Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pitch Wars Prep #3: The Synopsis

In order to enter Pitch Wars you need two things: a completed manuscript and a query letter. But if you read last week's post on queries, you'll notice I mentioned there's a third thing that could be requested by potential mentors after they've read your submission. That third thing is...a synopsis.

Yes, the dreaded synopsis. It's practically a 4-letter word in the writing world. They're notoriously difficult and writers everywhere balk at the idea of having to condense their beautiful novels into a few paragraphs of factual prose that give away the ending. Tell us authors we have to write one and we'll go all April Ludgate on you.

As much as you may hate the prospect of writing one, if you're serious about getting published, you're going to need a synopsis sooner or later. Last year when I entered Pitch Wars, all four of the mentors who requested additional materials from me also requested a synopsis. Now, some of them also specifically said to send it only IF I had one, and no mentor is going to reject a stellar novel over a mediocre synopsis (after all, we're here to help you improve these things), BUT it's a really, really good idea to have one prepared. Why? Because 1) It shows you've taken the time to research what it requires to query a novel and you've come prepared, 2) There's a chance that requesting agents in the agent round will want a synopsis as part of their submission guidelines, and 3) Writing a synopsis can help you spot potential problems in your story and give you the opportunity to fix or strengthen those areas before submitting.

But why do some agents request a synopsis?

Agents get hundreds of submissions in their inboxes every week. Your sample pages are going to give an agent a glimpse at your main character, voice, and writing prowess (and hopefully hook them with all those things), but a synopsis gives them a more detailed view of your story, plot, and character arc before they commit to reading through your entire manuscript. Not all agents request them, but it's better to have one and not need it, than be scrambling to write one once it's requested, or to limit your querying options to only those agents who don't specifically list them in their submission guidelines.

How long should my synopsis be?

The answer — it completely depends on the agent you're querying. The general rule of thumb is 1-3 pages. My suggestion? Create a one-page synopsis (this will be perfectly fine for Pitch Wars) and only go longer if the agent's guidelines state they want a longer version. Now, before you panic about the prospect of having to write two different synopses, it's important to remember that when writing a one-page synopsis, it should be single-spaced, but when you move to multiple pages, it should be double spaced. My synopsis for FOLLOW ME was one full page (just under 600 words) single-spaced. When expanded to double-spaced, it becomes two pages. So if an agency specifically asks that your synopsis be no less than 3 pages, chances are you'll only need to add one more page, or 300 words or so.

What should my synopsis include?

Your main character, sidekick/love interest, antagonist, inciting incident, main plot points, climax, resolution and ending, with your MC's emotions, reactions, and character development sprinkled throughout. The general rule of thumb is to name no more than 3 characters, and to identify everyone else by their role (mother, co-worker, teacher, etc.). Now, I freely admit I broke this rule and named 5 characters in my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. But as with all writing "rules" I learned the rule first, then made sure I had a firm reason for breaking it: It was important that agents knew who my MC's mother was, and my MC's mother and brother play a crucial role in my story's climax and I hated how wordy and cumbersome it was to keep repeating "her mother" and "her brother" throughout the last paragraph. 

What are some basic tips for writing a good synopsis?

A synopsis should always be in third person present tense, even if your story is written differently. Leave out backstory and subplots. Be sure to use active voice, and avoid wordiness and unimportant facts. Strip your language down to only the most essential details. For example, instead of saying... 

On a hot and sunny afternoon, Marge goes to the beach to relax and take a swim, and while there she witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, while watching the evening news, Marge is horrified to see one of the strangers' faces appear on the screen beneath the scrolling words "DEAD BODY FOUND WASHED UP ON SHORE."

...pare it down to the bare essentials:

Marge goes to the beach and witnesses an argument between two strangers. Later that night, she discovers one of them has washed up dead on the shore.

And remember, a synopsis isn't meant to be flashy or oozing with voice. It's meant to give the basic facts and show the story arc. Wow the mentors (and agents) with your sample pages and stick with the basics when it comes to your synopsis. 

What's the magic formula for actually writing this thing?

Here's the deal...I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I'm going to direct you to my absolute favorite synopsis-writing formula of all time: HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS over at Pub(lishing) Crawl (also my favorite writing blog name of all time). There may not be one magic formula to rule them all, but in my opinion, this one is pretty dang close. It's the one I've found the most helpful, and the one I used when I wrote my synopsis for FOLLOW ME. Not only does it take you step-by-step through creating your own synopsis by using question prompts, in bonus nerdy brilliance it uses Star Wars as an example.

Now that you're ready to tackle the dreaded synopsis, take a deep breath. You can do this. And you're totally entitled to celebrate with pie/chocolate/wine when you're finished.

But just in case you need it...


  1. Great post! So quick question about the single space for 1 page/double space for multiple pages thing: is that an official thing, or just a de facto industry standard? I have never heard of that before. (Although I'm now cheering inside because that essentially doubles the wordcount limit of a 1-page synopsis, lol.) Do you have any links to articles/blog posts that explain the whole line spacing standards thing more? Thanks!

    1. It is my understanding that it's the industry standard. It's how my Pitch Wars mentor from last year explained it, and how all the writers I've talked to have formatted theirs. Pitch Wars fearless leader Brenda mentioned it in her recent synopsis post: and Agent Query also lists it as the standard synopsis format: I also really love Jane Friedman's post on writing a synopsis - she's got some great tips! While she doesn't address spacing for multi-page synopses, she does say that a one page one should be single-spaced. I hope that helps, and thanks for reading!