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Friday, 3 October 2014

Write The Perfect Synopsis...

By Antonio Litterio
The perfect synopsis is a single page of description to tempt an editor to read the sample of work you've sent with it. Publishers are so busy, unless your synopsis grabs their attention straight away and won't let go, they won't bother looking any further. They don't have time. Your manuscript's file will be deleted without being opened if it was sent by email, or shredded if you sent a physical copy but didn't include return postage. To give yourself the best chance of getting readers to see Chapter One, read on to find out what to include in a perfect synopsis–and what to leave out.

Use a standard font, in a size that makes it easy to read. Times New Roman, 12-point is ideal. DON'T reduce the font size any more than that. If it's difficult to read, your editor won't bother. Include your email address and the word "SYNOPSIS" to the header or footer, so your work can be easily identified.

Single-spacing (rather than the double-spacing used for your manuscript) means even a complicated synopsis can be squeezed into a couple of pages. That's the absolute maximum these days. If a story can't be explained in under two sides of A4, you've got problems. There's no hope of your editor reading further, or looking at your full manuscript. Wikipedia has nailed the entire plot and character developments of J R R Tolkien's enormous Lord of The Rings saga in 1,600 words. On my WP package, that's two A4 pages plus a few lines. Chances are you'll be able to make the synopsis of your own work a lot shorter than that.


A synopsis must sell your work and your writing style. It has to encourage agents and publishers to pick up your complete manuscript and read it. That’s something they won’t bother to do unless you convince them–fast–it’s worth their while. 

In the first line of your synopsis, give your contact details, the word count, and a reminder of the genre or line you're aiming for. Full details of your intended market should have been included in your covering letter, but you still need to make sure the right person's reading your work.

Concentrate on selling your story, major characters and themes while giving a flavour of your writing skill. Take a lot of time and effort to distil your work down into its most interesting and vital points. Remember, great thinkers such as Blaise Pascal and George Bernard Shaw have all apologised for writing long letters by saying they "didn’t have time to write a short one". 

Write in the present tense. Outline the most important plot points in the order they happen, and why. Include details of your characters’ development as it happens through your book, and the reasons for their inner and external conflicts. A synopsis isn't the place for riddles, cliffhangers, or hooks. Your potential editor can't afford to wonder what happens next. They must know.

Study the cover text and reviews of recently-published books in your genre. When something entices you to read the rest of the book, that’s exactly the type of writing which will make anyone reading your synopsis hungry for more. Never copy anybody else's work, but follow their example to produce a tempting result.

Don’t bother including details that don’t influence the plot. You may have spent hours deciding whether to give your heroine blue eyes or brown, or whether your hero likes cats. That's vital background detail when you’re building your story world, but an editor doesn’t need to know any of it. If your heroine must wear contacts to disguise her appearance, or an allergy to fur makes your hero sneeze when he's trying to hide from the villain, that's fine. Otherwise, leave it all out. 

If you’re submitting by mail, make sure you send everything in one envelope: return postage, your synopsis, cv and covering letter as well as your manuscript. Make sure it’s all cross-referenced, and includes your contact details. Busy publishing house won’t have time to marry up items that get posted separately, but they’ll be grateful for clear labelling on anything that’s accidentally separated in-house.

With all the components of your perfect synopsis in place, tighten up your prose as much as possible. Then go through your manuscript and make sure all the promise and talent you've shown in your synopsis is reflected in your text. Once it's perfect, it'll be time to target your submission. But that's another story...

For more hints and tips on writing (and cooking, beekeeping, gardening and eating cake...) sign up for my newsletter by mailing me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, replacing the (at) with @ and putting "newsletter" in the subject line. Subscribers get a free copy of my Tipsheet For The Career Writer.