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This FAQ (list of Frequently Asked Questions) was compiled by the members of the Del Rey Digital Writing Workshop's first synopsis focus group (August-September '01).

Q: What is a synopsis, anyway? What's it used for?
A: It is your selling tool. It's a summary that should tell the editor everything he/she needs to know about your novel or proposed novel. The synopsis gives the editor a quick way to see how the book will go without having to read the whole thing. It either convinces the editor to read the chapters, or serves to fill in the gaps for the editor who has already read the first chapters and is deciding whether to request the entire manuscript or read on. A synopsis should becomingly display the bare bones of the book to the editor. A synopsis is a standard piece of a complete or partial novel submission to an agent or editor.

Q: What is the difference between a novel outline and a synopsis?
A: An outline is a lot easier to write! :) An outline is a scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter description of the plot of a novel. A synopsis is a condensation: it covers the actions/developments/scenes that are important to the plot, illuminating setting, characterization, and theme, and leaving out almost all detail that doesn't serve this end.

Q: What if I have a novel outline now, but no synopsis?
A: Great--you're one step of the way to a good synopsis. Read through your novel outline, making notes of the main plot arc and the main characters' motivations, crises, and struggles. Then start cutting, or rewriting, to eliminate the unnecessary detail. Don't worry about cutting too much--you can always add things back in if the sense of the story is damaged by their omission. Make every sentence count, and don't worry about sub-plots that get lost.

Q: How long should the synopsis be?
A: As short as practicable while still telling the whole story. 2-7 pp. is recommended; most books should be synopsized in 4 pages or less. As a rough guide, 1 double-spaced page per 50,000 novel words. Some editors have specific length requirements; follow them. And be prepared for several synopsis sizes.

Q: How should the synopsis be formatted?
A: A synopsis should be double-spaced, with standard margins, and your contact information and word count in the upper left corner of page one; story title, surname, and page number should appear in the header on all subsequent pages. But always check the submission guidelines in case a non-standard format is preferred. For ease of comprehension, each character's name should be CAPITALIZED at first mention. Do not include glossaries or footnotes.

Q: How should the synopsis be written?
A: The synopsis should be a complete summary of your story from beginning to end, in chronological order--no flashbacks . It should be written in present tense and active voice, with few or no adverbs and adjectives. Some authors also note point-of-view characters by typing "(POV)" immediately after they are first mentioned.

Q: What do I include in a synopsis?
A: Try including the following items:

  • Start: a one/two-sentence summary encapsulating "what the story is about"
  • Setting, Main Characters: establish the setting and identify the main characters.
  • Conflict: Identify the motivations of, and conflicts between, the main characters.
  • Plot: Move the story forward along its main thrust, showing the protagonist as active while also noting other driving forces
  • Resolution: show the resolution of all conflicts and sub-plots--no loose ends, no cliff-hangers
  • Ending: give it away. Never leave the editor guessing.

Make every sentence count. Avoid spending too many precious words describing incidents that are not important to the plot. You don't have them to spare, and you will mislead your reader, who is assuming that anything mentioned will turn out to be important to the plot.

Q: What do I leave out?
A: Start by leaving out almost everything not mentioned in the previous question, except a cunningly applied bit of detail to keep the synopsis from being too dry and lifeless. Yes, we know this is really hard.

Avoid using names of minor characters, because a plethora of names is confusing. Always refer to characters the same way--using "Fred," "her brother," and "the Crown Prince" to describe the same person is confusing to the synopsis reader (who is reading quickly for content, not savoring your style). Choose clarity over variety in a synopsis.

Q: What questions should I try to answer with my synopsis?
A: Make sure to answer the ten queries below to give an editor a well-rounded idea of your book.

  • What's the setting?
  • What's the hook?
  • What's the tone of the story? That is, its feel, its authorial voice, its approach to the story. Is this a light-hearted book, a dark book, or a funny book?
  • Who are the main characters?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What are the key scenes?
  • What is the prime conflict?
  • What are the main characters' blackest moments?
  • What is the main character's big crisis?
  • What is the story's climax?

Q: Do SF/F writers get extra time to do setting before having to hook the editor?
A: Yes, to a point; editors will not mind a paragraph or so setting up the world the story's told in, if it's complicated and germane to the plot (which it should be). However, involving the protagonist in that set-up description keeps the interest level up. Again, make every sentence count, and avoid proper nouns--like names for a world's animals and plants--that aren't crucial to the rest of the synopsis.

Q: If I'm submitting the first book in a series, should I send the synopses of the books that follow? Any other things to note about this situation?
A: Definitely send synopses of the next books. The editor will want to know where the series going, and that you've thought it out--but don't make it up out of nothing. Therefore make sure the synopsis shows that the ending of Book One is satisfying and feels resolved. Synopses for subsequent books should be very short--1 or 2 pages at most, or even paragraph-long descriptions. Tell the editor that this is Book One in a series in the cover letter. It is also crucial to reassure the agent/editor that Book One stands alone (unless, of course, it's a lie).

Q: I can't do this to my precious novel, it's too hard!
A: Find a friend to read your synopsis attempts and help you achieve the right balance of ruthlessness and tender loving care. You won't get it on the first try, but keep working at it!