Mar 02 2009

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

Published by at 1:39 am under Writing Articles

The synopsis is the most important part of a novel proposal. If the synopsis looks bad, the editor will toss the proposal without even looking at the chapters.

1.  Keep the novel synopsis 2-5 pages (double-spaced). This may be the fiftieth synopsis the editor is reading this week, so brevity is essential.

2.  Focus on the characters (particularly their personalities, goals and conflicts), the plot (particularly the main arc) and the sequence of what happens.  Also, describe the setting as necessary, particularly if it is interesting.

3.  Please leave out minor plots and characters.  I wouldn’t recommend naming more than a handful of the most important characters. The more characters you name, the harder it is to keep the names apart.

4.  Begin with the main character as he starts an interesting plot sequence, NOT a demographic description of the main character. The first paragraph should introduce the editor to a likable character facing a high-stakes challenge. Here are some sample opening sentences.

  • AWFUL:  PETER PARKER is a sixteen-year-old with brown hair.
  • BAD:  PETER PARKER is a sixteen-year-old student at Midland High School.
  • GOOD:  PETER PARKER is a superhero teen that fails to save his uncle’s life.
  • BETTER:  GARY BLACK is an accountant that becomes a superhero after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt.

5.  Don’t leave the editor hanging.  That’s the main difference between a synopsis and a backcover blurb.  A blurb won’t reveal the ending or how the arcs of the story are resolved, but a synopsis must.

6.  To save space, I recommend keeping it as active as possible.  Also, avoid unnecessary adverbs.

7.  The synopsis should be in the omniscient present tense.  For example, “John draws his gun even though he doesn’t know it’s empty.”

8.  If you get jittery when you start to do your synopsis, it might help to practice by writing the synopsis for another author’s novel instead. That will help you get in the mindset of figuring out which elements are most important.

9.  Please do not describe what your characters look like unless it’s important to the plot or REALLY helps develop a character.  The editor wants to know if you have a story, not what the hero looks like.

10. Publishers will not buy a novel manuscript from a first-time novelist unless the manuscript is completed. So you don’t need a synopsis unless your book is completed. However, nonfiction is a bit different.

11.  Finally, some formatting tips.

  • Use size 12 Times New Roman or Courier.
  • Double-space the synopsis.
  • Use a header that includes the name of the book, the page-number and your name. That will help the editor keep everything together.

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “How to Write a Novel Synopsis”

  1. C.R.on 02 Mar 2009 at 9:25 am

    Solid, professional advice you got here, B.Mac.

    12. Visit the publisher’s website and get particulars there.

    Usually you send a couple, three chapters along w/ your package, right?I would say that if they toss it after they spent 5 minutes reading the synopsis and thought it ‘bad’, then I don’t know if I’d want to deal with them anyway.

  2. B. Macon 02 Mar 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Good thinking on #12.

    Yeah, it’s customary to send a few chapters. Make sure that you cover those chapters in the synopsis anyway! If the publisher is interested, they will ask you to send the rest.

    I know it’s not easy to sympathize with the publishers that are looking for any reason to throw away manuscripts. However, they are under an extraordinary amount of economic pressure to come up with the next bestseller. I recommend not taking any rejections personally.

  3. Ragged Boyon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:31 pm

    About how much of this transfers over to a comic book synopsis?

  4. B. Macon 02 Mar 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Most of it is transferable to comic book synopses. The length is still 2-5 pages (for a multi-issue series), but you can do a single page for a standalone one-shot.

    I feel the comic synopsis is still very important. It gives the editor the big picture of your story. In contrast, when an editor starts to read the script, he sees only a few panels at a time. The synopsis is essential to help him understand what you’re trying to show him. Also, the synopsis is usually easier to read.

    The main difference is that a comic book synopsis has to recount less material. Most novel manuscripts are usually 70-85K words long, but a 5-issue series is not even close. That means that you have slightly more space for details like the “how” of the story. You still have to be judicious, but if a detail affects the tone and style a lot, it’s probably worth mentioning briefly. For example, is the hero’s origin story scientific, fantastical/magical, caused by Batman-esque training, or something else entirely? This is relevant because it will affect the series’ tone and target audience.

    Another difference is that comic book series are written, sold and read by the issue. If you want to pitch a series, I would recommend organizing your synopsis by what happens in each issue. That will show that you have a good eye for pacing and cliffhangers. Organizing it by the issue will help you prove to the editor that your story is interesting from issue one onwards.

    For example, if I were to do an issue-by-issue synopsis of Superhero Nation, I’d probably do it something like this. (Well, this is the abridged version; the real version would be several pages long and would have more details about the characters, goals, conflicts, etc).

    Issue 1:
    The story begins with a young accountant, GARY SMITH, narrowly surviving a car-bomb. Suspecting an inside job, the US Marshals bar Gary from returning to work until the crime is solved. His attempts to find a new job are unsuccessful because no one wants to hire and retrain him if he’ll leave a year later. Cut off from his friends and work, he gets lonely and depressed. Driven to desperate measures, he decides to apply to the Office of Special Investigations, a federal agency that handles supervillains and other supernatural strangeness. This agency is a farcical version of the BPRD or SHIELD.

    Gary gets an interview for an OSI accounting position but he is rejected because he botches a conversation with the Human Resources director, AGENT ORANGE. Agent Orange is a mutant alligator that is highly eccentric and does not get along well with Gary, who is thoroughly normal. The OSI Director, MARTY STULL, notices how poorly they get along and hires Gary to be Agent Orange’s partner. Marty assumes that this will convince Agent Orange to finally leave the agency, or at least will provide evidence that Marty can use to fire Agent Orange. The issue ends with the beginning of Gary’s training. At the end of the first issue, the cliffhanger is that the reader learns that Marty plans to get Gary killed if that is what it will take to get rid of Agent Orange.

  5. Stefan the Exploding Manon 03 Mar 2009 at 3:15 am

    Ah, I’ve been wondering a little about the plot of Superhero Nation. Are the chapters that you’ve already written going to be part of the comic?

  6. B. Macon 03 Mar 2009 at 3:56 am

    The comic is inspired by the novel chapters we wrote a year or two ago, but the plot has changed considerably in the interim. For one, Agent Black and Agent Orange are the main characters rather than Lash. (Lash will probably show up in issue 3 or 4, but in a very different role than he plays in the novel chapters).

  7. Davidon 26 Apr 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I’ve got a partially done synopsis here. How’s this?

    This story is a about a young Banshee princess named Cara. At the beginning of her story, her main goal is to stop her father from drinking. We find out she blames this on her mother’s death. This changes when her father’s Kingdom is attacked; she is shown the Banshee book of ultimate magic and the knight’s heart. Cara, her Guardian Mist, and her pet Ra are transported to a Forest.

    Making their way out of the forest, they meet Michelle, an unrisen angel. Cara hates angels, as it was an angel that killed her mother as well as her father’s drunkenness. But now she is torn in her feelings because Michelle saved her. Later, they meet a banshee soothsayer who reveals the attacker was her uncle. Her uncle is by all accounts the true King but was rejected by the book and disowned by his father because of the darkness in his heart. Cara is shocked at this revelation but nonetheless travels onwards, stopping at Dead Port to get a ship. After training with her other uncle in magic, she and her friends sail to the land of the dead. There they meet the king, Donn, and beg for his help. He says that what happens with the banshees is no concern of his.

  8. B. Macon 26 Apr 2009 at 6:18 pm

    I wouldn’t worry too much about your novel’s synopsis yet, David. I recommend doing the synopsis after the manuscript is completed because you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize.

  9. Davidon 27 Apr 2009 at 4:14 am

    Ok, then. Fair enough.

  10. Esraa Khaloufon 02 Jul 2011 at 1:41 am

    Thanks a lot. I found this really helpful, yet, I want to know how to get this jittery feeling away before I start writing a synopsis.

    Thanks again

  11. Aj of Earthon 28 Jul 2015 at 8:22 pm

    I’m not sure how relevant this question is, if at all… but how important is it in a synopsis or query (a submission in general) to name your work by genre, eg: “superhero fiction”, “crime drama”, etc.? Does one specifically need to?

    I ask because I’m honestly not sure what to bill my novel as. I’ve always referred to it as “a superhero story” but as I move towards the remaining parts of the manuscript (currently 70K+ words, dig it!) I don’t really know if that’s the correct genre anymore, strictly speaking.

    I feel it’s very much in the vein of superhero fiction, but it isn’t a classic costumes sort of work. There are superpowers but no capes, no code names. There’s conflict and action and an overarching hero’s journey, but no use of the term “superhero”. Nor is this a setting where there are “superheroes” running around. I don’t want to call it something that it isn’t, even given the other familiar elements and themes that are, I feel, very much “superhero fiction”. It’s speculative fiction, sure, modern-day sci-fi with superpowers… but is it “superhero fiction”?

    I imagine this is a pretty critical thing to know about one’s own novel.

    Or am I still just a bit too ahead of myself? I know I need to finish the piece, but I am almost there. I know there’s beta-readers and edits, an entire other process that comes once the first draft is done…

    I just wonder the best way to figure out which genre my novel belongs in, for when I do start to really talk to people about it.

    Thoughts?

  12. B. McKenzieon 28 Jul 2015 at 9:39 pm

    “I’m not sure how relevant this question is, if at all… but how important is it in a synopsis or query (a submission in general) to name your work by genre, eg: “superhero fiction”, “crime drama”, etc.? Does one specifically need to?” If the reader can easily figure out the main 1-2 genres on their own, I think it’s probably not necessary (e.g. if the first two sentences of your story mention that the character is a detective hunting down a serial killer, I wouldn’t mention the genre if I were thinking something conventional like detective and/or thriller, but I probably would if I had something highly unexpected like Lovecraftian horror or comedy in mind). I definitely wouldn’t mention a label that doesn’t describe the work well. E.g. if you were pitching a story like Star Wars (where some characters have superpowers, like the Force), I’d recommend against describing it as a superhero story because there are labels that explain/introduce the work much better (e.g. sci-fi/adventure).

    From what I understand, it doesn’t sound like the work is best introduced as a superhero story, even though there are superpowers. Sci-fi/action is one alternative that comes to mind. I’d recommend that you try brain-storming a few different pairs of genres/subgenres and then evaluating which one would be hardest to eliminate from the story.

    For example, for The Taxman Must Die, here were some possibilities I came up with:
    –some variety of detective story
    –office comedy
    –action/sci-fi
    –superhero comedy
    –action comedy
    –cop comedy

    Going through these individually:
    –It’s definitely not any kind of detective story, although the two main characters are federal investigators working a series of cases. The cases are secondary to the assassination plot against one of the main characters.
    –It’s not an office comedy, although I have used that phrase to describe the work before. Okay, yeah, the two main characters share an office, but corporate/business life is not a major part of the story.
    –I wouldn’t characterize it as mainly an action sci-fi, because 1) I could see myself including a scene mainly for comedic value rather than for getting the plot from point A to point B or developing a major character, and 2) there is basically no way you could enjoy the work without enjoying a lot of the humor. In contrast, if it actually were heavier on action and/or sci-fi than comedy, then the humor should be marginal enough that readers might be able to enjoy the work anyway even if the humor didn’t work for them. Also, I’d pass on sci-fi here because the story mainly incorporates science fiction to make fights more interesting — in contrast, in an actual science fiction work like Flowers for Algernon or The Time Machine or Starship Troopers or Blade Runner/DADOES, ripping out the science fiction elements would force major plot rewrites besides how epic the fights are.
    –”Superhero comedy” is plausible. One of the two main characters (the mutant alligator, not the taxman) could maybe be called a superhero, and together they fight extraordinary criminals. If Gain were the only main character and/or Gary the accountant also had superheroic elements, this would feel more intuitive to me.
    –I think it’s mainly between “action comedy” and “cop comedy.” I prefer cop comedy because it covers both main characters better and basically every scene in the book will touch on at least one of those two genres.

    PS: Congratulations on the word count! You’re really close. :-D

  13. Aj of Earthon 29 Jul 2015 at 10:20 am

    “I’d recommend that you try brain-storming a few different pairs of genres/subgenres and then evaluating which one would be hardest to eliminate from the story.”

    Right on. Your own examples for The Taxman Must Die, and then going through a quick breakdown of those examples as they relate (or don’t relate) to your work really helped put things into context for me.

    I like the idea of not stressing over what my work *isn’t*, but rather trying to determine what it *is*. I know that’s probably obvious thinking, but after spending so much deliberate time in the superhero swimming pool, knowing my influences as well as being a part of this particular community here, I suppose it’s difficult to intentionally switch lenses. Not that it’s too major a switch, more like a fine-tuning… But like I said – it’s definitely huge for me not to bill my work as something it isn’t. Thank you for the advice, B Mac. Once again, very kindly appreciated!

    I suppose a better-fitting genre/subgenre for my novel might be:

    -sci-fi/adventure/thriller

    But still, even as I type that I want to throw “superhero” in there… Heh, it’s like a reflex, especially since so much of my behind-the-scenes/between-the-lines work has come from being a part of this community. I don’t want to just exit this genre altogether.

    Haha, I want to stay a part of the club! I swear I’m not an impostor! (exactly what an impostor would say???) ;)

    Anyway, thank you again. And thanks for the congrats on word count! Almost there man, almost there…!

  14. B. McKenzieon 30 Jul 2015 at 8:10 pm

    “But still, even as I type that I want to throw “superhero” in there… Heh, it’s like a reflex, especially since so much of my behind-the-scenes/between-the-lines work has come from being a part of this community.” If it’s the best fit (or the second-best fit), cool. If not, I wouldn’t sweat it. There aren’t all that many superhero novel readers to begin with, so you almost certainly won’t get pulled by a novel publisher in a more superheroic direction and making it more superhero might make publishers skittish about sales potential. (Superhero novels tend to sell very badly, and there haven’t been many, if any, runaway bestsellers).

    “sci-fi/adventure/thriller” sounds workable. My personal preference would be to get down to 2 (probably eliminating adventure or thriller, depending on tone of the work).



    Even in my case, I probably wouldn’t pitch TTMD as a superhero story even though it is a comic. If your story isn’t mainly about highly capable characters doing highly badass things, it probably isn’t a superhero story and almost certainly isn’t a very good one.

  15. Aj of Earthon 31 Jul 2015 at 9:27 am

    Mm, okay cool. I understand better.

    Also, if I think of other works that I’ve enjoyed by authors who handle similar themes, none of them (authors or specific works) have been labeled specifically as “superhero”. It’s all just “science fiction”.

    …So I won’t sweat it. Done and done.

    Heh, Zen and the Art of Letting Your Novel Genre Go, FTW.

    By the way, how does one get their hands on TTMD? Searches turn up only the sample pages of Gary meeting Agent Orange. Are you putting issues together? I’d definitely read!

  16. B. McKenzieon 01 Aug 2015 at 7:21 pm

    “Also, if I think of other works that I’ve enjoyed by authors who handle similar themes, none of them (authors or specific works) have been labeled specifically as “superhero”. It’s all just ‘science fiction’. So I won’t sweat it. Done and done.” That makes a lot of sense to me.

    “By the way, how does one get their hands on TTMD? Searches turn up only the sample pages of Gary meeting Agent Orange. Are you putting issues together? I’d definitely read!” Thanks for your interest! I don’t know when I’ll be resuming work on the project, though.

  17. Aj of Earthon 04 Aug 2015 at 12:47 pm

    “Thanks for your interest! I don’t know when I’ll be resuming work on the project, though.”

    Ah, ok. Well definitely put the word out if you do. Though what’s keeping you from it? Could it be a followup to Learning To Write Superhero Stories? …which I own, btw.

  18. B. McKenzieon 04 Aug 2015 at 5:14 pm

    “”Though what’s keeping you from it?” Mainly a lack of commitment. Secondarily, skepticism that it would sell. (Giving Gary a few levels in competence would probably help a bit there).

    PS: Thanks for buying a copy!

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