Does the word “Synopsis” make you want to put a screwdriver into your ear? You aren’t alone. Luckily for all of us, we have Sarah Juckes of Agent Hunter here with us, and she’s got a neat how-to system for writing synopses to share!
A few months ago, I sat down to condense my 70,000 word novel into a captivating synopsis that was guaranteed to ‘wow’ anyone who read it. And yep – you guessed it. The one I ended up writing, sucked.
Writing a 1 – 2 page summary of your book is hard. But after speaking to my writer and editor friends (and later, the agent that signed me), I tried out a ‘cheat’ method that actually seemed to work. Even better – it was surprisingly simple.
First – the golden rule
One of the main issues I was having with my synopsis, was that I was trying to sell my book to the reader. I was using the kind of language you’d find on the back of a published book, or in the film trailer. The result? Two pages of pitchy words and no sense of story.
The point of your synopsis is to explain the main plot to the reader. It is a technical document and doesn’t need to ‘sell’ your book – your book will do that. This is the golden rule.
Finding that out felt like a weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t need my synopsis to be a literary masterpiece – I just needed to write short sentences on what my book was about.
This is how I did it.
1: Know what your book is about
What is the key theme running through your novel? This will probably be the line you give family and friends when they ask you what you’re writing. My book is about my protagonist – Ele – and knowing this gave me something to focus on when writing my synopsis. Anything that didn’t concern the progression of her character, didn’t need to be in my synopsis.
2: Take out the post-it notes
To find out what happened in my novel, I read it through again from the beginning. For every scene, I wrote a one-line summary on a post-it note and stuck it on my wall. When I had done, I could see my whole plot from a distance.
3: Merge and remove
My next task was to remove notes from the wall that didn’t directly progress the central story – in my case, that of my protagonist, Ele. Some of this was hard – it can be difficult to know which scenes progress plot and which don’t, so if I was unsure, I kept them in for now.
4: Transfer it to the page
Looking at my post-its, I found that my novel could be split into four main parts according to setting, which I used as headings on a new Word document. I then typed up each post-it in turn using short, clear sentences. At this point, it started to become clearer which scenes were integral to my main story, so I continued to remove those that weren’t.
5: Tell the story
I now needed to set the scene for the reader at the beginning of the synopsis. I wrote two paragraphs under my first heading, which outlined who my protagonist was, where she was and what she wanted.
My next job was to go through the scene descriptions I had written and ensure they made sense to an outsider.
As my novel is character-driven, I found that I only needed to mention the scenes that progressed her story. For example, over ten of my original post-it notes could be summarized by ‘Ele finds out more about the Outside’. The important scenes for me were the ones that raised the stakes for my protagonist and showed her changing attitudes as the novel progressed.
6: Complete the check list
The only thing left to do then was to ensure my synopsis was ticking the boxes on what all synopsis should do:
1: Tell the whole story (even the ending).
2: Give the names of only the most important characters (too many names become confusing).
3: Be a technical document with no ‘pitchy’ words (eg: using clear, simple language that enables your story to be the star).
The result? A simple outline of my plot and characters, including the major stakes and their resolution.
It was perfect.
My novel is told from the point of view of one character and is linear in time, but that doesn’t mean that this process wouldn’t work for writers with complex stories. When I spoke to my agent about my synopsis, she said that one of the most useful things I had put on there were my four headings, separating each part of my novel in terms of where my character was. As you go through your novel, you might find that headings emerge for your story two – perhaps in terms of who is narrating it, or where you are in time.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s not your synopsis that will be ‘selling’ your book to an agent or publisher – that job lies with the novel itself. A synopsis is really just a neat version of your plotting notes. Simple – right?
If you do try this Cheat’s Guide to write your synopsis, I’d love to hear how you got on. It worked for me – I hope it helps you, too!
Sarah Juckes is a YA writer who works with Agent Hunter, the comprehensive online database of UK literary agents. For more information on submitting to literary agents read this useful guide from The Writers’ Workshop. You can also find her on twitter as @sarahannjuckes.