(this is mainly to cheer on the lovely Tallulah Habib, who is stuck in Synopsis Hell)
No one in the whole of publishing likes a synopsis. NO ONE.
Not the writers, not the agents who request them, not the editors who must force themselves to read them to see if you have a basic grasp of plot. They are awful, terrible things, and the first of you to raise your hand and say, “But Cat, I love-” is gonna get stomped so hard with a Stompy Boot of Doom you won’t be able to write another synopsis ever.
Sadly, synopses are as necessary as they are loathsome. Editors and agents want them because while your sample pages/chapters will let them know if you can string words together and make them sound good, a synopsis lets them know if you can string related actions together and make them sound like a story.
A synopsis doesn’t and shouldn’t read like a novel, or dwell excessively on subplots and subtleties – it is the high points, the beats of your story. It’s the way you would outline the plot of that film you just watched to the poor guy at the bar who can’t escape you. It gives an overview of characters (who the reader is meant to give a shit about) and plot (what the reader is meant to give a shit about.) It is not where you show off your lyrical prose and startling use of hyperlinks. It MUST give the ending/resolution of the story. This is not a query where you are trying to pique the reader’s interest, but a complete view of the novel in brief.
So as much as you hate them, you’ll probably need one. (Some agents and editors don’t ask to see them, quite a few do, it’s best to have one ready to go.) Everyone asks for different things, so always check exactly what that particular agent or editor wants, but in general this is how I do it.
First thing is I would write a one or two sentence overview, something like, “Jim Bob the raccoon has always felt that he was born into the wrong family, but when his raccoon tribe is killed and he is rescued by a haughty Siamese, he is shocked to discover that he is actually Mercutio, the missing heir to the cat throne, and it is up to him to lead the Cat Army against a pack of rabid pup-, sorry, weasels.”
I then scribble down a very rough line by line of what happens in each chapter.
Chapter 1 – we meet Jim Bob at his drudge job, raiding bins with his half-brother Jeb, it becomes clear that Jim-Bob is a loser, and is mocked by the other raccoons for being so odd-looking and having stupid hands that don’t work properly.
Chapter 2 – All of Jim-Bob’s family is killed when a they hide from him in an old refrigerator, knowing he can’t open the door with his useless hands.
Once I have that kind of overview, I have a better idea of what the story looks like as a whole (useful…) and I can write out a 2-5 page single spaced synopsis. I write them in direct plain sentences, in third-person present: “Once he arrives in London, Dick is upset to discover that the streets are not paved with gold.”
I usually get a writer friend to look over it and tell me what’s not working. With that roughed out, I can look at the general requirements, and edit it down or up accordingly.
While it’s not the greatest example, since I wrote it in ten minutes for my agent after she needed a short synop, it’s the only example I can really share. This is for Beastkeeper, just to give you an idea of a very rough one page synopsis. As you can see it gives only the biggest plot points. A longer synopsis would have more plot details. I should also have bolded and included the names of all the major characters. Some synopses I’ve seen give a brief character sheet in the beginning (just the main characters, frex : SARAH – a lonely young girl, about to turn thirteen; ALAN – an ageless boy/man from a magical forest who could be either a beast or a beastkeeper, etc etc.)
We all know the story about the vain prince who was cursed to be a beast until someone fell in love with him. We all know that someone did, and that she was beautiful. We all know they lived happily ever after.
The thing with curses is that they’re never that simple, and the thing with people…well, they’re never that simple either. Especially families, who bring with them the most twisted of all curses – love and jealousy.
SARAH has always been on the move. Her mother hates the cold and every few months her father and mother pack their bags and drag her off after the sun. Now, as her class-mates are starting to talk boys, and make those first steps into the world of teenagers, Sarah is still clinging to childhood. She’s grown up lonely and longing for magic. She doesn’t know that it’s magic her parents are running from.
Because the truth is the fairy story never ends just because someone says so. People fall out of love and new curses are laid over the old, and when Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to her grandparents – people she has never met, didn’t even know were still alive.
Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah discovers that her paternal grandmother and grandfather are the original Beauty and the Beast, and that her grandmother has long ago fallen out of love with the vain prince of her youth. Now he is nothing more than a beast kept in a cage and she his sour, resentful beastkeeper. Guided by a magic white raven and a boy from the woods, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family bloodlines, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah begins her transformation into a beast. Believing that if she can somehow make her mother come back to her father, he will at least be saved from his own curse, she helps Alan, a boy who was once the beastkeeper of a powerful witch, to track down her mother.
Her mother has been transformed by the terms of her own curse and is now a wren, just as Sarah’s father is a beast. The cruelty of the curse states that the two can never be together again, for the beast while drawn to the bird, will always want to kill it. Alan has his own reasons for wanting to track the wren down. He wants to break another curse – the one set on the white raven of the castle, who is trapped in that form as along as her daughter lives. The white raven is the witch who first cursed the vain prince, and who was finally cursed in turn, after her own daughter fell in love with the prince’s son.
Sarah’s maternal grandmother is freed at the cost of the wren’s life, and Sarah realises that she will be trapped as a beast forever. She refuses to give in to her animal-nature, and her final act is to take her mother’s corpse to the witch’s glade where was born, and lay the corpse at her grandmother’s feet.
She understands now that the curses were driven by human jealousy and pettiness, and there is no way now to escape their web. Sarah tells her grandmother that she knows that only one sacrifice can end all the curses, and that she understands that her grandmother is not yet ready to do what needs to be done. She returns to the forest with Alan – blinded by the witch for his part in her freedom – to live out the last of her days as a beast.
The story ends (here) when her grandmother finally acknowledges that the only way for all the layers of curses to be erased, is to give up her witch-power and die. She does this, and Sarah is finally freed from her animal form.
You’ll notice I left out any subplots, any extra named characters. If I didn’t need to name someone, I didn’t – too many names in a synopsis is just confusing.
I gave a basic outline of events, highlighting ONLY the main ones. It helps to show what the character is going to lose if they don’t come right, what they’re fighting for. This is, after all, the heart of your story.
I gave how the story starts, what the big personal changes are for the main character, and how the story is resolved. There is a tendency to want to cram in all the cool things from your novel, and you have to resist. A 5 page synopsis is never going to have the space to show off all the complexity of a 120k novel. You have to learn to leave stuff out, to streamline. Don’t look at it as condensing your novel, because you’ll only end up feeling frustrated.
So, grit teeth and grrrrr. You can do it. I promise. And you can have the wine when it’s done and not before.