and because many of my clients are now at that stage I’m working more and more with them on creating a synopsis that’s as strong as the chapters they’ve written.
As with everything else you’re doing besides writing the book, make sure you take the time to write a strong synopsis, but throw all the rules out the window. Write a synopsis that sounds like you and that works with your book and for your story. That’s the synopsis we want to see.