There has been quite a bit of debate about this on Wordpool recently. Or was it SCBWI? Well, many of the same people on both. I’ve actually been on several courses, and had almost as many different versions of what makes a good synopsis.
I do struggle with them myself. I often feel that I’ve not go everything into them that the potential editor or agent needs to know. It isn’t just a matter of telling the plot. You have to get something of the atmosphere, the characters and the form of the novel across.
Only twice do I think I have got it absolutely right. Once was for “Nick’s Gallery”. The other was the Harry Bowling competition that I am entering. The latter needed 500 words and I wrote 480. The former was two sides of A4, double-spaced.
Some writers and editors will ask for specific things. But if you’re on your own, and you want to second guess what the potential editor wants to know, this is what I recommend.
First, you must get your story into one sentence, not more than two lines long – though you can have several clauses if you must. You should use this in your query letter anyway. I always find it a useful tool in keeping me on track as I write anyway. More often than not, the premise is hidden in that sentence as well.
One writer who talked to me about writing synopses suggested that you keep a chapter by chapter one as you write. You’ll have to edit down later, but it will remind you of what happens. And just a few publishers and agents do want a chapter by chapter account.
Always use the present tense. This is not a blurb. You do need to tell your reader what happens. Make sure what you describe has the right emphasis and the full story arc is revealed.
Remember also to mention something about the atmosphere you create and the personalities and motivations of the characters. Include also who you see as the reader and give a rough idea of word count.