Crafting a novel synopsis is a whole different skill than writing a book. After expending months or years of effort writing a 300+ page historical romance or thriller or soon-to-be Oprah Book Club selection, some writers slop through the query letter and synopsis, figuring the manuscript will speak for itself. Or, they apply the same techniques to writing the synopsis that they used in the novel. That doesn’t work. It’s like using novel-writing skills to write ad copy or a rap song—you need a new toolkit.

Tense and tone

  • Use present tense, no matter what tense you use in the book. It reads better that way, sounds more immediate.
  • Try to infuse the tone of the novel into the synopsis. If it’s a funny book, use humor. If it’s a tragedy, choose weightier language and dark images.
  • Incorporate the narrator’s voice into the novel synopsis so an agent or editor can get the feel of the book. For instance, in the synopsis for SWIFT JUSTICE, I start with: “When Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Swift . . . confronts an armed woman in her office first thing Monday morning, she knows the week is going to suck.” The last word gives the reader a hint into Charlie’s character. A very different character might think “. . . the week is going to be a trial.” Still another might go with “. . . a fucking awful week was in store.” Voice is key.

What’s your novel about?

Plot is equally important. An agent reads a synopsis wanting to know if the aspiring writer has put together a compelling plot, one that will sweep a reader along with the protagonist for hundreds of pages and come to a satisfying conclusion. A novel synopsis, whether it’s one page or twelve, should convince the agent you can deliver. For mysteries, include as many plot points as necessary to show the inciting incident, the suspects and red herrings, how the protagonist follows the clues to the killer and the conclusion. For sci-fi or fantasy, you need to show the agent you can create a world.

Isolate what’s unique about your genre and demonstrate that you’ve got a handle on it in your synopsis.

Additionally, don’t get so bogged down in plot details that you forget to show how your protagonist changes from the start of the book until the end. Sketch in the main relationships and character traits that make your protagonist human.

How long is long enough?

When I’ve completed a manuscript, I draft a long synopsis—10 pages, say—and winnow it down until I have a 5-page version, a 2-page and a 1-page. For the shorter versions, I drop lots of details, don’t mention sub-plots, and summarize a lot. Why have several synopses? Different agents and editors prefer synopses of different lengths and it’s easier to have them all on hand than to scramble to produce a new one when an agent requests one. Always send an agent or editor exactly what they ask for.