If you spend time online reading tips on how to write a synopsis for a novel, you'll find masses of different and contradictory ideas - but I reckon I can safely assert one universal truth: Nobody – but nobody – finds them easy to write!
The synopsis is a short, lively overview of your novel. It sits alongside the opening of your novel and your agent pitch letter in your pitch package, and it lays out the complete narrative arc of your plot. It’s not the same thing as a ‘blurb’ (which is the short teaser paragraph that you find on the back of published books).
Some agents will read the synopsis all through before even looking at the writing sample. Others will read all of the material you've sent and then look at the synopsis to see where it's headed. And there are agents who don't give it so much as a cursory glance. Nevertheless you should write one, when you're ready to send your novel out - and you should make it as good as you can.
When applying to one of Curtis Brown Creative's selective novel-writing courses or submitting to the agents at Curtis Brown and C&W, we like to see a good one-page synopsis of your novel as part of your pitch package. One page should be enough for you to cover all the information that’s needed, and it makes the synopsis easily readable and digestible. No literary agent worth their salt is going to object to a really good one-pager. And even aside from the fact that agents expect to see a synopsis, it's actually a great way to see if your plot is working properly. If you can't summarise your story in a page, then there's quite probably something wrong with it ...
Here are my tips on how to write a really good one-page synopsis of your novel:
1. Put your title at the top
Even if it’s still just a working title.
2. State what genre you’re writing in
If you're writing genre fiction, eg romance, science fiction, fantasy, crime thriller, psychological suspense … If you’re not writing in a clear genre or you’re not sure what your genre is, just skip this. If you’re writing for children, you should indicate the age group you’re writing for. (You can find a lot more information about age groups in children's fiction in this blog post).
3. Perfect your pitch line
What you definitely need at or near the top of the synopsis is your pitch line. This is usually the key question, dilemma or driving force of the novel – or the heart of the novel, to put it another way. And if you know you have a great hook or a high concept, that should be your pitch line. Writers understandably get very worked up trying to get their pitch lines right – but remember that you’re in any case going on to say more about your story all the way down the page - it’s not all about this one line.
4. To quote or not to quote
Some people like to include a quote from the novel. Quotes can offer a glimpse of the tone of your novel as well as teasing and enticing the reader. It can be a good way to go if you’re struggling to come up with a pitch line – but go one way or the other here – you don’t need both.
5. Keep it simple
The synopsis of your novel should then go on to cover your plot in its broad strokes: Set out your story in the simplest terms. Don’t try to include everything: we don’t need all of the intricate twists, turns and subplots – just the major plot points so an agent can see what your novel is and where its headed
6. The importance of character
Get your protagonist’s name in early on (if you have one clear protagonist) and the main character's motivations. It’s good to show whose story this is.
But don’t put in too many character names. We don’t need your full cast list – in fact we don’t need many names at all or your page will be cluttered with them. This can make your synopsis confusing and difficult to understand.
7. Set the scene
Give us the when and the where: we need to know the primary setting for the novel and the time period in which it takes place (particularly if it’s historical fiction. We tend to assume a default of ‘now’). Again, though, don’t include lots of place names and dates – keep it simple.
I’m often asked whether to include the ending of the novel in the synopsis. The honest (though annoying) answer is, it’s up to you. Some agents would say they need to see the ending because it’s such an important part of the story – they’re annoyed if it’s not there. But others say they don’t like any big twist in the tale to be given away because they still feel they like to approach the novel as a reader. You can’t rewrite your synopsis for each and every agent (that would be too much), so you’ll just have to decide what feels right for you and your novel.
The best synopses convey the tone of the novel as well as the plot. If you can find a way to bring the feel, atmosphere or voice of the novel into the synopsis, it will really bring it to life. It’s not essential and not worth fretting over if you can’t see a way to do it, but it just adds that little extra zing.
10. Don’t heap praise on your own novel
The synopsis is not the place to say you’re going to be a huge international bestseller, or even to comment that the novel is gripping or funny or moving, etc. Leave it to others to make judgments about its top-ten-bestselling or award-winning potential.
11. Be succinct
Don’t cram as much as possible on to the page. One page is a good, readable, concise length (approx. 500 words). Aim to be succinct – and don’t attempt to wedge in more words than really fit onto a page by making your font, spacing or margins tiny. That just makes the synopsis difficult-to-read, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.
12. Don't share your full plan
Don’t include chapter breakdowns or mini-summaries of the content of individual bits of your book. This isn’t your working plan – the agent or publisher doesn’t need to see all that stuff.
13. Story above all else
Go for story rather than ‘themes’. Tell us what drives your novel but don’t give a list of themes or imagery with the idea that this will make it seem more deep and meaningful. It’s only worth mentioning themes if your book explores a big issue or if it’s majorly concerned with – for instance – grief, as the driving force of the story.
14. Don’t talk about unreliable narrators
People often make an issue of their first-person narrators being unreliable. I think this is a hangover from university English degrees. Essentially any and every first-person narrator is unreliable, so it’s not worth highlighting.
15. Unusual narrative structures
It’s possible that your novel really is impossible to summarise in the way I’m advising here – because it’s so experimental, its cast of characters is enormous and without any sort of centrality; its plot is so unconventional as barely to exist. If your novel is really so extraordinary and unconventional, then you actually won’t be able to produce a ‘normal’ synopsis for it. If that’s the case, see if you can write a page that gives an idea of what you’re trying to do in the novel, and which talks passionately about your novelistic endeavour.
Or perhaps try a page from the perspective of a specific character to entice the agent and draw them in – even if it's not actually an overview of the story in a conventional sense. However, if you read back over it and discover it sounds like an academic exercise or just very pretentious and unreadable, don’t send it out with your work – just send your pitch letter and the opening of the novel itself. I should say though – most novels can be synopsised, so don't leap on this final point!
Good luck with taming the tricky beast that is the synopsis!
Courses to help you pitch with confidence
For more advice on mastering the difficult task of summarising your novel in a concise and engaging way, join our two-hour Zoom Writing Your Synopsis – Masterclass.
Check out our one-day Pitching Your Novel course. Expert CBC editors, Jennifer Kerslake and Abby Parsons, will lead a group of 16 students through the dos and don’ts of writing your pitch and query letter to literary agents during a full day of Zoom teaching.
If you're looking for a flexible online course, join our bestselling six-week Edit & Pitch Your Novel course.
Get the inside perspective from Jonny Geller – leading literary agent and CEO of the Curtis Brown group. Join our new four-week online course The Literary Agent – with Jonny Geller.