There are times when your literary agent/publisher wants to see a longer account of your story from start to finish rather than the much shorter version required as part of the Fiction Query Letter/Proposal submission. The same principles can be applied to memoirs as well.
Goldilocks will now introduce you to her methodology/process for composing the various elements of this longer version of a Fiction Book Synopsis and provide a few helpful hints along the way.
All you have to do is click/tap on each of the topics below and be transported further down the page where you will find an in-depth description of each of these elements.
- What Is a Novel Synopsis and How Does It Differ from a Story Outline/Summary?
- Crafting Two Synopses
- Do You Submit a Long or a Shorter Synopsis?
- Why the Novel Synopsis Is Important to Agents and Publishers!
- What Your Novel Synopsis Must Accomplish
- How to Start Your Fiction Synopsis
Now for the important elements of a Fiction Book Synopsis
- The Opening Hook
- Core Conflict
- The Setting
- Character Sketches
- Plot Highlights
- Point of View?
- The Closing
- Important Takeaways
- Synopsis Mistakes
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What Is a Novel Synopsis and How Does It Differ from a Story Outline/Summary?
The synopsis supplies key information about your novel (plot, theme, characterization, setting), while also showing how these factors intertwine to form the big picture. It quickly tells what your novel is about without making your literary agent read the novel in its entirety.
Your manuscript synopsis is sometimes required because your literary agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, it must convey your book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending.
It shouldn’t be confuse with sales copy, the kind of material that might appear on your novel’s back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.
Keep in mind two things, until your book is published, it is not referred to as a “book” but rather your manuscript or “work.”
Many times your agent may want a much shorter story outline/summary and Goldilocks has covered that option in great detail…
Crafting Two Synopses
There isn’t a standard length to a Synopsis, it’s recommended you compose two different versions of this document to have ready for your literary agents/publishers. One will be much shorter than the other.
In past years, there used to be a fairly universal formula regarding synopses. For every 35 or so pages of your manuscript, you would have created one that was as short as one page with a maximum length of eight pages. So, if your book was 245 pages, double-spaced, your synopsis would be approximately seven pages. This was fairly standard, and allowed writers a decent amount of space to explain their story. You should write a synopsis following these guidelines first. This will be your long version.
The problem is that during the past few years, literary agents started to get extremely busy and they wanted to hear about your story very quickly. As a result, today they request synopses of no more than two pages. Some even say one page, but two pages is generally acceptable. This will represent the shorter version of your manuscript synopsis.
Check the submission guidelines for the literary agents where you are sending your pitch to be sure of their exact requirements.
Do You Submit a Short or a Longer Synopsis?
Assuming that literary agents don’t specify the length of the Synopsis required for submission, then you need to decide which version, longer or shorter is your best copy to send to them. It should be the one that is tight/precise and effective.
When you’re writing plot-heavy fiction, such as thrillers and mysteries, you might really benefit from submitting a longer, more thorough Synopsis.
Goldilocks recommends writing the longer version first and then crop it down to its shorter cousin and this is sometimes not that easy.
She also provides guidelines for constructing the short version of a novel Synopsis.
Take a look…
Focus on the essential parts of your story, and try not to include chunks of dialogue unless you think that it is absolutely necessary. (It’s OK to inject a few strong quotes from your characters, but keep them brief.) Finally, even though your Synopsis is only a condensed version of your novel, it must seem complete.
Why the Novel Synopsis Is Important to Literary Agents and Publishers!
Your Synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It will reveal any big problems in your story…
The whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of God, and a genre romance ending in divorce
Your Synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. It will also show how fresh your story is, if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.
It should be written in active voice, third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person).
What Your Novel Synopsis Must Accomplish
First, you need to tell the story about the characters readers will care about in your novel, emphasizing the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the Synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for that character.
Second, you should provide a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.
Finally, you need to provide understanding of how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.
If you cover those three things, that won’t leave you much time for details such as…
- Mentioning all of the other characters or events
- Subplots will be left out
- Some of the minor plot twists and turns will not be discussed
- Summarizing each scene or every chapter
- Various aspects of your story will have to be broadly generalized so as to avoid detailing a series of events or interactions that don’t materially affect the story’s outcome.
How to Start Your Novel Synopsis
Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph. Then you’ll have to decide which major plot turns/conflicts must be conveyed for everything to make sense, and which characters must be mentioned. (You should not mention all of them.)
The last paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved, yes, you have to reveal the ending! No exceptions.
Now, let’s take a look at some of these important elements of a Fiction Book Synopsis in greater detail…
The Opening Hook
Agents and editors want to be engaged when they’re up at night, plowing through submissions. If they don’t like the opening, they won’t get through the rest of it.
Here is an example of an intriguing Synopsis opening, from Monster by John Tigges…
“MAL and JONNA EVANS, in an effort to save their marriage, which has been been jeopardized by Jonna’s extramarital affair, go backpacking near Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia. On their first night, while preparing their evening meal, a Sasquatch barges into their camp and grabs Jonna.”
If your Conflict isn’t implicit in your first few sentences as part of your “hook”, spell it out. Your core conflict may have several dimensions so try to make it clear.
Tortured by grief and loss (person vs. self) and fleeing a wrong conviction for a crime he didn’t commit (person vs. society), DR. RICHARD KIMBALL struggles to survive (person vs. nature) while fleeing the relentless lawman who pursues him (person vs. person).
This is the physical and social context in which the action of a story occurs. The major points of your Setting are the time, the place, and the social environment that frames your characters. These points establish the world in which your characters act. Sometimes it is lightly sketched, presented only because the story has to take place somewhere and at some time. Often, however, it is more important, giving your readers the feel of the people who move through it. Including the Setting can evoke a mood or atmosphere that will prepare your readers for what is to come.
Characterization is a means by which writers present and reveal characters by direct description, by showing their in action, or by the presentation of other characters who help to define each other.
Characters in fiction can be conveniently classified as major and minor, static and dynamic. A major character is an important figure at the center of the story’s action or theme. The major character is sometimes called a protagonist whose conflict with an antagonist may spark the story’s conflict.
Supporting the major character are one or more secondary or minor characters whose function is partly to illuminate the major characters. They are often static or unchanging, they remain the same from the beginning of a work to the end. Dynamic characters, on the other hand, exhibit some kind of change of attitude, purpose, behavior, as the story progresses.
You need to provide a sense of your main characters’ motivations, especially those that will bring the characters into conflict with one another. Their physical descriptions are not vital, but their motivations are important.
Main Character (Protagonist): A Closer Look
The emotional side of the story will be expressed in part by the main character’s progression through several stages as well. For instance, see if you can answer the following questions about your choices…
- Who is your main character at the start of your story?
- What kind of person is this individual?
- What is this character’s approach to life?
Describe how your main character is thrust into a situation where that person is pressured to change.
- Does your main character decide to take a leap of faith and change?
- Does this individual adopt a new approach or take some uncharacteristic action? Or does this character hold true to that person’s person a and become more entrenched in a defining attitude or approach?
- At the end of the novel, is the main character better off because of choices made?
Note: These questions are being asked using third person and that is the way you will present these characters in your novel synopsis despite the fact that your manuscript may be written in first person.
They are one or more characters that are responsible for pressuring the main character to change, generally by giving an example of a diametrically different approach or outlook. That person shows why and how the main character might need to change. So consider…
- When the impact character enters the novel, how does that person express a different approach or attitude to that of the main character?
- How does the impact character pressure or influence the main character to either abandon old ways or learn a new way of doing things?
If the main character changes at the climax of the story, the impact character typically remains fixed. On the other hand, if the main character stays the same, the impact character may be forced to change.
- How is this illustrated in your novel?
- Is the impact character better or worse off at the end of the novel?
The interaction of both the main and impact character also go through several stages as follows…
- How their relationship stands at the beginning of the story
- How their relationship develops or is tested in the course of the story
- The climax of their relationship (a decisive change)
- Their relationship at the end of the story. How is it different?
Plot, the action element in fiction, is the arrangement of events that make up a story. Many fictional plots turn on a conflict, or struggle between opposing forces, that is usually resolved by the end of the story. Typical fictional plots begin with an exposition that provides background information needed to make sense of the action, describes the setting, and introduces the major characters.
Your first and secondary plots develop a series of complications or intensifications of the conflict that lead to a crisis or moment of great tension. The conflict may reach a climax or turning point, a moment of greatest tension that fixes the outcome.
Then, your action falls off as the plot’s complications are sorted out and resolved (the resolution). Be aware, however, that much of twentieth-century fiction does not exhibit such strict formality of design.
You know that your plot is a sequence of events that proceed through several basic stages. These include…
- The inciting incident that gets things moving, sets the protagonist on course towards a goal
- Event(s) which illustrate opposition to the story progression
- The crisis: the decisive event or turning point that sets the story on a course for either achieving the goal or failure.
- The resolution or the climax, which illustrates the achievement (or not) of the goal and its aftermath.
Here is the plot information that you should include in your Synopsis…
Detail the beginning and ending scenes and one or two in the middle that give an indication of the kind of emotional intensity or type of action to be expected.
So what constitutes a major scene worth noting?
- Do I need this scene to make the primary plot hang together?
- Is this scene needed for the ending to make sense?
Your Synopsis should reveal how much and what kind of trouble your poor protagonist is going to encounter.
Point of View
This refers to who tells the story and how it is told. The possible ways are many, and more than one point of view can be worked into a single story. However, the various points of view that storytellers draw upon can be grouped into two broad categories…
- Third-Person Narrator (uses pronouns he, she, or they)
-Omniscient: The narrator is all-knowing and takes the reader inside the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations, as well as shows what they say and do.
-Limited omniscient: The narrator takes the reader inside one (or at most very few characters) but neither the reader nor the character(s) has access to the inner lives of any of the other people in the story.
-Objective: The narrator does not see into the mind of any character; rather he or she reports the action and dialogue without telling the reader directly what the characters feel and think.
- First-Person Narrator (uses pronoun I):
The narrator presents the point of view of only one character’s consciousness, which limits the narrative to what the first-person knows, experiences, infers, or can find out by talking to other characters.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is worth repeating, regardless of the point of view that you have chosen for your novel your Synopsis should be written in active voice, third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person).
You shouldn’t close your Synopsis with a cliffhanger. Revealing the ending to your novel won’t spoil the story for the editor or agent. It will show that you’ve successfully finished your novel.
Make sure every loose thread is tied up and never leave them guessing about anything. If your novel is one of a series, your ending can point to the sequel.
To decide what characters deserve space in your novel Synopsis, you need to look at their role in generating conflict for the protagonist, or otherwise assisting the protagonist. Literary agents/publishers need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how they might change, too.
A good rule of thumb for determining what stays and what goes…
- If the ending wouldn’t make sense without the character or plot point being mentioned, then it belongs in your Synopsis.
- If the character or plot point comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and increases the tension or complication each time, then it definitely belongs.
The Most Common Novel Synopsis Mistake
You shouldn’t be thinking your Synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture, it will read like a story without any emotion.
Think what it would sound like if you summarized an American football game by saying…
Well, the Jets scored. And then the Ravens scored. Then the Jets scored twice in a row.
That’s sterile and doesn’t give us the meaning behind how events are unfolding. Instead, you would say something like…
The Jets scored a touchdown after more than one hour of a no-score game, and the underdog of the team led the play. The crowd went wild.
A Synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.
Consider this template…
Incident (story advancement) plus Reaction (color) equals Decision (story advancement)
Common Novel Synopsis Pitfalls
- Getting bogged down with the specifics of character names. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story only briefly, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say…
“Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.”
When you do mention specific character names, it’s common to put the name in caps in the first instance, so it’s easy for agents or editors to see at a glance who the key figures are.
- Spending any time in your Synopsis explicitly explaining or deconstructing the themes the story may address. Your Synopsis tells the story; it doesn’t try to interpret what it means. (But it does tell us the characters’ feelings or reactions.)
- Avoiding character backstory. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background, you should only reference it when it effects how events unfold. This may mean, if you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the Synopsis. However, if they are really about what happens in the book rather than why something occurs, then they may belong in your Synopsis.
- Including dialog, and if you do, be sparing. Make sure what you mention is absolutely iconic of the character or represents a pivotal moment in the book.
- Asking rhetorical or unanswered questions. Remember, your goal here isn’t to entice your readers.
You shouldn’t be splitting your Synopsis into sections, or labeling the different plot points. In rare cases, there might be a reason to include subheads, due to a unique narrative structure, but try to avoid portioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play.
- While your Synopsis will reflect your ability to write, it’s not the place to get pretty with your prose. That means you should leave out any lyrical descriptions or attempts to impress through poetic description. You really can’t take the time to show these things in your Synopsis. Sometimes this is confusing to writers who’ve been told for years to “show don’t tell.”
For example, it’s OK to just come out and say your main character is a “hopeless romantic” rather than trying to show it.
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Goldilocks has provided her Methodology/Process for composing your Fiction Book Query and the short form version of a novel Synopsis and she will take you there now…
Goldilocks knows that there are many parts and pieces that should be included in a long form novel Synopsis and it may seem daunting to have to take an 80,000 word novel and drill it down to a few pages. She wants you to know that you can reach out to her and she will provide coaching or if you like you can hand off the writing of this crucial component of your Fiction Query to her and she will make it shine.
E-Mail her: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pick up the phone: 914-944-1474
Goldilocks Wishes You Luck with Your Fiction Manuscript Submission