Most agents will ask you to send them a submission pack containing three items:
- A covering letter (see advice here and sample here)
- A synopsis
- The first three chapters / 10,000 words of your novel
Most agents will look at the covering letter first, then turn to the manuscript. If they like the first three chapters, they’ll be thinking, “This book looks really interesting. I’m definitely tempted . . . but is the author going to hold my interest over the full 300 / 400 pages? Is it worth me making that investment of time to read the whole thing?”
That’s where the synopsis comes in. The synopsis is there to answer the question, “What is the story of this book? Is there a clear story arc and will there be a satisfying ending?”
Obviously the actual experience of reading a synopsis is quite underwhelming. Synopses are boring, technical documents which (we hope) would not be true of your novel. But that doesn’t matter. Agents know synopses are dull, so all your synopsis really has to do is:
- tell the agent in very clear terms what your story is
- make it clear what your hook / premise / elevator pitch is (more info here)
- give some kind of feeling for why the story matters & how the jeopardy increases
- sketch out an ending that feels satisfying
But – and this should be reassuring – agents do know that synopses are hard to write and they care less about the synopsis than any other part of your submission package.That means you probably don’t need to worry excessively about your synopsis – just follow the guidelines below and you’ll do just fine.
How to write a perfect synopsis
A perfect synopsis has the following ingredients:
- Length: 500-800 words
- Main purpose: Summarise your plot
- Secondary purpose: Make it clear what Unique Selling Point your book has
- Language: Be businesslike: clear, to the point, neutral.
- Presentation: Be well-presented: no typos or spelling mistakes. Normal font size, normal margins. Line spacing no narrower than 1.5
- Character names. It helps if you put the names of main characters in bold or CAPS when you first introduce them. That way, if an agent has forgotten who Carlotta is, it’s easy for them to skim back and jog their memory. (Remember that agents are reading a lot of these things, so they have about a million character names in their heads at any one time.)
- Extra points. It’s certainly not essential, but if you have a really compelling way to ‘sell’ your story in 2-3 lines maximum, then you could insert that little snippet up at the top of your synopsis as a way of reminding agents why they’re interested in this MS in the first place. For example, a certain Ms Rowling might have opened her synopsis with, “Harry Potter, an orphan, thinks he is an ordinary boy when an owl brings him a letter inviting him to attend wizard school.” That’s not strictly speaking synopsis material, but it does instantly emphasise the book’s appeal.
- And remember: Tell the story: your job is not to sell the book, write dust jacket blurb, or anything else. Just say what happens in the story. That’s all you need to do.
And luckily there are things you don’t need to do:
- Go into great detail about setting. If you were writing a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel for example, you might simply say “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”
- Go into vast detail about character – a few quick strokes are all that you need. For example you might say: “Bridget Jones – a ditzy, mildly boozy twenty-something – …”
- Be scrupulous about plot detail. It’s fine to skip over subplots or ignore some of the finer detail of how X accomplishes Y. The truth is, you won’t have time to include those things in a 700 word summary anyway. Agents know that the synopsis is at best an approximation of the story so you don’t need to have a troubled consicence.
- You also don’t have to give away your very final plot twist – though you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance – and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, and your job is just to spill the beans whether you like it or not.