Tip of the Week: Read Synopses on Wikipedia
If you're looking for a literary agent, one of the things you'll need to submit to them is a synopsis of your book. This is something that can cause confusion: what exactly is it, what should you include, how long should it be - and where can you read some examples?
A synopsis gives a complete overview of your novel. Start with a one-sentence premise, then get more detailed. Write out everything that happens, in the order in which it happens, in the present tense. Keep it to no more than two pages. Brevity is key, so cut out any waffle, and anything we don't need to know.
But don’t hold anything back – let us know how your story ends! You might have intriguing twists, turns and reveals in your novel that you want to hold back from the reader – but don’t do this with your prospective agent or publisher. This is no time to be coy or worry about spoilers: they need to know everything that happens.
You can still build tension in the way you write your synopsis, and keep the reader intrigued. Do this by only revealing plot points at the correct time in your synopsis. So don’t say: ‘…and he later turns out to be the killer all along’ in your opening paragraph. Save that information until the part of the story when it is revealed to the reader. Then your synopsis can be as engaging and satisfying as the full book.
But where can you find examples? Book blurbs are no good. Yes, they're short summaries of books - but they're written in a different style for a different purpose. They're selling copy, and they certainly don't give everything away. The place I often turn to for good, succinct examples of synopses is Wikipedia.
Search for any of your favourite books, and you'll get a 'Plot Summary'. This is basically a synopsis, written in pretty much the correct style for submission to an agent. Only do this with books you've actually read, though (or that you don't mind seeing spoilers for) - because everything about the plot will be revealed! Look at literary classics, recent bestsellers, anything similar to what you're writing, plus a few favourites.
One of my favourite authors is Margaret Atwood, and I particularly like The Blind Assassin - I think because of its complex, fractured narrative structure and the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel thing. But even a novel as long and complicated as that (656 pages) can be summarised in three paragraphs.
It can also be useful to do this for films or Netflix series. Particularly if, like me, the synopses you most often write are for screenplay treatments. Again, make sure you've watched them first, unless you don't mind spoilers! I recently watched The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, for example (it really is as good as everyone says), and the Wikipedia entry offers a good example of how you can briefly and accurately summarise the overall premise, series and individual episodes. Look, too, at the Wikipedia entry for the book it's based on - which summarises the premise in one sentence and the plot in a further four.
Or try Breaking Bad - a huge series over five seasons and 62 episodes. Yet you can find a short, one-paragraph premise for the whole series, single paragraph summaries of each season, and a paragraph for each episode. There's no need to go over a page or two for your synopsis - you can fit it to any length, and it's a good writing exercise to do so.
Read a few plot summaries this week, and see if they inspire you to write a brief synopsis for your current work in progress - or even for something you plan to write in the future. It's a great way to keep you focused on the key elements.
More next week. Meanwhile, you can read more about the submissions process in my blog post How to get published - 6 steps to a traditional publishing deal.