The synopsis is an important part of your book proposal. The first thing to understand is the difference between the query letter and the synopsis. The query or pitch letter gives just a teaser of the story. The setup, the primary conflict, and a little about yourself. It’s purpose is to entice the editor to ask for the proposal.
The synopsis is part of the proposal, and it details the whole storyline of the novel. A query letter should only be a few paragraphs. The synopsis can be up to a page. Some editors allow even longer.
The synopsis encapsulates the story as succinctly as possible, while informing the editor about the following elements:
- Theme: A line or two is enough.
- Setting: A little bit, just to ground the story. Ideally the setting and story will be interlinked so you reveal both simultaneously. For example, a synopsis of The Hobbit would have to mention Hobbiton and Middle Earth.
- Plot: Highlight the major turning points. Gloss over minor points and subplots to save space. If your book has a three- or five-act structure, use that as a framework for the synopsis.
- Protagonist(s) and Antagonist(s): Give names for the primary protagonists and antagonists, but for other characters it’s often simpler to just identify them by role, e.g., the doctor, the enemy soldier, and so on. Too many names in a synopsis invites confusion, and you need it to be clear.
The synopsis should reveal both the inner and outer journeys of the protagonist. For example, in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth must not only manage her sisters’ foibles but also learns to forgive Mr. Darcy.
You must reveal the end of the story in the synopsis. Unlike a cover blurb or query letter, the goal of the synopsis is not to pique interest, but to demonstrate that you have a complete story.
If the agent or editor you are submitting to has specific instructions on their website, follow those even if they contradict everything else here. Yes, that means you must customize your book proposal for each person you submit to.
Although manuscript pages are double-spaced, your proposal, including the synopsis, should be single-spaced. Set your margins to at least an inch all the way around. I find that 1-inch margins top and bottom and 1.25-inch margins at the sides are suitable for most purposes.
Regardless of how the manuscript is written, the synopsis is written in third person, present tense. For example, Raymond Chandler’s book The Long Goodbye is written this way:
The ﬁrst time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce.
But a synopsis of it would read this way:
Philip Marlowe finds Terry Lennox drunk in a Rolls-Royce.
The synopsis is written not from the character’s point of view, but from the author’s point of view. For once, you are telling—telling the story to the editor.
For Further Reading:
Covers not only synopses but also query letters, finding agents and editors to submit to, and contract negotiation.
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