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07 October 2020

14-step guide to writing a synopsis for the Discoveries Prize

Writing desk with papers and laptop
by Discoveries Discoveries, Writing Tips

The Discoveries Prize is now open for entries! We’re proud to be partnered with the Women’s Prize Trust, Curtis Brown and NatWest on this brand new opportunity for unpublished women writers. The prize also has a brilliant panel of judges which includes bestselling author and founder of the Women’s Prize Kate Mosse, founder and director of CBC Anna Davis, Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris, acclaimed author of The Girl with the Louding Voice Abi Daré and director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal.

The author of the winning novel will be offered representation by Curtis Brown plus a prize of £5,000, while the first runner-up will receive a place on a three-month novel-writing course at Curtis Brown Creative, and a mentoring session with one of the Curtis Brown literary agent team.

To enter, all you need to do is send us the opening (up to) 10,000 words of your novel (including any prologue) and a one-page synopsis of up to 1,000 words. Find out more about the prize and how to enter here.

Anna Davis previously shared some of her advice for preparing your application. Here she shares fourteen more tips specifically focused on writing a compelling synopsis…

The synopsis is a short, lively overview of your novel. For your application to the Discoveries Prize, it will sit alongside your opening 10,000 words and should lay out the complete narrative arc of your plot. One page should be enough for you to cover all the information that’s needed, and it makes the synopsis easily readable and digestible. And even aside from the fact that you need a synopsis to enter this prize and to submit to literary agents, 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

E.g. 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.

3. What you definitely need at/near the top 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. 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. 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 readers can see what your novel is and where its headed.

6. Get your protagonist’s name in early on

And express 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. 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.

8. Should I include the ending?

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. For the Discoveries Prize, readers and judges will only read your opening 10,000 words so I’d advise expressing the full arc of your story.

9. 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. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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. Most novels can be synopsised, so don’t leap on this final point!

Good luck with your Discoveries application and taming the tricky beast that is the synopsis!

Find out more about Discoveries and how to enter the prize.

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