How To Write (And Shorten!) a Synopsis

While blogging about my Camp Nanowrimo work which included a 100k novel, query letter, and synopsis, I realized that I needed to shorten my synopsis by at least 50% of its total length.

Some literary agents require you to submit a synopsis with your query letter.  If they do, they generally include a page length requirement for the synopsis.  I have come across agents that suggest 1, 1-2 , 2-3, and 2-4 pages.  So, if we as writers want to submit a synopsis to each of them, which guideline do we follow?  The answer is: all of them.  If you write a four page synopsis, you shouldn’t also submit it to the agent who only wants one page.  The best solution (which is often the most difficult), is that you should tailor your synopsis just like you tailor your query letter.

Step Zero: Realize that synopses are SUPPOSED to be dreadfully dry.  All of that style and voice that makes your book unique and exciting?  Keep it out of the synopsis.  Do you have a great chapter where your main character battles his best friend, gives him a nasty gash across the face, and then flees from a horde of warriors while rescuing the maiden fair? Shorten it: John fights Hank, wounds him, and escapes with Julia.

Step 1: Write your synopsis at a comfortable pace and length.  If it ends up being right within the page requirements, then great!  You just need to go through and make sure it’s as great as you want it to be.

  • Leaf through your book,  and skim each chapter, taking note of each major development.
  • When you first introduce a character, CAPITALIZE their name (but only that first time).  Some resources don’t mention this, and some do, but I think it is a handy tool so you can see which characters you’re introducing when and skim to make sure they’re all there.
  • Make sure you include the conflict for your main character, the climax moment where he/she makes a decision or realization, and then, to an extent, a resolution.  Each of these descriptions should be a single sentence.
  • Keep your descriptions to a minimum (list each character’s relation to the plot/main character, but don’t describe how they look or what they do unless it’s vital to the plot.
  • If you want an idea of what exactly to do, try Googling “literary agent example synopsis”

If your synopsis ends up being too long,

Step 2: Cut out the language that made it easy to read such as ‘Then they did this’ or ‘her strength is tested when’. Basically, it just reads as a ‘character1, char2, and char3 do this with char4 at placeA.’ Except, you know, with real words.

Step 3: Remove the tertiary characters and some secondary characters that aren’t key to the main character’s plot line. This means that the synopsis won’t cover the fact that char3 eventually does get his revenge on char8, and that char3 becomes friends with char9. Yet that is the price we pay to focus on the main character and sell the book.

If, after removing a lot of the extras from the synopsis, we actually have some wiggle room left, you might…

Step 4: Put back some of the transitional, helpful language that makes it easier to read. Because, in the end, it’s going to be a dry heap of boring actions and facts, but we can try to make it as strong as we can.

A good standard for a synopsis is between 1-2 pages DOUBLE SPACED.  You can always send a shorter synopsis to an agent asking for a longer one, but you should NOT send a longer synopsis than is asked for.

Step 5: Let someone read it who has read your book, and ask them if you’ve left anything major out, or if the synopsis provides an effective arc of the story.

Sometimes, the best help we can have is from a fresh pair of eyes.


2 thoughts on “How To Write (And Shorten!) a Synopsis

  1. Pingback: 17 Steps to Writing and Publishing a Book | words — and other things
  2. Pingback: Camp Nano 2014 July – Update 7: Synopsis and Sunburns | The Desultories

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