If you’re submitting your novel to a literary agent or publisher, you will almost certainly be asked to submit a synopsis along with your sample chapters. A well-written synopsis will help the agent decide whether or not to request the full manuscript, so it’s important to get this part of the submission package right. Here are my top tips:
1. Know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis
A blurb, or cover copy, is the text you typically see on the back cover of a book. Blurbs give an idea of what the story is about, but don’t tell you the whole plot – they’re written to entice and intrigue the reader, and the language used reflects this. They will often include evocative language such as ‘Noah is plunged into an exciting world of sorcerers and spies’, intriguing yet spoiler-free statements such as ‘Sarah will discover a secret that changes everything’, or unanswered questions such as ‘Will Nadiya manage to overcome her demons and save the world?
A synopsis has a different function. It’s not meant to tantalise the reader or show off your writing style (your manuscript itself should do that!); it serves to inform the agent, publisher or whoever is reading it, in a clear and straightforward way, what happens in the story. Therefore, you need to tell us exactly what Sarah’s secret is, and whether Nadiya does manage to save the world. You don’t need to use the rhetorical devices you would see in a blurb; plain and simple English is just fine, and will allow your plot to speak for itself.
2. Tell the whole story
A synopsis should cover the plot from start to finish. As mentioned above, don’t leave the ending hanging on an unfinished thread – we need to know what happens! Also, don’t assume that the agent has already read any sample chapters you’ve sent, and therefore it’s OK to start where those left off.
Do include your sub-plot(s), but you don’t need to include every detail – the synopsis should focus on the main plot, and how those subplots feed into it. If you’ve written a fantasy novel, try not to get bogged down in explaining your world-building or how the system of magic you’ve invented works. Give us only the details that are needed for understanding the story – these should (hopefully) be enough to give a flavour of the unique and interesting elements you have created.
If the book is part of a planned series with an ongoing story, it may be helpful to include very brief synopses of these (a couple of lines, maximum) to show that you have plans for where the story is going next.
3. Write in the third person, present tense
For example: ‘On her sixteenth birthday, Sasha meets an old man who tells her that she will die on the same day that she meets her soulmate.’
Not: ‘On her sixteenth birthday, Sasha met an old man who told her she would die on the same day she meets her soulmate.’
4. How long should it be?
Some agents/publishers will be very specific on their submissions page about the length they require (e.g. ‘no more than 300 words’), so it’s always worth doing your research and adapting your submission package to fit the guidelines.
Generally, though, the consensus seems to be ‘no more than one side of A4’. Of course, it depends on what kind of book you’ve written – the storyline for Winnie-the-Pooh could be easily summarised in a paragraph or two, while A Game of Thrones would understandably fill a whole page (two pages may be acceptable in this case).
5. Finally … does it make sense?
This seems obvious, but often authors are too close to their work to know whether the synopsis would make sense to a someone who hasn’t already read the book. The best way to test this is on people who know nothing about the book, and ask them to be honest.
I hope you find this advice helpful. One of the services I offer is a submission letter and synopsis review, so if you would like me to proofread your letter and / or synopsis for you to correct any spelling or grammar mistakes, and also offer advice on whether what you’ve written is appropriate and engaging, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.