If you’re trying to sell your novel to a traditional publisher, you must learn to write a synopsis. It’s almost impossible to sell a novel without writing a proposal, and a key element of your proposal is a synopsis of the plot.
If you think you can avoid this by hiring an agent to sell your novel, that’s not going to work. It’s very difficult to get an agent without showing them a proposal, which must contain a synopsis. And once you’ve got an agent working for you, they’ll insist you write a proposal for every novel you write, before they submit it to a publisher. An agent will critique your proposal, but they won’t write it. That’s your job.
So how do you write a synopsis, if you’re an unpublished novelist?
First, the bad news. If you’ve never published a novel, then you need to have a full, polished manuscript of your novel, ready to submit to an agent or editor. It’s almost impossible to get the attention of an agent or an editor without one.
That sounds horribly unfair, but it’s understandable. Agents and editors have all seen hundreds of dreamy-eyed writers who can write three killer scenes but lack the discipline to finish a novel. So agents and editor will insist a beginner must have a full manuscript in hand.
Now, the good news. If you’ve got a complete manuscript, it should take you no more than 4 hours to drill out a perfectly respectable synopsis of your novel. That’s fast! You could have it done in a day or two. Here’s how…
The Length of Your Synopsis
How long should your synopsis be? It should be whatever length your intended agent or publisher says. If they ask for a 2-page synopsis, they mean 2. Not 1, not 3, and definitely not 55. Synopses are single-spaced, which works out to about 500 words per page. So a 2-page synopsis will be about 1000 words, give or take about 50.
Agents and editors love writers who follow instructions, because they are inundated with manuscripts and they’re looking for ways to thin the herd. Don’t be thinned.
But now you have a problem. If your novel is 100,000 words and you have to write a synopsis of 1000 words, you have to cut out 99 percent. How do you do that?
The answer is that you don’t cut from 100,000. You start from zero. Here’s how…
Your Scene List
If you’ve got the full manuscript, then you probably also have a list of scenes somewhere. (If you’re a fan of my Snowflake Method, then you wrote your manuscript from a Scene List, and you can just pull that out.)
If you don’t have a Scene List, it’s easy to make one from your manuscript. Create a spreadsheet in which every row contains a sentence that summarizes one scene. If you’re determined to get this done, you can drill out a Scene List in about two hours. It doesn’t have to be fancy—the Scene List is for your eyes only. Quick and dirty is fine.
The payoff for having a Scene List is huge, so two hours is a very small price to pay. Please do it.
When you’ve got your Scene List in hand, note how many scenes it has. This might be as low as 50 or as high as 200. A typical number would be around 80 to 100 scenes. You need to know this number before you move on.
Your Word and Paragraph Budget
Now you need to work out your word budget for your synopsis. As an example, if you’ve been asked to create a 2-page, single-spaced synopsis, then that’s about 1000 words (at 500 words per page). If your novel is 100 scenes, you can only afford 10 words per scene, which is not enough.
Almost always, you can’t summarize every scene in your novel. This is crucial to understand. A synopsis is not a scene-by-scene recounting of your story. It’s less detailed than that.
So what do you do? You’re going to cluster your scenes into Scene Groups—groups of scenes that are related to each other. Your strategy will be to write one paragraph for each Scene Group in the novel. This is gold. This is the most important point in this post. One paragraph per Scene Group.
Figure that you can write about 10 paragraphs per page, each about 50 words. So if your page limit is 2 pages for the synopsis, you can’t have more than 20 paragraphs total. That’s your paragraph budget.
And since each paragraph summarizes one Scene Group, that’s also your budget for Scene Groups. So you need to know your budget for paragraphs before you move on.
Creating Your Scene Groups
Once you know how many Scene Groups you can have, you know how many scenes each must have, on average. (If you have 100 scenes and your budget is 20 Scene Groups, then each Scene Group will have an average of 5 scenes.)
Knowing this is power. The power to slice your story to the bone.
Work through your spreadsheet and mark out your Scene Groups. The easiest way is to select several rows at a time and mark them all with some particular color, so you can see which scenes are in each Scene Group. Once you decide you’re going to do this, you can do it amazingly fast. Give yourself 15 minutes to mark out your Scene Groups.
You must be ruthless here, but it’s not hard when you know your budget with certainty. The math is unforgiving. You know how many Scene Groups you’re allowed to have. Mark them out.
Writing Your Synopsis
Now write your synopsis. For each Scene Group, summarize it as best you can in about 50 words. Write in third person, present tense. A typical paragraph might look like this:
Sally discovers her best friend Joe dead in her driveway, and the murder weapon is her own gun. The police arrive and ask Sally to come to the station to help them figure things out. Two hours in, she gets caught in a lie and realizes she needs a lawyer.
That’s one paragraph, summarizing probably 3 to 5 scenes in 50 words. It’s not beautiful, but it skates a straight line through the heart of the story.
I wrote that paragraph in about 2 minutes, and I don’t even have a story to go with it. I just pulled it out of thin air. If you have your Scene List in front of you with all the Scene Groups marked out, you can write a paragraph for each one in 3 minutes easily. Easily. In one hour, you could have 20 paragraphs written, and that’s a typical synopsis. It’s not fun, so do it fast, like you learned to eat your broccoli when you were a kid.
But It’s Boring!
Your synopsis is probably boring. There’s no dialogue, no action, no interior monologue, no emotion, no description. It’s all just narrative summary, and you hate it already. You feel certain no agent or editor could possibly enjoy it.
You’re right. No agent or editor ever enjoyed reading a synopsis in the whole history of the human race. Yet they all insist on one. Why? Because they can skim it in one minute and see if you have any understanding at all of the large-scale structure of a story. Any competent agent or editor can do it. Any competent novelist can too.
So the point of writing a synopsis is to expose the story structure of your novel for the professional eye of an agent or editor. By following the procedure I’ve sketched above, you guarantee that your synopsis exactly matches the structure of your novel. As long as your novel was well-structured to begin with, your synopsis will be too.
If you’re not sure that your novel is well-structured, then I’ll again point you to my Snowflake Method, which is a 10-step plan of attack for getting the first draft of a perfectly-structured novel down on paper. You don’t have to use the Snowflake Method to write your novel. Some novelists prefer to just write without planning, and that’s fine. But the reason I mention the Snowflake Method is because if you understand how it works, you understand story structure. Even if you use some other method for writing your first draft.
Good luck, and have fun!
Louis Edwards says
I love your book The Snowflake Method. It has helped me tremendously. This article is very helpful as well. I am going to buy your book on scenes. Keep the blogs and info coming.
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Louis: Glad you like my Snowflake book. I think you’ll find the book on scenes to be very practical on a day-to-day basis. Have fun! Randy
Amanda H. says
If you have a very large book with several plot threads with characters off doing their own thing, largely unrelated to the other plot threads but interwoven, would you group those scenes together in the synopsis even if they are spread throughout the book?
So it wouldn’t follow the structure of the book exactly ..?
I hope that made sense.
I have a book that is similar. I use the But, Therefore, Meanwhile. While the stories may not be entwined, they should orbit the novel’s central theme, exploring it from different perspectives.
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Ben: Yes, do what it takes to summarize the essential story. Editors and agents aren’t going to be reading the synopsis like it’s a novel. It’s a high-level overview that exposes the story structure. Randy
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Amanda: Large books can get complicated, but hopefully you’re not a beginner when you tackle one! Yes, I’d try grouping them, if they’re close in time and causally related to each other. The key idea is that if you have a strict budget for the size of your synopsis, then for larger books, you have to cover more ground with each paragraphs. This may mean not even telling some subplots. Focus on the key parts of the story. Randy
Mary Luce says
What if your climax includes a big plot twist that you’ve been foreshadowing throughout the novel? The foreshadowing seems inconsequential until you get to the reveal. Do I include the foreshadowing in my synopsis, or will the agent assume plot twists have been foreshadowed?
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Mary: A lot depends on how much word count you’ve got. If the novel is short, you don’t have to condense as much, and you might be able to work in some of the foreshadowing. Otherwise, it’ll just have to look like a surprise, and the agent will want to verify that you’ve set up your ducks correctly to make it all work out.
Colin Horsman says
Can the Synopsis be brief and to the point or do I need to explain my story and list of characters in length and detail?
I would prefer a brief and short Synopsis summing up the gist of the story not a long and complicated ramble.
How long is an acceptable Synopsis? Several thousand words or simply a brief statement? I am hoping that just a page or two will suffice but an Editor may expect a lot more
Please can you advise with regard to the above as to which is best and thank you for your attention.
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Colin: Your synopsis should always be exactly the length and style required by whoever is your target audience for the synopsis.
In case you’re writing the synopsis only for yourself, then write it exactly the way you want it, or don’t write one at all if you don’t want one.
In case you’re writing the synopsis for an editor or agent, then write it exactly the way they want it.