Not easy. It has to be professional, tell the entire story, show us the characters and if possible capture something of the atmosphere of the piece. Usually in about 500 words.
I’m currently dealing with this big time: I’m marking an assignment from my Writing Novels for Young People module – the students have to produce a 500 word synopsis of a novel they have not written yet – and I am judging the Bridge House debut novel competition. As far as the competition is concerned, like all good editors, if I like the writing I’ll look at the synopsis. Except not many of them are synopses – they read more like blurbs. There are too many “will s/he ever find out?” endings. This is really a blurb. A blurb is not much use to an editor who is trying to make a decision about whether or not to publish your book. They need to know that you have a plot that works. Some people, who ought to know better – published writers, university lectures and columnists for writing magazines - have provided us with blurbs.
On the whole, my students have done better. But then it has been practised with them over the last few weeks. “Ridiculous,” they say. “Getting the whole of a novel into 500 words. Especially when I haven’t written it yet.” But they do it anyway and every one I have so far seen has at least been a reasonable attempt.
Now, here’s some news. Firstly, on the whole, those who have not written their novel yet do better with their synopsis. It becomes a planning tool. Often the synopsis of a completed novel is difficult because in fact the novel itself is not quite right. Secondly, you can be asked for less. I recently had to send the first five pages of a novel and one page containing the synopsis and my bio to an agent. You just have to be prepared for anything.
I’ve been to so many workshops about synopses and many people say many different things. As an editor now I know what I need to see: the novel in miniature.
Here are some recommendations. Start with that two line description that answers the question “What is your novel about?” Flesh out the plot a la McKee: inciting incident, complexities, crisis, climax, reversal and resolution. Define it according to the three act structure or Freytag’s pyramid also if that is useful. Make sure you explain each key character fully as they are introduced and that you carefully define their motivations. You might also comment on the style in which it will be written and the narrative techniques you might use. It is also useful to keep a chapter by chapter summary as you write the novel. This can be condensed into your overview synopsis when you have completed your novel and all of its edits. Needless to say your chapter by chapter synopsis will need to be edited as you edit your novel.
The bottom line has to be that your synopsis must truly be representative of your novel whilst giving the reader all the information they need to know.