Although publisher/agent guidelines vary in the specifics, most novel queries require a cover letter, one to three sample chapters and a synopsis. Synopses, however, tend to bedevil early-career writers. They’re presented, usually, as an afterthought, or as some sort of back-of-the-cover tease — and therefore, the synopsis becomes the silent killer of what otherwise could have been a perfect pitch.
The sample serves just one purpose: It shows the editor whether you can coherently write in English. The sample reveals your line-level ability as an author, as demonstrated by your word choice, punctuation precision, use of speech tags and avoidance of grammatical error.
The synopsis, however, must communicate several important things about the totality of the work you’re selling: The structure/arc of the plot, the genre, an overarching theme or didactic bent, highlights about the setting/world, the main characters and their motivation, and the plot’s central conflict. And it must do all this heavy lifting in a constrained space and with a sense of detached specificity. You are not, for example, writing back-of-the-cover blurbs. You aren’t trying to dazzle the editor (that’s what the cover letter is for). You’re just trying to present a fair distillation of your long-form work in a short-form package, in a manner that helps the editor understand whether the story suffers major structural problems like implausible conflict, weak characterization, plot holes, genre nonconformanc and weak structure. You’re also, in a sense, giving the editor some insight into your creative capability and also helping the editor determine whether your pitch fits the current needs of the publisher’s catalog.
Interestingly, there’s a ton of contradictory advice about synopses on the Internet. The Writer’s Digest people offer interesting advice, particularly about long-length synopses, whereas Jane Friedman’s excellent overview emphasizes the shorter approach. The one rule you must follow, I think, is to shape your synopsis to the requirements of the intended audience. Read the editorial guidelines, or inquire about the long-vs.-short distinction, before you submit your query package!
A Tale of Four Synopses
Consider writing four separate “synopses” of your work and having each of them ready for when the need arises. (You should write these before you begin querying, so you have time to have them reviewed by beta readers before you unleash them upon the world.)
Long Synopsis. In the days of yore, when manuscripts were typewritten at double-spaced, 1-inch margins, the convention was that you drafted one page of synopsis for every 35 pages of manuscript. If your typewritten novel clocked in at 320 pages, then you wrote a nine-page synopsis — formatted exactly like the manuscript. Most authors don’t type nowadays, but the 1:35 benchmark still proves useful. If you wrote a 70,000-word novel, draft a 2,000-word synopsis. A long synopsis is good for novels, but not so good for novellas and shorter works.
Short Synopsis. Limit yourself to around 500 words, or the equivlent of two printed pages. Otherwise, it’s the same deal as a long synopsis. Ideal for novellas and novelettes.
Marketing Blurb. You have 250 words to write a back-of-the-cover blurb to entice readers to buy your book. Usually, the publisher writes the back cover, but your version of the back blurb informs the editor about how you view the story as a product — and it’s never a bad idea to have some marketing copy at the ready. Just in case. The blurb can, and probably should, tease the plot without revealing too much. You may find a good use for this blurb on your author website. Strictly, this material isn’t a synopsis, but it can be used to good effect to help readers get excited about your work.
Elevator Pitch. Three sentences, max — what’s the story about and why should the reader care? You should memorize your elevator pitch so when you’re asked about your story, you have it rehearsed. A confident delivery is better than struggling to explain your work. For example: “Opening with the last gasp of Antebellum South, Gone with the Wind shares Scarlett’s story of love and wealth and how one woman overcame the horrors of war to set her own path in Reconstruction Georgia. This work of historical fiction, over its 425,000 words, offers a detailed insight into the culture of the Confederacy in the context of one young woman coming of age as the war transforms her family from wealthy plantation owners into poverty-stricken refugees. With hints of romance and lessons about the seductive power of cultural nostalgia, Gone with the Wind reminds us of life’s impermanence and our need to remain emotionally strong to power through adversity.”
A synopsis that’s just a weak afterthought deprives the editor of some of the most essential context of your story. When you draft your synopsis, consider the following advice:
- Format the synopsis exactly like you formatted the manuscript unless the recipient specifies to the contrary. Typical formatting uses 1-inch margins, double-spaced text and a conservative/traditional typeface set at 12 points. Number all pages except the first. At the top of the synopsis page, indicate the genre, word count and story title. Then dive right in. Your goal is function, not form; don’t waste the time trying to make the synopsis pretty.
- Some publishers just ask for a “two-page synopsis.” Don’t try to shove too much content into this constrained space by varying font size, line spacing and margins.
- Only include your contact information on the synopsis if it was specifically requested.
- Write in narrative form without sections or labels; don’t treat a synopsis as a bullet-point list or as a grid in Excel that breaks the story’s constituent parts into a visual matrix.
- When a character is mentioned for the first time, the standard convention is to render the character’s name in ALL CAPS. For the most important subset of characters, offer basic demographic detail — sex, age, etc. Avoid detailed character backstory, though. Provide just enough context to explain the character’s relevance to the plot.
- Plot and conflict are intertwined. Although you should touch on the main pivot points in the plot (and major subplots!), ensure that you offer enough context about characters’ motivations at those pivot points to help the editor assess the plot’s coherence and plausibility.
- Brevity is the soul of wit — but if you’re too brief, you might not make the cut. There’s absolutely an art to writing synopses, but the point of the synopsis isn’t to highlight your rarified diction or penchant for elegant turns of phrase. The job here is to communicate cleanly, without pretense or artifice, but also without omitting essential information about the story for the sake of rhetorical ornamentation.
- The synopsis is a sales pitch, but it’s not marketing copy. You’ll want to establish the major characters and primary plot points early on, and with enough context to make the subsequent action and characters plausible. Tee up what’s important from the first few chapters. The synopsis is one place where brief assertions of something are better than extended descriptions.
- The synopsis should follow the same sequence as the events in the novel. You’re condensing, not rewriting, when you draft a synopsis. Think of it as the Cliff’s Notes version of your story.
- Use the present tense and third-person language, no matter how the book’s narration is structured.
- An occasional line or two of dialogue may be OK, but no more than that.
- Explain the ending. Authors with a “shocking plot twist” sometimes think that the editor wants to be teased into reading the full story. We don’t. We want you to tell us exactly how the story ends, without misdirection or ambiguity.
- Consider using the narrative approach that Friedman advocates, of joining a specific incident to the character’s reaction to it that results in a decision point that advances to the next incident.
- Don’t get meta. The synopsis shouldn’t talk about the story-as-story. For example, avoid, “This charming tale of love and lust begins on a deserted island …”
Technical non-fiction work, like textbooks or cookbooks, uses a formal book proposal. Many publishers won’t accept pitches for unfinished fiction work; however, many publishers don’t want to be pitched finished non-fiction stuff. Book proposals follow their own logic.
Pro tip: Never use the word “proposal” in a cover letter for a fiction query. Editors and agents will often automatically dismiss authors who do not understand the difference between fiction queries and non-fiction proposals.
A Note to Our Submitters
Caffeinated Press prefers long synopses for works above 35,000 words or a short synopsis for stories between 5,000 and 35,000 words. Your elevator pitch should be incorporated into the cover letter. For short stories, a 250-word synopsis will usually suffice.