Writing a Synopsis for Literary Agent Querying

If you’re a writer like me, chances are you abhor writing synopses. A synopsis is a one or two-page maximum summary of your book story and it’s a piece of work requested by most literary agents to evaluate your manuscript. You’ve put all your effort writing over 75, 000 words and an agent wants you to summarise your book in 1000? It doesn’t seem fair.

Synopses are used by agents to figure out plotholes and inconsistencies as well as the overall story of the book. Novels still have a very archaic structure, beginning, middle and end, with a story arc that should be well-devised and make sense to the reader. There has to be character growth and depth. Your characters need to find obstacles on their way to achieving what they want. A synopsis can usually highlight when some of these basic characteristics aren’t present, which, for the agent, will probably mean they won’t waste any more time with your manuscript. Synopses are used as a second-level (first is your query letter with your book blurb) triage method by many agents, who will only use their precious time reading your first three chapters if your query letter and synopsis are up to their standards or expectations.

Depending on your story, writing a synopsis can be fairly straightforward or downright complicated. Recently, I wrote a book with multiple points of view telling the same linear story about another character. It proved very difficult to write the synopsis because it doesn’t accurately demonstrate the POV shifts and how information is added via different people to the same linear storyline. The fact that there are multiple Main Characters meant that I had to use a lot of my word count introducing them. Along with the conflating character story, I had to add the individual stories from each POV character whenever they were relevant enough. As the novel is fast-paced and jam-packed, it took me several days to narrow the story down to two-pages. When stories are complex and filled with characters and events, it’s hard to narrow them down to their very centre. Unless sub-plots or minor characters have a real impact, they don’t need to be mentioned.

The idea is that you strip your story to the bare essentials. I believe the best way to do this is to start out with a big, long description of your storyline, in which you can include every character and sub-plot and then, continuously, keep stripping it down, editing everything until you lose all the flesh and only the skeleton remains. It’s always from the skeleton that your story should grow. If you find you are having trouble doing this, writing a play-by-play, chapter-by-chapter, can help. In the process of doing this, I ended up finding out plotholes and inconsistencies I hadn’t noticed myself during the editing process. This is exactly why agents look for a sharp and concise synopsis to evaluate your manuscript even before they’ve read the first line.

Unlike a blurb, the synopsis should answer all the questions about the characters and the ending. If the blurb is supposed to be a marketing device to tease and entice the reader, the synopsis is meant to be a factual account of your novel, all spoilers included. If you omit parts of the story, you risk making character/story development seem unexpected or poorly written. This means if you’ve written a murder mystery and your novel reveals the killer, your synopsis has to do so within the same time frame. Your synopsis should always follow the same time frame of the book.

As tempting as it may be, the language in your synopsis should be clear and simple. If like me, you’re a writer with a penchant for the poetics, this is not the time to use your poetic imagery skills. Adjectives should be kept to a minimum, literary devices should be avoided. The trick is to do this without sounding robotic. This may sound like an easy task, but for a writer who has spent considerable time choosing every word of their story, it can prove quite difficult.

As demanding and unfair as it may sound having your whole novel judged within one or two pages of a summary, this is good practice for writers. It helps to narrow down their stories more objectively, which in turn, makes them able to look at the very essence of their work and the meaning they want to put into it. Some writers have such clear ideas of the stories they want to tell, they are able to write their synopsis before writing their book. If you are struggling with your synopsis, it’s always helpful to ask a beta-reader to tell you the story of your book in a few lines. This way, you can see what really stuck and what meant little to the overall storyline.