How to Write A Short Synopsis of Your Manuscript

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If you’re only just now working on your novel or fiction project, you may not have heard about the ‘Elevator Pitch’ and the ‘short synopsis’. If you’ve tried your hand at querying agents and publishers, you’ve probably seen these phrases thrown around and thought, ‘What the heck are these?’ Well, I’m about to tell you.

A writer friend of mine received an email response from an agent she queried who wanted to read her full manuscript sent with a ‘detailed synopsis’, and in a wave of celebration I helped her form that synopsis so she could send it out promptly. This gave me the idea to write a bit about how to form your own synopsis, including the ‘Elevator Pitch’.

A detailed synopsis is essentially your novel stripped bare and stuffed into 1-3 pages. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? I can tell you right now that it isn’t much fun at all, but it is a completely necessary component to have when querying your novel, and even just for you to have the practice of knowing your own work inside and out (not that you don’t already). I myself have spent countless hours writing, reviewing, and revising short synopses, and I have multiple versions saved as 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, and even a 12-page (long) synopsis (both in single and double-spaced page lengths).

An agent or publisher may ask for a detailed synopsis of your work to go with your query letter, or they may ask for it when they also ask for the entire manuscript after your query caught their interest. The reason they ask for these is so they can read the short version of your book, to fit into their busy schedule, in order to decide whether or not they truly are interested in the entire manuscript. So even if you haven’t received a response back from your query, it’s important to have these ready and waiting, just in case. These are three major components to writing a detailed synopsis that will show any agent or publisher that you know what you’re doing.

1. Write the entire thing as one block of text. 

It may seem completely wrong to write something this way, as in our writing we are taught (and come to love) that using paragraphs are essential. But a query is different. There are no paragraphs to differentiate point of view or time jumps, no dialogue, and no chapter endings. The entire synopsis is one run-on paragraph (and this also helps you save space to meet the 1-3 page limit).

2. Every time a new character is introduced, their name must appear in ALL CAPS.

Again, this also seems silly, but it does have a purpose. This makes each character stand out on the page and allows whoever reads the synopsis to see just how many characters you have in your novel. They can see at a glance whether you have fifteen characters (which can be far too many, depending on the genre), or only two (which may be too few). In my own novel, I have a few short scenes that are in the point of view of a few random characters, just to build the image of my protagonist. These characters are not crucial to the novel, and so I did not introduce them in the synopsis. Make sure that the important characters make it, but I would recommend not including every single one of them if there tends to be a lot.

3. Include all plot twists, reveals, and especially the ending.

Your synopsis must include all these things, because anyone reading this synopsis will want to know exactly what happens in the book. This isn’t a query letter, and it isn’t a blurb. The synopsis is supposed to be more or less an outline of your novel, so make sure you don’t leave the ending in suspense, and that you explain all open plot lines so that they are resolved in the synopsis. Any agent or publisher will not want to be “left in suspense”, as they make their decisions on whether or not to represent you as an author based on how the conflict is resolved, what the characters discover, and how they grow as a result.

When I initially wrote my first detailed synopsis, I put an entire 109k-word novel into 10 pages…and even that was painful. I subsequently went through the thing time after time, cutting words, asking myself if this sentence was really essential to the story, and got it down to 5, then 3, then 2 or 1 pages. While you absolutely can write your original synopsis as 3 pages, or even 1, the first time around, I’d recommend just writing a summary first, seeing how many pages it is, and then paring it down from there. Sometimes it’s hard to get everything into 3 pages the first go around.

Even if you’re planning on self-publishing, writing a short synopsis will be incredibly helpful for you yourself. Though it’s time consuming (and feels like you’re butchering your novel in “short form”), it will give you an incredible perspective on what’s actually happening in the book. You may even find, as I did, that there are paragraphs, pages, whole chapters in your novel that are completely unnecessary. I cut 11k words from one of my novels after this realization, and can honestly say it did not hurt the manuscript one bit.

If you’re really looking for a great challenge, try your hand at the ‘Elevator Pitch’, or what I like to call ‘The One Sentence Synopsis’. Imagine: you run into a stranger in public, talk to them briefly and say you wrote a book, and they ask you what it’s about. What are you supposed to say? Having an ‘Elevator Pitch’ ready (as in you should be able to describe this book to a stranger before they get to their floor when you share an elevator) not only saves you valuable time in stumbling over how to explain your novel, but it also gives a succinct, summed-up overview. You sound like you know what you’re talking about, and you’re ready to “sell” both yourself and the book.

A good Elevator Pitch is ideally between 10 and 30 words. You definitely don’t want to form one sentence with tons of commas, multiple phrases, and semi-colons. That defeats the purpose. Pair your one-sentence synopsis down to under 30 words, and run it by some writer friends.

This can then also serve as the tagline for your novel when it’s ready to be published and/or go to print. It works to tell anyone what your book’s about without overwhelming them, and you can even highlight it on the back cover of your novel (for those who pick up books and never read the entire back blurb). This is the tagline / Elevator Pitch / One Sentence Synopsis for my upcoming novel, ‘Daughter of the Drackan’:

Born of humans but raised by beasts who despise the legacy of man, Keelin is the only one who can redeem, or destroy, the future of both races.

Yes, it may be a bit on the long side (28 words), but I’ve found it says exactly what I want it to say. The first half shows that the main character Keelin is technically human, yet brought up by beasts (the drackans) who hate humans completely (showing her duality from the very beginning). The second half introduces Keelin, shows her importance in that she “is the only one” who can do what needs to be done for the two races that are still a part of her. A writing friend suggested “protect” instead of “redeem”, and I was able to explain why “redeem” was a better word (Keelin has to right the terrible wrongs of the humans and drackans, which affected both races equally). And the word “destroy” works precisely to say that Keelin also has the capacity to tear both humans and drackans apart, even when they hold the potential to destroy each other.

Write your Elevator Pitch, share it with writer friends (it helps to get feedback from both those who have already read your novel, and those you haven’t), and play around with it. It’s a lot like writing flash fiction, in that every single word counts, and you want to make sure you use the right ones.

I’d love to hear about your experiences writing short synopses and Elevator Pitches, or answer any questions you may have. If you have anything to add that I did not cover here, let me know! I’m always learning, too.

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