Synopsis – a brief summary or general survey of something.
Might seem like a simple thing. You wrote an entire book! Now all you have to do is write a summary of said book. Should be no problem, right?
Well, not exactly.
You see, the synopsis is more than just a general summary or description of the book. It’s also a pitch for the book. Be aware too, that in the world of traditional publishing, the synopsis is a bit different than for self-publishing. When you’re pushing your manuscript out to traditional publishers or agents, they will likely ask for a synopsis following a specific format, with a specific word count to summarize your book. In self-publishing, you’ll be using the synopsis in a different way; primarily as a guide for the description and back cover text, or as that text itself.
Think of your synopsis in the same way you think about your cover. It’s the first piece of text your potential reader is likely to read. This is (after looking over the cover) the hook that will make your potential reader either buy this book or keep browsing.
The element that is unchanged is the purpose: your synopsis is meant to sell your book.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a high-quality cover, and we’ll talk more about that in a future post (and we have talked about it in past posts as well). Today is just about the synopsis.
Accepting that the synopsis is a critical piece of marketing material for your book, how should you go about writing one that will hook readers, convey the message of your book, and only take up 400-500 words (about one printed page) of text?
Here’s a quick list to help you get the most out of your synopsis:
- Set up the premise, define the plot, and introduce your protagonist. This may not be as critical for a work of non-fiction, but for the fiction author, you’ll need to clearly define for your would-be reader the plot and the hero. Now, this does not mean telling us every precise detail about the story, nor does it mean painting an elaborate picture with words so we can visualize the main character. Brevity needs to be balanced with concision. Tell your reader enough to spark their interest, to make them curious enough to read more.
For non-fiction, this is most often expressed in terms of the premise. You may not have a character (though if you do, be sure to let your reader know about them), so you’ll focus instead on the purpose of the book. Is this a field guide to bird watching? Why is it more relevant or useful than other, similar works? Or what specific elements does it add that other books do not?
- Clear, concise language. It is critical that your synopsis be free of any spelling errors. A spelling error or grammar mistake in the body of the book can be accepted. A reader expects a mistake here and there. But not in the synopsis. This piece of text is how your reader will decide to pay money for your book, so you need to put your absolute best foot forward. You want your reader to quickly see that your book is worth read, and to regard you as the professional you are.
- Keep it focused! Your synopsis is going to be short. When writing for an agent or publisher, you can get away with 800 words, possibly even more. But self-publishing is a fast-paced world, and you need to get the maximum impact with the minimum number of words. Hook your reader with the key elements of the plot, weave in introductions to your main characters, give us a hint or two about the conflicts, and do it all with a sense of urgency.
The same advice applies to non-fiction works. Outline the premise or argument you’ll be making, give us enough details to make the reader want to know more, and be absolutely sure you give us a good reason to read your book over another that may address the same concerns or issues.
- Perspective. The general consensus is that the synopsis should be written in an active voice. Use the present tense and third person point of view, even if the novel utilizes the first person. Remember that a synopsis is a tool for drawing in readers. While the story might hinge on the inner workings of your protagonist, the synopsis is a detached overview of sorts and will function most provocatively when the reader is at a remove.
Lastly, realize that there is no definitely correct formula for writing a synopsis (or anything for that matter!). The above points may help create a synopsis in line with the general market. Use this advice to help create a marketable blurb, to entice and excite your readers!
Paul is the Senior Copywriter at Lulu, writing weekly blog posts and helping guide content for the company’s marketing. When he’s not deeply entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person, but considers himself cat tolerant.