How To Write A Synopsis

by Irene Vartanoff

Any romance writer who hopes to sell a story needs to know how to write a synopsis. A synopsis is a critical tool that editors use to decide to buy a novel and even to decide whether to bother looking at a complete manuscript. Most authors do not get the opportunity to submit a full manuscript initially, so a detailed synopsis stands in. Some writers feel that if their story can be told in a few hundred words, there’s no point in writing it in many thousands of words. But including a synopsis with a query letter or with a partial manuscript submission is expected professional behavior.

Put simply, the synopsis is a summary of the whole story. The synopsis explains the characters and plot clearly. It should be several pages long and describe the story from beginning to end, even if it accompanies a partial manuscript submission. Depending on the publisher’s requirements, it can be single or double spaced.

The purpose of the synopsis seems clear enough, but writers often are confused about how to write one that is effective. This is because it has to be a selling tool, especially when it accompanies a query or partial manuscript submission. The synopsis is meant to lure the editor into reading the full manuscript.

Here are some simple rules that should help:

Describe the story as it occurs. The opening sentence of the synopsis should introduce the opening scene of the story, and so on. Describe the major actions of the story in the order in which they take place as a reader reads it. As each scene happens, only include plot details that the reader learns in it. If the reader learns something later, save it for later in the synopsis. A synopsis should tell the plot in a linear fashion, even if the plot itself is not linear. Don’t leap ahead in the continuity. Editors want to see how the story develops, so give them what they want.

Describe the main characters efficiently. Resist the temptation to explain too much about each character in the synopsis. You can always include a separate page with character descriptions. In the synopsis, each main character should be described briefly in passing as the action is described. Details like eye or hair color and height are not necessary unless they are significant to the plot. Showing who the characters are through their actions and reactions is more important. A main character can be placed in a few words: Name, age, occupation, and reason to be where she or he is as the story opens.

Use emotionally descriptive words from your manuscript. If your manuscript says your heroine feels “mortified” during a confrontation with the hero, use that very word in the synopsis. In this manner, you will show the dramatic and emotional impact of the action in your story. This is a key element that is often overlooked in a synopsis. Always include the characters’ intentions and reactions regarding lovemaking.

  • Use descriptive adjectives from your manuscript. If you describe the heroine as “perky” or “feisty” or the hero as “cocky” or “masterful” in the manuscript, use the same words in your synopsis. This will convey their appeal, something that writers often lose in the synopsis-writing process. Even though you are being spare with your words, a few key adjectives will serve to remind the editor that you have written about attractive, interesting people. If you don’t happen to summarize a heroine or hero in so many words, then do summarize their personality types attractively in the synopsis descriptions.
  • Include every scene. In a detailed synopsis, don’t skip any scene. If it doesn’t feel important enough to be in the synopsis, maybe it shouldn’t be in the manuscript, either. (Obviously, many elements must be abbreviated or even skipped if you are asked to give a one-paragraph or one-page synopsis.)
  • Spell out the ending. Too many writers get coy in the synopsis about what happens at the story’s climax and immediately after. The editor wants to know exactly how it all goes down. Even if you have written an extremely complex scene, you can summarize the action clearly and show its emotional impact.

And that’s it. Writing a synopsis isn’t hard. Just remember to tell the facts, including descriptions of the characters and their emotions in each scene. If you hew to the rule of telling what happens as it happens, you’ll have a readable synopsis. Adding the emotionally descriptive key words and the descriptive adjectives will give your synopsis a strong chance of selling your story.

About Irene Vartanoff:
Irene Vartanoff is a longtime romance editor and writer who got her start in comic books. She is the author of several romance graphic romance novellas including Breaking All the Rules and The Egyptian’s Texas Spitfire. Under her comic book nom de plume, Poison Ivy, she contributes to the blog.