When I first started trying to write, I spent ages agonizing over how to craft a good synopsis to send to literary agents. It was before I worked in fiction publishing, so I didn’t have as much knowledge about how it all worked as I do now. But after a question from the lovely Rae Cowie, I wanted to just address the topic in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
So without further ado, here are my top tips for writing a good synopsis to send out to literary agents (or to publishers, if you’re going direct).
1. Include the ending! I think there’s sometimes confusion over whether or not the writer is supposed to explain the ending in their synopsis – or whether they’re meant to keep the agent in suspense, as though they are a reader. Your agent isn’t a regular reader – as publishers, we want to know whether or not your book is going to hang together structurally, and the ending is a crucial part of that. We need to see that you’ve thought through the book in its entirety, as in my opinion a really weak ending can ruin a book. Don’t get me wrong, endings can be very hard to write, but it’s worth taking the time to include yours in your synopsis, so that the agent can get a full understanding of how your novel is going to work as a whole. Of course, your ending might change with edits – mine did – but it’s important to include the best idea you have in your initial synopsis. Don’t worry about keeping anyone in suspense at this stage – just write it as it’s going to play out. The suspense will come in the actual reading of your book, but you’re unlikely to get to that stage if your agent doesn’t know how your book is going to pan out.
2. Don’t go into unnecessary details. It’s great to include some detail, e.g. character names, ages, location, that kind of thing, but be careful not to go into masses of intricacy as it will make it harder for the agent or publisher to grasp your actual storyline. Remember that agents are reading lots and lots of synopses, so in commercial fiction they want to be able to get the gist of the story relatively quickly and easily, without wading through lots of minor details that should really be reserved for the full manuscript.
3. Know the difference between a synopsis and a blurb. A blurb is what your publisher will use to market your book on Amazon and on your back copy, a way of enticing readers and making them want to buy the book. Blurbs are designed to open up questions in a potential reader’s mind, and will often end on a cliffhanger, e.g. ‘But will Rosie’s secret stay hidden – or is someone out to destroy her…?’ A synopsis is a different beast entirely. Your synopsis should outline your book in plain terms, telling the agent what happens and who’s involved. It doesn’t need to be enticing in the same way as a blurb – it just needs to explain the plot.
4. Avoid using publishing terms or trying to categorize your book too much. The publishing industry is full of strange terms that are mainly coined by the industry itself, e.g. ‘grip-lit’ ‘domestic noir’ ‘up-lit.’ Unless you’re very confident using the terms, I would avoid them in your synopsis as it’s easy to get them wrong. Of course you can use basic terms, e.g. ‘thriller’ ‘romantic comedy’ but I’d stick to the obvious, and let your would-be publisher decide what genre your book will fall into. It’s their job to know about the market, and they’re the ones who are best placed to make that decision, once they’ve read your synopsis and your first three chapters. Similarly, I’d suggest avoiding unnecessary sweeping terms such as ‘epic love story’ or ‘sweeping romance about secrets and death.’ Let the publisher decide whether it’s epic or not, and let your publisher pick up on the themes of the novel without you telling them – your job is just to tell them what it’s about! These terms don’t really add anything at this stage, and the agent is likely to start skimming over them to get to the main plot.
5. Use clear and relatively simple language. This isn’t the time to whip out the thesaurus and start trying to find alternative words for ‘leaves his wife.’ You don’t need to impress anyone with your wide-ranging lexicon; you just need to ensure they understand the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t give anyone extra work by making them decipher your synopsis!
6. Proofread it carefully! I’m not an agent and I can’t speak for everyone here but I personally would be put off by glaring errors in a synopsis. It suggests lack of care, and poor attention to detail – none of which bode well for the full manuscript. Of course, some people find spelling and grammar easier than others, which is totally fine, but if that is you, it’s worth getting a friend to check your synopsis through before you send it off. If you do get published, you will have editors who can help you with spelling and grammar to an extent, but why lessen your chances? Make the agent’s life as easy as possible by trying to get your synopsis in the best shape you possibly can.
7. Keep it short. As mentioned, agents and publishers have a lot of reading so try to keep your synopsis relatively short – I would suggest no more than a page or two if you can. Make sure you include the major plot points, but don’t bulk it out if you can avoid it.
8. No need to include minor characters. If your book contains a big cast of characters, focus on the main ones for the synopsis. Any character that plays a smaller part can come out in the manuscript – too many characters can feel very confusing in an initial synopsis. If the character plays a pivotal but small part, then do include them, but if they’re just a walk-on person that only serves to emphasise something in another major character, then leave them out for now.
So those are my main tips! Below, I’ve pasted my original synopsis for what became The Doll House – but bear in mind, I wrote this in 2014 before I was an editor, and it’s by no means perfect AT ALL! I’m only posting it for interest’s sake – it’s not what I’d send now so please don’t use it as a perfect example because it isn’t. Also, my story changed a lot between initial submission and publication, so the below is no longer wholly true to the published book. You can see that I make several of the mistakes outlined above – but hey, it’s all a learning curve. On the plus side, this synopsis is quite short, and it does tell the story as it was.
Synopsis of ‘The Architect’s Daughters’
When the wife of a famous architect tries to protect his reputation, she sets in motion a chain of consequences that have a devastating impact on the ones she loves. (I would now leave that line out!)
Thirteen years ago, Mathilde Hawes told her daughters that she had been unfaithful to their father Richard, a well-known London architect. Six weeks later, Richard died, with his daughters at his side. Ashley and Corinne Hawes have never forgiven their mother for what they believe she did.
Corinne, a gallery worker, now lives in a tiny London flat with her boyfriend Dominic, a newspaper features writer. The pair are struggling with IVF. Ashley and her husband James live in Edinburgh with their two children and are facing issues of redundancy, alcoholism and worries over their teenage girl Lucy.
Dominic is writing a feature on an old Georgian house. He meets the owner of the property, June de Bonnier, a wealthy yet very unstable woman. Dominic shows photos of the house to his new colleague Erin, who flees the office in distress when she sees them. The next day, she takes him for a drink to apologise and drunkenly tells him that June de Bonnier is her mother. June had an affair with Richard Hawes when he worked on the house years ago, making Erin the secret half sibling of Ashley and Corinne. Since then, June has had bouts of obsession with Richard’s family, in particular Corinne as his favourite daughter.
Dominic visits Mathilde to ask whether the story is true. Mathilde explains that Richard was already dying when she discovered the affair, and that he asked her to take the blame to protect his reputation as a loving father. She did so, mistakenly thinking that she was doing the right thing and that her daughters would forgive her.
In London, a newly pregnant Corinne is in her gallery when June de Bonnier enters and says she has something to tell her. Corinne is initially polite but becomes increasingly unnerved and asks her to leave. June waits for her outside and forcibly walks with Corinne to the underground station. She tells her everything in a fit of jealous rage; that Corinne has enjoyed a lifetime with her father while June and Erin were cast aside. She shows Corinne Richard’s old watch and more evidence of their affair. As Dominic drives home to try to reach Corinne, June becomes more and more erratic, following Corinne all the way to the platform, and at the last moment she pushes her underneath an underground train.
The story concludes by showing how the news is delivered to Corinne’s family. The underlying themes of this piece of fiction are honesty, sisterhood and the illusion of reputation. (I would now definitely leave this last line out – ugh, makes me cringe!)
I hope the above tips are useful to anyone struggling with a synopsis! Good luck and thank you for visiting my blog.