Tales and Tips from the Trenches by Amy Myers, author of Murder And The Golden Goblet

Amy Myers (photo courtesy of Jean Cockett) has been a full-time writer since 1988, and has written a wide range of novels, from historical sagas and contemporary romance to crime. She is married to an American and lives in Kent. Many of her novels have been published under the name of Harriet Hudson. Previous novels by Amy Myers include the Auguste Didier series, and featuring Peter and Georgia Marsh, The Wickenham Murders, Murder in Friday Street and Murder in Hell's Corner.

How to write a synopsis for novels

I hate writing synopses, but it has to be faced. It’s a task that’s always with you, whether you’re a newcomer to the scene hoping to tempt an agent or editor, or whether you’re an old-stager in the game. It’s almost easier if you’re a newcomer because the likelihood is that the novel is already finished, and therefore you know what’s going to happen. If you’re an ‘oldie’, this is less likely. One can have a rough idea whodunit and whatdunnit, but somehow setting it down on paper can make it look irrevocable and diminish the excitement of actually writing the novel. Nevertheless, teeth have to be gritted and synopses written.

Synopses have two purposes: for a newcomer to the scene, it is the vital marketing tool that can encourage agents and editors to read the novel; for an author already known to the publisher, it is to entice them to provide that desirable object, a contract. In both cases, however, the synopsis has to hook the attention right away, and so there are do’s and don’ts to writing them.

The main don’t to avoid is thinking of the synopsis like a jacket blurb, i.e. don’t try to intrigue the reader by being mysterious over the ending. For example, suppose your synopsis relates the exciting story of Jack and Jill’s journey up the hill, and how against all the odds they succeed in filling the pail of water. What of the ending? Do not finish the synopsis with: ‘But what happened then? Did disaster follow and did our intrepid protagonist succeed in his mission?’ That’s how a jacket blurb might end. For a synopsis, you have to come clean, hard though it is, and explain what the ending is. If as tragic a story as Jack and Jill’s, remember to put a positive spin on it, e.g. tragically Jack was seriously injured on the way home, but survived adversity thanks to Dame Dob who patched him up with vinegar and brown paper. Had Jack indeed been killed, then the positive spin is still needed, eg. Jack dies in the attempt to bring the pail home, but knows his mission has been fulfilled. Jill will survive and carry it home for him. (This applies to the text too. The ending of the novel should be positive in some sense or other. Romeo and Juliet might be dead, but their parents learn the lesson and are reconciled.)

There are several do’s for synopsis writing: always remember that you are trying to sell your book with this brief outline. Synopses are best submitted in single spacing (unlike the main text which should always be in double) and not more than two A4 sheets. My personal preference is somewhat shorter than this. Remember that it’s likely that not much time is going to be given to a synopsis, so the easier it is to understand the better. The readers of synopses need a quick overall impression of what the novel is, and how it develops. The intricacies of how such and such a point is reached and of the various sub-plots are not as important as the overall thrust.

Firstly, the synopsis reader needs a quick introduction (a couple of sentences will do) to the basic facts of the novel, i.e. type of novel, where and when set, who the main character is and the barest suggestion of the plot. For example, back to our nursery rhyme: ‘A crime novel set in contemporary rural England, The Hill tells the story of Jack and Jill Smith’s mission to fill a pail of water and return it safely, despite formidable odds.

Then you can proceed to give a prĂ©cis of the story itself, but try to do this by following the story of the main character through rather than dashing about and trying to fit mention of subsidiary characters and sub-plots into it. Remember that you want the message to come over as clearly as possible, so delete unnecessary complications, and keep the story positive, but showing what your protagonist does in the story (which is active), rather than what happens to him (which is passive). Try, in other words, to tell it like a story in itself, rather than pile detail on detail – and make it sound interesting.