Writing a synopsis

I am often asked how to write a synopsis, which is a very sensible question, because your synopsis is your selling tool.

First of all you should make sure that your synopsis is well presented. It should be

  • No more than two pages, single spaced - yes, that's right, a synopsis should be single spaced, although the book itself should be double spaced

  • Printed in a clear font such as Arial or Times New Roman, and at a 12 point size

  • Printed on white paper in black ink

  • Presented with margins of about 3 centimetres all the way round

  • Written in the present tense.

    What to put in

  • The emotional plot, ie the story of the hero and heroine's developing love affair, including the main scenes in which they come together, the main scenes in which they are driven apart, and the times when they kiss or make love

  • Their feelings at crucial moments, ie how do they feel if they see the other one embracing someone else, or if they think the other one has been hurt, or if they hear the other one is about to become engaged, or if they discover the other one has lied to them about something

  • The action/adventure plot or, in a quieter Regency, the details of the plot in which the heroine sets out to find a husband etc

  • The main problems that stand in the hero and heroine's way

  • The essential minor characters

    What not to put in

  • Every little detail of the plot

  • Every minor character. Try not to mention more than five or six characters in all. You need only name them if they are very important, otherwise a description such as 'the hero's friend' will suffice.

    Tip: keep the focus on the hero and heroine at all times.

    Below is a synopsis for The Silverton Scandal.

    Before you read it, I suggest you get hold of a copy of The Silverton Scandal if you can. If you want to buy it, I recommend Amazon, because they sell my books at a 30% discount

    Or you should be able to find it in your local library.

    Read the book, then write your own synopsis. Then compare it with mine.

    What did you put in that I left out?

    What did you leave out that I put in?

    The Silverton Scandal Cover

    The Silverton Scandal by Amanda Grange

    In the autumn of 1810, Eleanor Grantham boards a stage coach to London. She sits opposite the blackmailer, Mr Kendrick. Mr Kendrick has been blackmailing her sister with a collection of indiscreet letters and Eleanor is hoping to buy them back from him. Before she has a chance to speak to him, the coach is held up by a highwayman, and Mr Kendrick's case - which possibly contains the letters - is stolen.

    When the coach stops for the night Mr Kendrick steps out and Eleanor follows, only to lose him as he climbs into a private carriage. She decides to spend the night with a family friend who lives in the vicinity, but her pleasure quickly evaporates when she recognises Lucien, Lord Silverton, one of the other guests, as the highwayman. Thinking that if she denounces him, no one will believe her, she decides to hold her peace. He is clearly disturbed, however, and tension fills the air as they have a barbed conversation in which he tries to discover if she has recognised him.

    Hoping her sister's letters might be in the case Lucien stole from Mr Kendrick, Eleanor goes up to his room whilst the gentlemen are sitting over the port. She has just searched the case, finding it empty, when the door opens and Lucien walks in. Danger rolls round the room. His presence is overwhelming. As he comes closer, Eleanor's heart begins to race and her mouth dries.

    'Looking for something?' he asks.

    Seeing no alternative, she reveals that he has something she wants.

    Misunderstanding her, he gives a wicked smile. 'I have something you want? Perhaps you're not as innocent as you look,' he says, dragging her into his arms and kissing her.

    Outraged, she pushes him away, but not before she has found herself unwillingly responding to his kiss. Revealing that she is looking for some love letters, she asks Lucien to steal them for her. 'You should be willing, you have already committed one robbery,' she tells him.

    'That was for a reason,' he says, refusing to help her and warning her to stay away from Mr Kendrick.

    With her sister's marriage plans likely to founder if the letters come to light, Eleanor has no choice but to seek out Mr Kendrick in London, but when she goes to his house she finds him dead. Voices in the hall frighten her, and she finds herself pulled backwards into a cupboard as a hand clamps itself over her mouth. Her heart beat escalates as she realises that the man who has pulled her into the cupboard is Lucien. She might be at odds with him, but she is irresistibly attracted to him, and his nearness is disturbing.

    When the voices disappear, she berates him for dragging her into the cupboard, and he in turn is furious that she has ignored his advice and has continued to pursue Mr Kendrick. Eleanor says they must alert the magistrates to the dead body, but Lucien says that he does not want her involved as it will damage her reputation, and that a colleague of his will see to the formalities.

    Eleanor reluctantly agrees to his plan because she does not want to bring shame on her sister by her involvement in a sordid murder. She helps him put the papers from Mr Kendrick's study into a bag and then unwillingly accepts an invitation to Lucien's house, as there will not be a suitable stage coach to take her home to Bath until the morning.

    Over tea, they talk about their pasts and futures. They discover a rapport that allows them to come to know each other and respect each other.

    When Lucien retires to his study to speak to a colleague, Mr Drayforth, Eleanor looks through Mr Kendricks' papers and discovers her sister's letters. She also discovers secret military documents, and realises that as well as being a blackmailer, Mr Kendrick was selling secrets to the French.

    Lucien is eager to return to Eleanor and leaves Mr Drayforth to show himself out. He returns to the drawing-room and explains to Eleanor that he held up the stage coach in order to recover the secret documents. It was necessary to stage a robbery so that Mr Kendrick would not know that his treachery had been discovered. That way, Mr Kendrick could be supplied with false information in the future and used to mislead Napoleon's armies. Lucien reveals that he is trying to track down the traitor who had sold the secrets to Mr Kendrick in the first place.

    That night, Lucien is overcome by gas from the new gas lighting in his house, a fact Eleanor discovers when, unable to sleep, she goes downstairs for a book. She drags him out of the room. Seeing him so ill, she is shocked to the core. When he begins to recover they are both vulnerable to their feelings, and Lucien kisses her softly on the lips. Eleanor is shaken by the all consuming nature of the kiss, and retires to her room before she is carried away entirely.

    The following morning Eleanor returns home, hating the thought of never seeing Lucien again. Lucien checks that his house shows no sign of a break-in as he is suspicious about his accident with the gas: if Eleanor had not found him when the lights blew out, he would have died. He, too, is unhappy with the thought of parting, but as the incident with the gas has reminded him, his life is too dangerous to allow him to take a wife.

    Eleanor's sister marries, and Eleanor is overjoyed to see Lucien at the wedding as, unbeknownst to her, he was at school with the groom. But Lucien, having seen her embracing Thomas, a childhood friend, when he arrived in Bath, is distant with her. Eleanor is perplexed and unhappy by this unexplained estrangement.

    There are other, less welcome, guests at the wedding. Eleanor sees Mr Drayforth and recognises him: she remembers that she had seen him at the coaching inn with Mr Kendrick. She realises that the two men must have been in league, and Lucien realises that it must have been Mr Drayforth who caused his accident with the gas: Mr Drayforth secreted himself in the house instead of showing himself out, then drugged the port. When Eleanor went upstairs and Lucien fell into a drugged sleep, Mr Drayforth blew out the lights, leaving the gas turned on. Lucien realises that it is Mr Drayforth who has been selling secrets to the French, using Mr Kendrick as a courier. It is also Mr Drayforth who killed Mr Kendrick when Mr Kendrick's part in the operations was discovered.

    No sooner has Lucien worked this out than he and Eleanor are kidnapped by Mr Drayforth. Tied up in a remote cottage, they manage to escape, but Eleanor is shot, bringing all of Lucien's tender and protective emotions to the fore.

    Safely back at home, Eleanor receives a visit from Lucien. He proposes to her. Thinking he is doing it to protect her reputation, because they were alone together when they were kidnapped, she refuses. He asks her if it is because she is in love with Thomas, and, to make him accept her refusal, she says that yes, this is so.

    Lucien returns to London, where he works out his frustrations by bringing Mr Drayforth to justice. He sees Thomas one day as he is about to go into his club and discovers that Eleanor is not in love with the young man at all. Lucien goes at once to see Eleanor. He tells her he knows she is not in love with Thomas and asks her why she lied. She says she did not want to marry him just to protect her reputation. He tells her he loves her, she reveals that she loves him, and all ends happily with their engagement.

    This is about one and a half pages and covers all the main points of the story, both emotional and practical.

    Your synopsis will not have been exactly like this. If half a dozen published novelists all wrote a synopsis for the same book, they would all be different. But your synopsis should have covered all the main points. In particular it should have:

  • Mentioned the date.

  • Focused very clearly on the hero and heroine at all times

  • Covered the main plot points of blackmail and treachery.

  • Revealed who the villain is. This is very important, as an editor wants to see if the mystery is tied up in a satisfactory manner.

  • Mentioned the main motivations: Eleanor is acting to protect her sister, and Lucien is tracking down a traitor.

  • Covered (most of) the main emotional highs and lows: Eleanor and Lucien are initially hostile, he kisses her, she finds herself unwillingly attracted to him, he is angry with her for pursuing a blackmailer, at his house they begin to get to know each other, she saves his life, he sees her embracing someone else and jumps to the wrong conclusion, they work out who is the main traitor, they are kidnapped and become even closes to each other, Lucien proposes but is rejected because Eleanor thinks he is doing it to protect her reputation, he thinks she's in love with someone else, the mistakes are discovered and they become engaged.

  • Covered their feelings at crucial points: Lucien is furious when he finds Eleanor has put herself in danger, he feels tender and protective when she is shot etc

    It's just as important to notice what I've left out.

  • There is no mention of any minor character who does not influence the plot, ie Arabella (mentioned only as Eleanor's sister), Charles, Lydia (mentioned only as Eleanor's mother's friend), Frederick, Cooper, the General etc. Although some of these characters have an important role to play in the book, they are not essential to an understanding of the bare bones of the book, and that is what a synopsis seeks to convey.

    There is no mention of any subplot which is not essential to an understanding of the main plot. There is no mention of Frederick's efforts as a magistrate to catch the highwayman, for instance, or the General's capture, or Lucien giving Eleanor a bodyguard to protect her.

    Your synopsis for your book should cover the same kind of essential points, and leave out anything not essential.

    A word about layout

    I laid out my synopsis in a way that makes it easy to read on screen, but for your written synopsis you should lay it out in standard format, ie don't leave a spare line between paragraphs, and indent paragraphs as normal.

    Here are some tips

  • Try to use powerful language, eg they have a barbed conversation, his presence is overwhelming, he drags her into his arms, he is furious that she has ignored his advice

    This kind of language helps your synopsis make an impact

  • If your book is humorous, try and inject your own brand of humour into the synopsis, and make sure you recount a number of humorous incidents, to convey the tone of the book

  • To compress a lot of action, try saying, After a variety of suspicious incidents, including a carriage accident, a near drowning and a break-in at her country home, for example. This allows you to show the editor that your book is action packed, but doesn't take up too much space.

  • Make sure you include the places where the hero and heroine develop a rapport/friendship

  • Make sure you include scenes in which they are at loggerheads

  • Make sure you include scenes in which they kiss etc

  • Make sure you mention feelings ie, tender, protective etc

  • Including a bit of dialogue breaks up the narrative.

    If you find it hard to make your synopsis short enough

  • Call people by the shortest form of their name, ie Lucien not Lord Silverton. Over the entire synopsis you'd be surprised how much space this can save.

  • Wherever possible, without losing the sense of the story, refer to them as he and she. Again, this saves space.

  • Look at your paragraphs. Some will only have one word on the last line. If this is the case, then getting rid of one word from the paragraph - perhaps an unnecessary adjective - will make the paragraph a line shorter. If you do this on two or three paragraphs, you will be able to trim your synopsis by several lines, whilst only losing a few words.

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