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Gigi Will Know: How on earth do I write a synopsis?!

How do you condense a big manuscript into one page that still makes sense?

Gigi, a cartoon brain, hoists a weight in the air.
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What is the best way to go about writing a synopsis, and how long should it be? I’ve heard one page (single-spaced) is the norm today, but how do you go about condensing 300 or so manuscript pages into one page that still makes sense to someone who does not know the story?

Oh, and do I still need to CAPITALIZE the first mention of the two or three or so main characters? Are those the only names I can mention?

—My Novel Won’t Fit in This Suitcase

Dear Suitcase,

When in doubt, read the directions. Most agents and editorial houses will have a guideline for how many pages they want your synopsis to be. I’ve seen them ask for one page single-spaced to a whopping five pages single-spaced, although the latter is usually called a long synopsis. In any case, it’d be safe and smart for you to keep a document in your files someplace that’s a page long, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you go to submit a synopsis, even if you have to add to it if they request a longer one.

Your question about how you condense is misguided. You’re not condensing; you’re summarizing. They are two very different things. You are looking to give the agent some idea of the full narrative arc of your work. Do not fall into the trap of writing jacket copy. The agent or editor wants to know what will happen: Jacket copy typically stops short of that and is more about enticing the reader to come into the book’s world. Synopses serve a different function; they help agents and editors to spot strong points and potential problem areas in a work.

 

Here are the things you want to ensure are included in your synopsis:

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  • Major plot points
  • Significant subplots
  • Maybe two or three secondary characters
  • The beginning, middle, and end

 

One possible way of getting a start on what feels like a big task is by listing the plot points for yourself in bullet-point form and then writing in the interstitial details. If this feels a lot like the exact opposite of “show, don’t tell,” welp, you’re absolutely right. In a synopsis, that’s precisely what you want: Tell the reader what’s happening. (Incidentally, this does away with a lot of the space-sucking language.)

Do not fall into the trap of editorializing. That is, there is no need to say something is a “shocking twist,” or that “sadly, Moira is mistaken.” You also don’t need to include every character in your book.

Don’t forget to take advantage of the space you have in a synopsis to highlight the voice and tone of your book, and anything that’s unique about the work. One or two pages is whiz-bang fast, but if you can get the gist of your book down into a good two-line hook, you can manage a 1-page synopsis.

About the capitalization: That’s a screenwriting convention. Wrong métier.

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Keep packing,

—Gigi

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