How to Create a Great Synopsis that will Sell Your Novel

A. Role of the Synopsis

In order to have a working place from which to begin your writing, you will need to come up with a succinct paragraph expressing the central points of your novel.

This abbreviated passage, also known as a synopsis, is used to provide a narrative summary of your novel from which potential publishers, as well as future readers, can gain a quick overview of the central components, and the manner in which you choose to approach the writing of the story.

And, as is true with most aspects of the creative writing process, the writing of your synopsis can take one of many forms, depending upon such factors as: novel genre, tone of the overall story, length of the work, element on which story is focused (characters, setting, plot, etc.), and resolution component (spiritually uplifting, factual overview, closure/ no closure, etc.)

B. When to Write a Synopsis

Before we launch into the specific elements to include, it may be helpful to consider the ideal time to write a synopsis. Thus, the burning question is: Should you write your synopsis before, or after, you finish the novel?

While there is no one right answer, the benefits of writing the synopsis before you write 'the end,' is that you have a clearer vision of your story, for it remains an idea free of all the descriptive elements and stylistic mannerisms.

Yet, even though the initial synopsis often only ends up being used as a blueprint for your writing, it still provides some good general direction, as well as a measuring stick for how, once the manuscript is complete, you ended up deviating from the original course.

Thus, as it is likely that you will alter the storyline, add/delete key scenes, and reconfigure pivotal characters, you will need to redraft the synopsis to match your revisions. So even if you end up overhauling the entire story, the original synopsis will serve the purpose of setting you on the path toward completion -- although it may be one that differs dramatically from the final product.

Note: A pre-manuscript synopsis can also be a powerful tool to use when shopping for potential publishers. This allows publishers to gain insight into your forthcoming work and, ideally, sign on as interested parties in viewing the completed work.

C. Synopsis: Style Pointers

Generally speaking, it is advised that you adhere to the following rules when writing your synopsis:

  • Keep it in the present tense.
  • Write it in the third person.
  • Write it in the same "voice" as you will your entire novel, e.g., chatty, somber, intellectual, breezy, etc.
  • Intertwine your central characters, along with their main conflicts, into one abridged narrative. Note: There is no reason to list every single character, or every plot point; rather, it is best to meld them all into your synopsis in an organized fashion. While providing the flavor, theme, core conflict, and resolution, you only need to touch upon these elements, as opposed to going into extreme depth.
  • And finally, you will need to include an overview of your conclusion, for this allows publishers to see your ability to satisfactorily wrap up the story.

D. Synopsis: Format

  • In the upper left corner of your synopsis page, include the following pieces of information: Synopsis of working title, genre, word count, by (your name).
  • If kept to one page (recommended), your synopsis should be single-spaced. If the synopsis extends to two pages, it should be double-spaced. Paragraphs should be indented. There should be no spaces between paragraphs. You need not use a cover page.

    E. Synopsis: Checklist

    After composing your synopsis, you will want to ensure it addresses the following tenets:

    • Does the lead-in paragraph cause the reader to want to read more?
    • Are the central characters, and their conflicts, clearly identified?
    • Are your characters likeable? In order for the reader to have a vested interest in the story, he/she needs a reason to care about the characters (at minimum the central character-protagonist).
    • Have you carefully proofread, spell-checked, and verified all of your content? If yes, have you carefully proofread, spell-checked and verified all your content a second time?
    • Were you able to resolve all the major conflicts contained within your manuscript?

    F. Synopsis: Considerations

    Targeted Demographics

    When setting out to write your synopsis, you will want to take a moment to think about your intended audience. For instance, if you plan to write a story about two recent college graduates who decide to be roommates in Manhattan, then your market is likely composed of people in their late teens, 20s, and early 30s. If the two post-graduates are both female then, perhaps, your novel will hold greater appeal to women than men.

    G. Stay Focused

    When writing your synopsis, make a point of sticking to the main points and major, identifiable attributes of your principal characters. As the purpose of the synopsis is merely to provide an overview of the novel's central elements, characters, conflicts, and resolution, you need not expose all of the secrets, plot lines, and realizations that will come out in your story.

    H. Synopsis: Sample

    Take bestselling, legal crime writer John Grisham's latest work, Playing for Pizza. Because it is a departure from his previous works, Grisham's publishers felt it was important to create a slightly different aura around this book, by playing up its cultural escapades, and more whimsical nature.

    Yet, the challenge in producing a synopsis, was that Grisham's publishers, perhaps, did not want the description of his new book to stray too far from his established roots. Hence, in the following synopsis, publishers elected to stick to the literary qualities for which Grisham is so well known: extensive character profiles and intricate plot lines. And while the synopsis is quite brief, the publishers made a point to include an explanation as to how Grisham came up with the story line for his new work, by mentioning it in conjunction with his more recognizable works.

    Five Elements Involved in Fiction Writing
    As a writer, your palette consists of the following five tools: character development, plot, setting, theme, and style. Conforming to journalism's structural formation of the four Ws and one H: character becomes -- who; plot -- what; setting -- where and when; and style -- the how of the story.

    A. Definition of Elemental Literary Terms:

    • Character -- encapsulates all persons whose identity originates from a fictional piece of work (or performance); Characters may be of several types:
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    • Point-of-view character -- the character from whom the story is viewed;The point-of-view character may, or may not, also be the main character in the story.
    • Protagonist -- the main character of a story
    • Antagonist -- the character or thing (environment, life lesson, inner fear) that stands oppositional to the protagonist
    • Minor character -- a character in a supporting role
    • Side-kick/ best friend -- the character who supports the protagonist's efforts to overcome fear(s), to head out on a journey, to achieve a goal, etc.
    • Sage person -- the individual in the story who possesses omnipotent powers to see and know all

    B. Characterization

    Characterization -- The term refers to the methods used by the author to create, or reveal, the characters in a story. The most common methods of revealing the characters are by:
    1. What the character says audibly, or internally
    2. The character's actions
    3. Third-party commentary, e.g., what other characters say about the character

    Character forms -- The characters in a novel can take the form of: humans, animals, or fantasized beings -- depending on their abilities to think and communicate, and make rational decisions.

    Character intent -- For the most part, characters are created by the author to act within a story for the author's purposes. In some instances, such as in historical fiction, there may be real human beings who lived during the time period of the story. A good writer creates characters that the reader cares about. The reader may love them or hate them, respect them, or hold contempt for them, but the writer has created and evoked those emotions by the selection of details provided about the characters.

    C. Plot (story line) -- the evolution of events and actions contained within a particular story; Plots (story lines) frequently emerge as characters edge closer to some type of achievement or emotional plateau.

    The following is the typical format writers employ when structuring their novels:

    • inciting incident
    • plot point one (twist in a new direction)
    • obstacles
    • mid-point (twist in a new direction)
    • bigger obstacles
    • plot point two (twists in a new direction)
    • resolution

    On a micro-cosmic level, plot consists of action and reaction, also referred to as stimulus and response. On a macro level, plot has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Plot is often depicted as an arc (depicted by a zigzag line) to represent the rise and fall of action.

    Plot also has a mid-level structure composed of such elements as scene and sequel. A scene is a unit of drama where the action occurs. Following some sort of transition, the sequel -- consisting of an emotional reaction, regrouping, and then an overview of the resulting impact -- emerges.

    Plot is the writer's plan for what happens, when, and to whom. It centers on an internal or external conflict. In a carefully constructed plot, details and events are selected and arranged in a cause-effect relationship, so that each is a necessary link leading to the outcome of the story.
    The events usually follow a pattern: A situation is established; a conflict or problem arises; certain events bring about a climax, or a character takes a decisive action; and the conflict is resolved (resolution).
    Plot: Types
    Plot lines are the elements that move a story from "point A to point Z". Some commonly used plot patterns that progress stories include:
    • from problem to solution
    • from mystery to solution
    • from conflict to peace
    • from danger to safety
    • from confusion to order
    • from dilemma to decision
    • from ignorance to knowledge
    • from questions to answers

    Rising action, climax, and falling action

    The term "rising action" refers to the events before a climax, while the term "falling action," refers to the events that occur after the climax. The climax, often defined as the highest point of interest in a story, marks the apex at which one (or more) of the conflicts begins edging its way toward resolution. Should a story contain multiple conflicts, there is likely to be more than one climax.

    D. Setting -- Reflection of the time period and geographical location in which the story is set, and the action occurs. Sometimes setting is referred to as milieu, to include a context (such as society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story.

    Setting: Setting consists of the times and places in which the events of the story occur. Most stories have multiple settings, which have been created by the author to tell the story.

    After identifying the setting by naming the town and year in which the story takes place (if these are identified by the author), the author may then begin identifying some of the more specific locations of the story where the action takes place, e.g., specific rooms in a central character's home, a school classroom, a local store, a barn, a woods, a city street, or an imaginary planet.

    When thinking about setting, it is also useful to consider the nature of the events in the story, and how they change, based upon the different settings. The kinds of events that take place in a private setting, e.g., bedroom or veranda, are usually much different than the events that take place in a public environment, e.g., park or courtroom.

    E. Theme -- Representing the broad-based message, or moral, of the story, the theme reflects the story's core idea. The theme is the writer's way of unifying all of the key elements within a story. It encapsulates the principal ideas over which the author is writing. Thus, in order to identify a work's running theme, the writer must first either write or, at minimum, plan out the entire story.

    F. Style -- As a general category, style captures the endless realm of elemental choices novelists have to make including: point of view (POV), voice (active or passive), tone (informal versus formal), and language selections (sophisticated or simple).

    All in all, it is the wide range of style elements available to writers that allows them to craft their technique in their own highly unique way.

    Not only does "style" reflect the big-picture, strategic choices that need to be made, e.g., point of view and narration, but it also includes such tactical options as: grammar, punctuation, word selection, sentence length, paragraph structure, tone, imagery, chapter selection, titles, and on and on. In the process of creating a story, the writer's individual choices meld together to ultimately stand alone as the writer's voice.