The Synopsis Monster – is it a deadly, looming beast on the horizon, without discernible form, a threatening shape that plagues all writers? Believe me, it’s only frightening when you can’t really see it. Let’s blow away the mists and find out what we’re dealing with.
Pitches and the query letter are designed to sell your book to the publisher or agent. They are teasers, marketing tools to generate excitement. The synopsis is a business tool, and it has a separate function. Yes, it should be good writing that holds the reader’s interest in the story. But now you must show that you know how to write a coherent, well-structured story, and give it a satisfying finish.
A synopsis is almost always in present tense and in third person, no matter how the novel is written. However, the style usually reflects that of the novel, to some degree – lighthearted, serious, dramatic or sweet, the tone of your novel should be echoed in the synopsis, without loss of clarity. Opinion is divided as to whether to put the character names in all caps. I’ve mostly been told that this is for screenplays, and novel submissions don’t require it, but check the submission guidelines and then use your own judgment. Usually a synopsis is either double-spaced, or single-spaced with a space between paragraphs.
What exactly is included in the synopsis? The important parts of your story, the bones on which all the flesh hangs: Who are the main characters? Why should we care about them? What is at stake for them? What choices do they make? What are the results of those choices? How does the conflict resolve itself? All of that needs to be answered.
I’m often asked whether the agent or publisher really wants the end of the story included. Isn’t that a spoiler? The answer is yes, they really want it. The agent or editor is not merely a reader, but is also a partner in the enterprise of making your book a success. In order to do that, they need full information. A cliffhanger ending that leaves out the climax or conclusion is merely going to mark you as an amateur.
What can be left out? Side characters, statements of theme or meaning, detailed settings, dialogue and real-time storytelling. While all the words you put into the novel are necessary to the novel, this is not a novel. It’s a condensed explanation, a guideline, a road map that will allow the publisher to understand the direction and structure of the story you have told.
Flesh and skin and coloration are part of the overall living creature that is your novel, and it wouldn’t be a very satisfying creature without them. These are only the bones, so that the observer can see that the thing will stand up.
Next time: the actual process of writing a novel synopsis, with examples and resource links!