Your synopsis is not the thing which will make or break your novel's future. It’s the voice, above all, and the characters and storytelling in the sample chapters, which will do that. A synopsis is for showing the big bones of your story: that the main characters' problem is urgent and compelling; that the stakes are raised steadily through the novel; that the engineering of cause-and-effect works; that the end is satisfying. In other word,: you're showing that the plot-route is a good one, but also conveying what will make the reader care about the story-journey. (For more on story vs. plot, click here.)
And that's where writing a synopsis can be salutary. Your novel may quiet and literary, or fitted to a known commercial genre, but it must still have its own, powerful narrative drive. If you can't make the synopsis show the big chain of cause and effect and what pit of disaster is yawning before the characters if they don't get what they need... then maybe those things aren't actually there. In other words, try not to resent the need to write a synopsis; instead, use the opportunity to think really hard about the big engineering of your novel.
But reducing your novel to a page is like catching a waterfall in a cup, so I'd suggest tackling it from the other end: main character, main problem. What do your main characters need or want - what's at stake for them - and what gets in the way? Your novel's "elevator pitch" or hook is that problem, expressed in a single sentence: "Elizabeth Bennet wants to marry for love, in a world where she must marry for economic survival"; "James Bond must stay alive, so he can save the world from being blown up". Work out that one sentence for your novel, and if you can think of a single word description too (as I was discussing here), then so much the better. Then flesh it out into a paragraph which summarises how they try to solve their problem, what gets in the way, what happens, and how in the end the main problem is resolved.
After that, a whole page will feel like luxury. Write from memory: you can't and you shouldn't try to get everything in, and your memory is a useful sieve. You can bring in the sub-plots and lesser characters where they interact with and illuminate the main plot; be prepared to be ruthless with them otherwise. Mention the main themes once (then trust the agent/editor to see how it applies to the detail of the story), and perhaps give a little flavour of the voice of the narrative. Beware of the common mistake, which is to spend far too long on the opening set-up and backstory. As with the novel itself, you may need to write your way in - to have scaffolding - but then you need to cut it away and spend that wordcount on the main body of the plot. And above all, think in terms of focus: don't be the Sunday-school teacher who must give every single child a line and a turn in the Nativity Play, be the top director who bows to no actor's ego in what she does to get the drama over to the audience.
So how do you actually write it? Agents and editors say conflicting things; aspiring writers agonise. Fortunately, any sensible recipe will do. This is mine, adapted from Harry Bingham's The WAAYB Guide to Getting Published.
- Don't let it be longer than a page (single spaced), unless it's very long book with a very complicated plot. Trust me, you can get it down to a page. Indented paragraphs means you don't need a line space between them, which helps.
- Take the story right to the end: this isn't a teasing blurb. But I would say (others would disagree) you needn't necessarily say whether they go off into the sunset together or apart: what's important is the way the bridge is built to reach that sunset moment.
- Write plainly and directly in third person and present tense ...
- ... but also try to convey the emotional drivers and structure of the story, not just the factual structure of the plot. How the characters are put through the emotional mill and how they change is vital, and needs all the vivid verbs you can manage. So ...
- ... "Show don't tell" applies: not, A romantic interlude takes place, but, She kisses him. Not Quickly, they hire a car to take them to the site of the contamination but, They race against time and their own terror to discover where the poison is coming from.
- Tell the story, don't talk about the book. Not, At this point, as the pace picks up, we are introduced to Simon, who is a.... but, Simon is a... Not The theme of deliverance is emphasised when Alice rescues John... but Alice digs John out of the landslide ...
- Tell the story in the order it happens in the book. Ignore any backstory which isn't essential to the main plot, and the same goes for subplots: only give what's crucial to the main arc of the main plot. If the novel is non-chronological use brief signposts such as, In 1976, Simon rides... or Meanwhile, in Borneo... to keep things clear. Better to be a bit plodding if you have to be, than confusing.
- If the voice of your novel is particularly important, give a flavour of it by integrating a line which also conveys an important piece of plot information. For example, this is from my synopsis for The Mathematics of Love: "He writes of his soldiering life, but, as he tells her, the images of the past that I carry with me are eaten away by the bitterness of that day on St Peter’s Field." This moment matters because it's that change in how he feels about his past which powers him as a character-in-action, and it also matters that it's her he tells about it; otherwise it wouldn't get mentioned.
And that's it. If you spend longer than a day or two at the most on it, you're stressing too much (and might you be stressing about this, or procrastinating about it, as a displacement activity for the stress that's really about fear of sending it out?) If it needs drastic cutting, do it in stages; each time you'll think you've cut it to the bone, but when you return to it the next day you'll see another few words you can winkle out. Leave it for a week, then go back and polish. And if you still feel defeated, try this excellent e-book, Write A Great Synopsis, by Nicola Morgan. And good luck!
A version of this post first appeared in Leaf Writer's Magazine.