SUBMISSION KNOWHOW How to write a synopsis

In our next piece on how to submit your manuscript to agents and publishers, Bryony Pearce explains how to write an attention-grabbing synopsis.

So, what is a synopsis anyway? A synopsis is basically the thing you had to write in English lessons – a one-page book summary. It’s not a blurb, it isn’t there to tease your agent and make them want to read on to find out what happens next; it should contain all the high points of your novel, clearly showing the narrative arc and emotional journey of your main character.

Why do agents need a synopsis? They use it to check that the story is working structurally and everything makes sense. If a synopsis is confusing, it may well be that the story will come across that way too. Aim to be short, sweet and to the point.

Nineveh and Babylon
Sum it up: the climax and ending should all be included.
Photo: Nineveh and Babylon, Wikicommons

How should I present my synopsis? Standard UK industry requirement is one A4 page, with plenty of white space around paragraphs. Usually a synopsis is Times New Roman, 12 point, but single-line spacing. Names should be capitalised the first time they are used.

What should I include? 
  • Paragraph one: Briefly set the scene and give us an introduction to your protagonist. 
  • Paragraph two: Describe the inciting event – what propels the character into the problem.
  • Paragraph three: What is the mid-section – How does the protagonist explore the situation / attempt to overcome the initial problem? 
  • Paragraph four: Show us the false dawn when it appears that everything is going well
  • Paragraph five: What is the rug-pulling moment – what unexpected (but not totally out of the blue) thing occurs to tip the character into peril and/or despair? Which leads to the nadir – the crisis and emotional heart of the story.
  • Paragraph six: The turning point – the protagonist discovers the way to dig themselves out of danger, which leads us to the climax – where the character emerges triumphant (or not).
  • Paragraph seven: Resolution - everything goes back to a normality that’s changed in some way. 
  • Final paragraph: Summarise the story in terms of its themes and central messages. 
I can’t make it any shorter, do you have any other tips? I sometimes pretend that I’m telling my story to a drunk friend in the pub (short attention span, not actually very interested). What are the high points I tell them? This terrifies me. I’ve heard that writing a synopsis is really hard! I find it most difficult to write a synopsis when I’ve recently written or edited a book because it is almost impossible to get distance; every detail feels essential. That’s why I write all of my synopses before the novel. I’m a planner, so I always have a synopsis and chapter outline ready before I write the book. I tweak it if I’ve made changes. That way I know that my synopsis is focusing only on the high points of the story.

If you want to see an example of a synopsis (that worked to sell a book), here's my own Savage Island synopsis.

Savage Island by Bryony Pearce 

BEN is used to following LIZZIE, he’s been doing it all his life. When Lizzie insists that they enter the IRON-TEEN endurance competition announced by reclusive billionaire MARCUS GATES he can’t say no. And why would he want to? With a prize of £1m for each member of the first group that completes the course, there seems no reason not to enter. When their team wins one of the coveted spots, Ben, his younger brother WILL, Lizzie and their friends GRADY, and CARMEN set off to Gate’s private island in the Shetlands, where the competition is to take place. 

A causeway is the only way on or off the island, but it is accessible only twice a week, at all other times they will be isolated. As they are crossing, Ben gets stuck and as they are rescuing him, their packs (including all electronic equipment) are soaked. 

Expecting to meet other teams at the starting point, the team discovers that, with staggered start times, the others have already begun the course, which consists of orienteering, puzzle solving and endurance. In order to prove they have finished the course, each must open the boxes at the checkpoints, remove the ‘treasure’ inside and replace it with something of equal or greater value. 

At the first checkpoint, they locate a locked box. Inside is a human tooth. 

Although they think someone is cheating, Ben finally agrees the team can pull out one of his teeth in return for a larger share of the winnings. After doing this, the team make camp. When they wake the tooth taken from the box has been stolen. Setting out in search of the thieves, they are separated. When Ben, Will and Grady find Carmen her right hand has been cut off and crudely cauterised. They guess that other boxes must contain body parts too and that at least one other team has decided to take those parts from other players. Unable to leave the island and afraid of who might be out there after them, the group fashion weapons. 

After some argument the team agree to get to the end of the course first in the hope that there will be some help at the final checkpoint. Their paranoia and fear grows; it is clear other teams are stalking them. Over the next two days the team races through the checkpoints, hunted all the way. Ben is desperately trying to protect his younger brother, as well as the girl he loves and his two best friends. 

At the final checkpoint there is a vicious fight with two other teams and Carmen manages to stab the boy who cut off her hand. Inside the final checkpoint they find not another box, and no help, but there is a staircase leading down through the cliff. At the bottom is a room with a bank of monitors. The whole island is being watched. Gates informs them that there is only one way off the island. A huge sum of money and a job in his company is available to just one of them – on condition that he or she kills at least one member of his or her own team. Gates believes that psychopaths make the best business leaders; he wants future business leaders he can train and then control with evidence of a murder. 

Ben admits that the psychopath Gates is after must be his brother, who has always been abnormal. While they are trying to work out what to do, Grady murders the injured Carmen in order to win the prize. A furious Will turns on Grady and knocks him out. Eventually they work out how to get out of the room and into a warren of tunnels. 

Gates sends another team after them but they manage to find their way out to the causeway. However, while the tide is finally going out, it is not going out fast enough. 

Will gets stuck in quicksand and they are unable to save him. Lizzie sets of swimming and Ben starts to follow her. The currents are too strong, they are swept apart. Ben wakes on a familiar beach. He finds the dead bodies of all the other teams, his brother and all of his friends, except Grady. Finally, Grady appears, smiling and tells Ben that Gates has given him his first job.

This is a horror story about love and friendship, which asks the fascinating question, what would you do for £1 million? 

Header image credit: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes - Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Wikicommons

Bryony Pearce Critique

Cambridge graduate, Bryony Pearce, fled her ‘real London job’ in 2004 and now lives in the Forest of Dean. She is a reader for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and has her own consulting business called Unique Critique. When the children let her off taxi duty and out of the house, she enjoys doing school visits, festivals and events.

Her novels for young adults include the multi-award winning Angel’s Fury, The Weight of Souls, Phoenix Rising and Phoenix Burning, Windrunner’s Daughter, Wavefunction and Savage Island. She also has short stories appearing in the anthologies Now We Are Ten by Newcon Press and Stories from the Edge.

Twitter: @BryonyPearce

1 comment:

  1. I always know that if I need something to write, I can visit the site and ask for their help! But thank you for an interesting article!


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