How do you write a synopsis for a novel? This is almost (almost) harder than writing your novel. But there’s a form to follow and that makes it easy.
OK, so you wrote a novel. Bravo! You have (I’m hoping) already sent it to people you trust to read the book and comment on it. You have sent it to an editor, who sees things in your manuscript that you simply can’t see. (Editors are like flashlights, shining light into the dusty darkness under the bed.) I’ve posted about how to write query letters to literary agents here. You’ve managed to find a few agents who are keen to see part (or all) of your novel. They might ask for a synopsis. What the…? You might be thinking. Why can’t agents just read the whole darn thing?
Because (hate to break the news to ya) agents just are not that interested in us. They don’t have that much time. More importantly, a synopsis helps a reader see if writers know what the book is about. It has to tell the book’s story. A synopsis is a spoiler alert. That means, you have to tell the agent what happens in your book. (Do not worry. Agents do not steal good ideas and then write the book. If they could do that, they would be writers as well as agents.) It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, the synopsis is all the same.
Here are seven key points to remember:
1. Always keep the synopsis in present tense. (That holds true even if your novel is in past or future tense.)
2. Write short snappy sentences.
3. Introduce the characters one by one. Make each character’s name in ALL CAPS. Say what happens to them.
4. Make it single-spaced, no more than two pages.
5. Have simple paragraphs, not more than a few sentences in each one.
6. You can add bits of conversation if it’s short and meaningful, as well as quoting actual words from the book.
7. Have a good ending about what the book’s message is.
Some of you might be thinking, why should I bother at all with this synopsis? Well, it’s true. It is like writing a school paper. It’s not as much fun as writing a book. But if you’re struggling with the plot of your book, a synopsis can help you figure out what happens. Also, writing is PRACTICE. It is vital to write, no matter what. Stir things up. Write the synopsis as a writing exercise. We have to do it. Write it as if you’re simply telling the story.
Here are four samples of synopses (doesn’t that word in plural sound like a sinus condition?) My suggestion is to take your own novel and try to fit it into one of these forms. Let us know how it goes.
This is the partial synopsis of A Remarkable Kindness which I sent to my agent, Steven Chudney, who then pitched and sold it to HarperCollins, to be published in August 2015. (Thank you again, Steven!)
A Remarkable Kindness opens during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, when former Mossad agent, AVIVA SERENO, drives to the cemetery in Peleg, her tranquil beach village in northern Israel, which is now under rocket fire. Aviva is a member of a traditional hevra kadisha, or burial circle. Burial circle members dress the dead in shrouds and prepare them for their final journey following ancient, sacred tradition. Now, Aviva faces the heartbreaking task of …
LAUREN UHLMANN, a maternity nurse, is another member of the burial circle. She grew up spoiled and wealthy in a Boston suburb. In 2000, hoping to have one last fling with “an exotic someone before dedicating her life to sailing with Republicans,” Lauren has an affair with an Israeli doctor, David Uziel, which leads to…
EMILY FREULICH, Lauren’s best friend, moves from Boston to Peleg in 2002 after her husband left her for another woman. Emily is an independent, quirky artist, the daughter of an amusing Charleston matron and a Czech refugee. Soon after moving to the village, Emily…
A young, idealistic young woman, RACHEL SCHOENBERGER, arrives from Wyoming to volunteer in the village in 2004. ..Wise, frank and funny, Rachel encounters a variety of personalities and experiences as she volunteers in the village’s hotel, in the avocado groves, and helps a Holocaust survivor who runs the local dog kennel…
We will stop here. Oh, there is so much more to my novel. I’m not going to share more because I don’t want to divulge too much. But the end of the synopsis is: that one of these four women “comes to realize that she must accept life on life’s terms, embrace her situation, and do whatever it takes to have a meaningful life…”
Here is part of my synopsis for my unpublished children’s book, Sam Winger’s Flight to Freedom.
It started as an ordinary morning in Pete’s Pet Shop in Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the spring of 2012. That is, until suddenly, SAM WINGER, a big-beaked, klutzy Quaker Parakeet who’s scared of heights, catches sight of a free-spirited parakeet on the other side of the window. More than anything else, Sam wants to escape the cage where she lives with her loving parents, her three brothers and twin sister. She longs to fly.
Yet the pet shop owner, grumpy PETE TEMBEL, dreams of selling her and the other animals in his shop. Pete was a childhood friend of JORDAN EHRENFELD, a soldier who was killed in Iraq. Jordan’s widow, CHERYL, is a brave New York City firefighter. CALEB, Cheryl’s son, an athletic thirteen-year-old along with his sister, JADE, a pudgy, thoughtful nine-year-old girl who has a special relationship with Sam.
The parakeets all talk to one another and to the other animals. And that night, Sam’s parents, MELODY and MORTIMER WINGER, reveal the secret history of Quaker Parakeets in New York, based on a true story…
Here’s a sample of a novel I will never write, which we will call Magic Floss. I just made it up to give you another sample synopsis.
PRISCILLA LOOBERT owns a company in Des Moines that sells magic dental floss. She has four overbearing sisters who ridicule her regularly, and she leads a lonely, depressed life punctuated by attempts to take yoga classes and become a vegan when she is not eating Java Chip Ice Cream. One day, Priscilla witnesses a man talking to a parking meter, picks up a pair of abandoned gold pumps in the street, and encounters LARRY RAZONAWITZ, a sweet, somewhat mysterious man who hears Priscilla’s oldest sister yelling at her but cannot help her.
In desperation, Priscilla calls a suicide hotline, and the operator finds out she’s a lonely woman with a few extra dollars to spare. The operator, DEAN KLUMPLIE, sends four henchmen from Toledo to Des Moines, where they threaten and extort Priscilla, forcing her to take out money from a cash machine. This complicates her budding relationship with Larry, who’s not as sweet as he seems.
After Priscilla leaves for Hawaii on a business trip, Larry decides to follow her. Upon meeting her, Larry explains that he is in Hawaii on a business trip by coincidence, but he soon admits that he came to pursue a romantic relationship. He kisses her and the pair retreat to a water bed in a hotel room.
After returning home, Priscilla finds Dean and three henchmen who ram their car into hers, mildly injuring her. Normally not confrontational, an outraged Larry attacks Dean and his men on the street, and fights them off despite being outnumbered. He tells them, “I might look like a dork, but I’m Bruce Jenner before he became Caitlin.”
Larry asks forgiveness from Priscilla that night. She forgives him, and they embrace; lastly, Priscilla says, “Life is full of magic if we remember to floss each night.”
Remember, dear folks, if we want to be writers, we can’t sit around with our friends talking about how we want to be writers and how hard it is, how publishers are not buying books, how people aren’t reading, blah-blah-blah. We gotta go to that blank page and write. Now get to work. Write your mandatory pages today (I recommend at least five pages every day to maintain your speed). And write that synopsis if you want to sell your book. By the way, even if you plan on self-publishing, you still need a synopsis which you can use for your back over flap. See more information here on self-publishing and my Self-Publisher’s Do’s and Don’ts.
Oh, I am just dying to share some advance praise for A REMARKABLE KINDNESS here:
A REMARKABLE KINDNESS, is a story about the bonds of friendship and family; how they are made, broken, and come full circle. Diana Bletter writes with such lush and insightful prose that a foreign landscape and culture becomes warm and familiar. A REMARKABLE KINDNESS explores the power of friendship, love, and ancient traditions, and Bletter’s characters makes you wonder just how far you would go (literally and figuratively) for the people you love. —Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives
Bletter brings this quartet of complex, gutsy, smart, passionate women to life with rare delicacy and depth. She also offers a refreshingly nuanced, unsentimental view of Americans who have chosen to make their homes in Israel, going beyond the romance to the women’s very real ambivalence and homesickness, as well as the peril of living in a country too often under fire. Loss and endings are part of this novel’s rich fabric. Gracefully written scenes, as the women prepare a body for burial, make me wish we could all depart from life with such respect and tenderness. Janice Steinberg, author of The Tin Horse
And in the last part of the excellent news, A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be one of the books featured in the fall promotion at HUDSON NEWS BOOKSTORES, in more than 500 airports around the USA and Canada. Before you board your flight, you can get the book and start turning the pages.