How I write a book synopsis


Elseweb I saw someone ask about tips for creating a selling synopsis for the book they were about to start querying. The thought of typing up my advice yet again made me feel all tired, so I decided to just link to the post on my blog. Easy, right?

Except, I’ve been so reluctant to do the writing-advice thing here that I never actually put it on my blog. Duh.

So! I’m going to type up my personal methodology for writing a selling synopsis, and when I come across this question in the future I can respond with a link. (I know I’ve promised a post about my personal writing shame; it’s coming.) I’ll put in a cut, because this crap is boring.

Keep in mind that this works for stories with a single protagonist. If you have multiple protagonists, you’ll have to adapt it, but I haven’t put much thought into that. Also, this is just what works for me.

First, different agencies ask for synopses of different length and the lengths can run from two pages up to, like, ten. Christ. Creating one is hard enough. Three or more? That’s just nuts. Me, I decided to err on the side of brevity, assuming that a two-page synopsis would be good enough for an agency that wanted five pages, but that a five pager for someone who asked for two was going overboard. Plus, the shorter the synopsis, the less chance there is of including something that earns a rejection.

Besides, it’s not really two pages: the top of page one has contact info, author name, title, and that jazz on it, so the actual synopsis itself doesn’t start until halfway down the page, anyway. What we’re really talking about is a page and a half of text, single-spaced with a blank line between paragraphs.

The first step in creating the synopsis is to identify the major change your protagonist goes through: I write three sentences. The first defines the character at the start of the book. The second defines the character after the story has changed them. The third identifies some mid-point challenge or test–somewhere significant along the path from sentence one to two.

The first sentence goes in the first paragraph midway down page one. The second goes in the last paragraph at the bottom of page two. The third goes at the top of page two. These are the anchors for the synopsis, which sticks close to them.

At this point I start describing the events of the book, but always in terms of how they affect the protagonist, especially emotionally. I wouldn’t say: “Susan’s husband asks for a divorce,” I’d say: “Susan is secretly relieved when her husband asks for a divorce.” Likewise “Jack discovers that his boss and friend has been taking credit for his work,” becomes “Jack is devastated to discover that his boss and friend has been taking credit for his work.”

I just keep going, describing the book in broad swipes, trying to direct the text toward the anchor points. It always ends up too long, and that’s okay. Once I reach the end, I start revising; my sentences always need to be smoothed out and word echoes fixed, plus the synopsis needs to be cut back so it ends on the bottom of the second page.

It can be daunting to look at a page and think “How am I going to cut all this totally necessary stuff?” I address that by only cutting one thing at a time. It’s a trick I used to use with my son when he had six toys I absolutely had to buy for him, but I was only going to let him have one. He could never pick the single toy he really really wanted, but it was much easier to choose his sixth favorite, then fifth, then fourth.

It works much the same for cutting the utterly essential, can’t-live-without details of a synopsis. If I look at them all at once they seem to be a fragile lattice. If I look for one that can be cut or summarized with a quick sentence, that’s easier.

Another big thing to be careful of is… (hmm, I find myself needing a label for something I’ve never named before. How about “icebergs”?) Icebergs are those elements in a story that only raise questions when you sum them up quickly in a synopsis. If your protagonist spends 25 pages in the middle of your novel hiding out in a colony of hyper-intelligent ants who live in a glacier/hive floating in NY Harbor, your reader is going to stumble over that, wanting to know more. There’s something larger there that stops the reader. It’s best to avoid that “Wait, what?” response; it’s confusing and distracts from the story you’re telling.

When it gets too hard or I don’t see what I should do next, I set it aside to work on later, usually more than once, and I don’t force myself to cut all the way down to page two in that first pass. I try to come back to it fresh a few times. I also give it to other people to read over, but only after I’ve it cut enough that “The End” fits at the bottom of page two. (Never leave off “The End”.)

That’s pretty much it: three-sentence character arc, story beats described in terms of how they affect the protagonist, cut the least important thing then the next and the next, no icebergs.

Two more things: first, from having read a bunch of synopses, I learned they should capture the flavor of the book: Funny books should have funny synopses, thriller synopses should thrill. Etc. The synopsis for a horror novel might not keep someone awake at night, but it should capture that scary-book feeling.

Finally, it’s valuable to know why we create them. (I was certainly curious, once upon a time.) As it’s been explained to me, the synopsis is there to assure the agent or editor that you can tell a sensible story and don’t plan to switch genres midstream. For example: the first 100 pages of your book might be a tale of two emotionally-scarred people learning to love again, learning to trust again. The synopsis shows that, on page 101, aliens invade, and those two people flee for their lives together (true example, btw).

Is the romance a doomed Sparksian cancer romance, or is there a happily ever after? Does the plucky band of adventurers defeat the Dark Lord without any serious losses? The reader wants to know.

It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy, either. Good luck.

2 thoughts on “How I write a book synopsis

  1. I am ever a fan of the “three-beat character arc,” and have a post tomorrow geared toward that subject.

    Great post, Harry. Very helpful, always nice to see how other authors make the sausage.

    — c.

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