Monday, August 1, 2016

How to Write a Synopsis for Your Novel

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.


If you want to make a roomful of writers groan, utter the word, “synopsis.” 



I used to be one of those groaning writers. Synopsis writing felt boring, and I resented having to boil down my novel into just a few pages. 

So if you’re coming into synopsis writing with that kind of attitude, I can relate. Here’s what changed my mind:

My agent told me to chill out. 

“I hate synopses,” I told my first agent early on in our relationship. And she said, “They’re not a big deal. It’s like writing an elementary school book report. You can do that.” 

Something about the way she simplified it made me stop thinking of a synopsis as this big, terrible thing I had to write. Instead, I was just writing down what happens in the book. Like I did in elementary school.

I switched up my order of operations. 

The way I used to do things was write my novel, edit my novel, polish my novel, send my novel to critique partners, and at the very end, when I absolutely couldn’t put it off any longer, I would grind out a synopsis.

After I sold my first series, I could then sell "on proposal." Meaning an editor no longer had to see the full manuscript, but rather they might buy the book based off the first three chapters and a synopsis. So I wrote my first three chapters and then sat down to write my synopsis.

IT WAS SO MUCH FUN.

Because instead of trying to document the book as I had written it, I was discovering the story. I felt the same kind of freedom as I did with brainstorming a book. 

Another advantage was I could “audition” a story line with a few sentences or a paragraph. If later I decided that it didn’t work, all I had lost was a hundred words or so rather than several chapters.

But how do you actually WRITE the thing?

First, you remind yourself that, just like with your book, you'll take this through several drafts. This first attempt won't be perfect. You’re just trying to get all the material on the page, and we can work on prettying it up once you’re done.

Here are some particulars about writing a synopsis:

  • Aim for 2-4 pages unless otherwise specified. Some agents, editors, and contests request specific lengths for synopses (a one page synopsis, a ten page synopsis, etc.) but if you shoot for 2-4 pages, that should be a good length for most. For the #WeWriteBooks contest, we're asking for your synopsis to be 1-2 pages. (Here's a link to more details about the contest.)
  • Synopses work best written in third person, present tense. Even if your story is in a different tense, this is what you’ll probably want to use.
  • Synopses are single spaced. No clue why. 
  • Tell, don't show! You know how when you’re writing a novel you’re trying to show and not tell? Trying to keep backstory out of the first few chapters? Well, those two rules are off the table with synopses. You are telling your story instead of showing it, and that backstory is often how you start your synopsis.
  • Keep names to a minimum because it’s easy to get them all confused. Very important characters get introduced with first and last names. Minor characters with just their first name. Anyone else who needs to be mentioned just gets specified by their role. (Piper’s older brother, the librarian, the school headmistress, etc.)
  • The first time you mention a character by name, put it in all caps. Not all writers do this, but it helps the agent/editor to keep everybody straight.

Below is the first page of my synopsis for The Lost Girl of Astor Street so you can see how this plays out. I don’t want to post the whole synopsis since it would ruin the book, which comes out in February from Blink/HarperCollins, but this is from the synopsis that helped sell it to my editor.

One thing I want to point out before you even start is that the first four paragraphs are backstory. That fifth paragraph is actually where the story begins.

As the summer of 1924 approaches, seventeen-year-old PIPER SAIL dreams of one last carefree season before the reality of adulthood sets in. She imagines lots of time on the shores of Lake Michigan—maybe even with the very cute JERIMIAH CRANE—and passing many hours with her best friend LYDIA LEVINE. Lydia is the epitome of a well-bred girl, and Piper knows it won’t be long until Lydia is a wife and mother and everything will change between them. 
But Piper has become concerned about her best friend. Not only does Lydia harbor a hopeless crush on her family’s chauffeur, MATTHEW, she has also started having repetitive seizures. Piper witnessed one several months ago, and Lydia’s parents swore her to secrecy. Lydia’s father is a prominent physician in Chicago. What would happen to his practice if word got out that his daughter had an unexplained illness? As Dr. LeVine tries to find a medication, Lydia’s behavior has grown stranger. She’s often itchy, as if bugs are crawling on her skin, she hears things others don’t, and she swears she’s being followed by a black automobile. 
Piper wishes she could talk to her mother about what’s going on with Lydia, but she died five years ago in the flu pandemic, leaving Piper the lone girl in a house of men. Piper has never recovered from her mother’s disturbing final words, “Don’t trust anyone.” Were they just the delirious words of a fevered woman, or did her mother die with a secret that Piper should know? 
Piper has never told anyone about her mother’s parting words, not even WALTER, the son of the Sail family’s live-in housekeeper. Walter is a year older than Piper and the two have always been like siblings. Lydia tells Piper that she’s getting too old to be friends with boys, and when Walter returns from spring training for baseball, Piper indeed senses a shift in their once easy friendship. 
While Piper and Walter are out for a walk, they come across Lydia having a seizure on a sidewalk. They rush her home, where Lydia’s parents again swear Piper to secrecy. The next day, Piper is relieved to learn that the LeVines have decided to get help for Lydia at the Mayo Clinic, but Lydia is furious. She thinks the family’s chauffeur, Matthew, is finally showing interest in her and she doesn’t want to spend months in Minnesota. Piper can hardly believe that her normally sensible friend considers romance more important than her health. Lydia goes home to tell Matthew about her feelings for him and says she hopes to be going on a date that evening. 
She promises to telephone Piper later, but when a phone call does come, it’s Lydia’s father asking after Lydia’s whereabouts. Piper is frustrated to have been used as a cover story without being given any warning.

But the next day at school, right after Jeremiah finally asks Piper out on a date, two detectives arrive on campus, including the young MARIANO CASSANO. He tells Piper that Lydia has been reported missing. Piper is baffled by this. No, Lydia hadn’t been her normal self these last few months, but it’s completely out of character for her to run off with a boy and make everybody worry.

Except when Piper confronts Matthew, he says he had no idea Lydia viewed him as anything other than her chauffeur. And there’s nothing missing from Lydia’s bedroom that would suggest she planned to run away. Where has she gone? Piper is convinced that something is wrong, and that the police will need her help if they want to find Lydia. 
Everybody warns Piper to stay out of the way and let the detectives do their job, but Mariano is very receptive to Piper’s help. Especially when Piper tells him about Lydia’s seizures, which the LeVines had never mentioned. Is it simply their desperation to preserve Dr. LeVine’s reputation? And—Piper can’t believe she’s having this thought—just how far would they go to keep their secret?

The Lost Girl of Astor Street is told from one perspective. If there were others, I would want to make that clear in the synopsis by giving them some page time too. I’ll talk more about that in next Monday's post on editing your synopsis. 

Two other notes I want to make:

It’s tempting to lay everything out in chronological order, but it's not always best. Sometimes you’ll want to focus on one storyline for a paragraph and then another storyline for the next, even if in the book they intertwine. You can see an example of that in paragraphs two and three of the above synopsis. In one I talk about Lydia’s seizures and I bring that to a close of sorts, and then I segue into explaining what happened to Piper’s mother. I do this even though Piper’s mother died long before Lydia started having seizures.

Also, lay out every twist, every surprise, and include the ending. This isn’t like backcover copy where you’re trying to hook the reader by being mysterious. You are selling your story to an agent or editor and to do that, you want your synopsis to show that you have told a good story, and you do that by giving them all the information.

Next week we'll talk about tricks for editing up your synopsis and giving it personality. If you have questions, please leave them below!

43 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I enjoy writing hooks and back cover copies, but I have found synopses to be harder to write. I'll definitely stay tuned for next week's article. It was really interesting reading your synopsis for The Lost Girl of Astor Street, and it makes me want to read it. :) By the way, is it Jeremiah or Jerimiah? You spelled it both ways in the synopsis.

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    1. Ha! It's Jeremiah :) So this is also an example of how editors can overlook typos...

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  2. I AM SO EXCITED WE GOT TO THIS POST! *cough cough* Personally, I have a lot of trouble with synopses, and it really does not help that my thought process goes from A to SQUIRREL in about two seconds. Of course, having five POVs and a mixed genre story word complicates things. This post and it's upcoming sister post will be invaluable:) Thank you so much, the example was marvelous!

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    1. Some stories are definitely harder to wrangle into a synopsis than others! Hopefully these posts will help make the process less daunting.

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  3. Great post! I did not know about the CAPS and name stuff. I kind of do have a problem with this in my particular synopsis though, since my two main characters don't have last names due to the time period and cultures that they are from.

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    1. Oh, intriguing! Well, then you would be exempt from that particular tactic :)

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  4. That's interesting. Thanks for the post! And The Lost Girl of Astor Street sounds really intriguing. I'm planning to pre-order it on Amazon!

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    1. Aww, thanks, Gisela! We have some really fun bonus material and events planned for those who pre-order, so save your receipt!

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  5. Thanks so much. I've been pitching to agents and stuff and they all want a synopsis plus some other stuff and I just keep writing it and adding and changing my first draft, but it's such a complex plot that I always seem to leave out something important. Do you have any tips for that? Thanks,
    Em

    Oh and do you have any posts on how to write book proposals? I had an agent ask for one and I looked up what it was and got so overwhelmed.

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    1. Oh, I know, Emma. They're very intimidating, and everyone has a different opinion! I'll tackle that in a post too. Mine usually have: Title, genre, word count, short hook (like a sentence or two), back cover copy, a list of books I've written, a list of similar titles already on the market, my author bio, a synopsis, and sample chapters.

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  6. I always write a synopsis first--before writing anything else--but I never really realized that that's what it WAS. Isn't that funny? And you're right--it's a ton of fun! It's where you get to "try out" the story for the first time, seeing if you can make it work and (if so) how.

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    1. That works out great! Now it'll have an extra purpose :)

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  7. Thank you so much! I requested a post on this topic a few months ago and your timing could not have been better! So much helpful information :) I also loved your example. "The Lost Girl of Astor Street" is on my to be read list! Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks, Lexi! My publisher has a bunch of fun things planned for those who pre-order, so if you choose to, save your receipt!

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  8. Thank You Stephanie!!! I've been postponing synopsis writing for months, and this info is really helpful :)

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    1. Oh, good! I hope this makes it feel a little easier.

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  9. I was so impressed by your sample synopsis! Almost immediately I found myself hooked by such an intriguing plot. I'm really excited to check out "The Lost Girl of Astor Street" in February!!

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    1. Thank you, Grace! I'm pretty excited about this book :) My publisher has some really cool bonus events and material for those who pre-order, so if you choose to, make sure to save your receipt!

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  10. I'll definitely be referring back to this in the future! Thanks so much for all the helpful tips. :)

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  11. Hey, guys, I've been away all day for a funeral, but I will respond to comments tomorrow!

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  12. Thank you so much, this is so helpful!

    One thing I struggle with is writing synopses for mystery stories. In my WIP, the identity of the villain is a mystery for most of the story, and I'm hoping to have readers think 'That makes total sense, but I never saw it coming' when they get to the reveal. Including subtle clues or red herrings is much harder in a synopsis, though, because if I include that sort of detail it's a big red flag saying 'this is important'. Any advice?

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    1. Yes! Lost Girl is a mystery too, and I also found that to be a struggle when I wrote my synopsis. Something you can do is have a paragraph towards the end that reads something like, "Main Character discovers Villain's identity when such and such happens. He then realizes that he should have known all along because of X, Y, and Z that happened earlier in the book." Then the agent or editor will see that you've been smart about how you plant your clues.

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    2. That's a good idea. Thank you!

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  13. All I know is that I WANT this book. Great job!

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  14. I actually got rather excited when I saw this post. I started writing a synopsis but it's only a couple of paragraphs long and just sort of blah. This will really help a lot.

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  15. Do you put a cover page for a synopsis or put something in the header or such? I was so glad to see this post because I have no idea how to write a synopsis. >.<

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    1. That's a great question. The synopsis is usually part of a book proposal, so it doesn't get a cover letter of its own. Usually you put centered on the top, "Synopsis." Then in the header, you put your name/title.

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  16. This was a wonderful post, thank you Stephanie! The only thing I was confused about was that you didn't include the ending of your book in the synopsis as you said we should do - is that just because you didn't want to give the ending away before the book came out or is that not something we should do?

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    1. Oops, just saw that you said you didn't include the whole thing :D. Well, now it makes sense!

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  17. Thank you so much for this post, Stephanie! I'm off to go try and write a synopsis for my WIP, which is currently at the end of draft two. We'll see how it goes ;)
    Also, The Lost Girl of Astor Street sounds incredible. I can't wait to read it!!

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  18. I know you posted this at the beginning of the month, but I just found myself needing it as I had an editor ask for a synopsis yesterday. This is the first I have ever written one, and she wants it to be a single page! I just hope I can get it right, but this has definitely helped. Thank you!

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  19. This post is SO helpful! Thank you. I don't typically read historical fiction or mysteries, but The Lost Girl of Astor Street has me hooked! I can't wait to read it.

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