By Jean Henry Mead
Condensing the important aspects of a 100,000-word novel into a 10–page summary isn’t easy. In most cases, it’s harder than writing the book. The reason you need to write the darn thing is to prove that your story is logical, realistic and well organized. Are your characters acting and interacting with others in a reasonable manner?
Editors and agents have different views on how characters should react. I once had a manuscript rejected because my protagonist was too reckless. The next editor, who accepted the story for publication, thought the main character was a little too hesitant to act and requested a small rewrite. So luck is always an ingredient in the submission process.
A synopsis should be formatted like a manuscript, usually 5-10 pages, the shorter the better if you can include the essentials in fewer words. Always write in present tense, such as “Tom finds his best friend murdered and decides on revenge.” Characters' names should be typed in bold or capital letters the first time you mention them.
Editors are busy people so make reading easier by keeping your paragraphs short. There’s no need to include secondary characters’ names, colors, descriptions, etc. if they add nothing to the story. In other words, tell the story in the fewest words possible and leave out unnecessary details.
What then should you cover in a synopsis? In order to hook the editor, you need to present your story as concisely as possible with the plot problem, location, main characters’ backgrounds and the time frame or era. Answer every question you ask. Don’t leave the editor hanging.
Your main characters' bios should be brief, such as “John's a stubborn country lawyer, lanky with a mop of red curly hair.” Strive to make the editor feel a connection with your protagonist.
Conflict is essential, either internal or from outside the character, which is where your antagonist comes in. State upfront what the conflict is and don’t forget to resolve it before the end of your synopsis. Also, don’t forget to include major plot deviations whenever something unusual happens. That, however, doesn’t include subplots.
Emotion and action are important plot points that need to be included. Action drives the plot but only include actions that result in consequences. And how does the protagonist react when something jars her world? A sprinkling of dialogue can be included if it helps to describe something better than narrative, but keep it to a minimum.
Novelist Rebecca Vinyard says that a black moment should be briefly described when the characters realize that all is lost and they won’t be able to accomplish their goals. Then, when your story comes to its conclusion, insure that its done satisfactorily. Don’t leave your editor or agent in the dark. They need to know whether you’ve successfully resolved your character’s problem(s).
Remember to avoid passive voice, leave out nonessential details, make your sentences flow, and write a concise and clearly stated synopsis. Most publishers prefer a double-spaced summary because it’s easier to read. Read that publisher’s guidelines and stick to them, include an SASE and your title, last name and page numbers in your headers.
And most important, make sure your synopsis is the best work you’re capable of producing. It’s the only chance you have to make a first impression.