William Ryan provides tips on how to set yourself on the path to writing a good synopsis (with a little help from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice)...
Writing a synopsis is a task that even professional writers with a number of novels under their belts struggle with. The good news is that the quality of the synopsis itself is important, but not as important as you might think. The primary purpose of a synopsis is relatively simple - to give the agent or publisher an overview of your novel’s plot and reassure them that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a story that is clear, engaging and commercial. If your novel has the required elements and if you follow a relatively straightforward format then you should be able to produce a synopsis that will more than meet the expectations of your audience.
Start with a short, snappy summary of the story’s concept
What you’re trying to do here is hook the reader by giving them a sense of your novel’s story and its setting, as well as a flavour of its tone and a reason for them to look forward to the rest of the synopsis with anticipation. The hook summary (that’s what I call it anyway) should only be a sentence or two long and be placed it in its own paragraph. You can then differentiate the hook summary from the main body of the synopsis by placing it in italics and leaving a double line space between them. This is important as you may well repeat yourself later on in the synopsis, but the differentiation will make that acceptable.
The hook summary is not essential, however, and if it’s proving too difficult or doesn’t look quite right then you can always drop it altogether or wait until inspiration strikes. It is, however, a nice thing to have. Let’s imagine we were writing a synopsis of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We might start with a hook summary along the lines of the following:
In Georgian England, sparks fly when Miss Elizabeth Bennet, a proud young woman who believes she should only marry for love, meets the rich and aloof Mr Darcy. With circumstances separating them, and misunderstandings aplenty, will they be able to overcome their own pride and prejudice to find happiness together?
Okay so it’s a little tongue in cheek but it does give the reader important information about the story. Firstly, it identifies the main characters and tells the agent a little bit about them. It also explains that it’s a love story and indicates when and where it’s set. It outlines Elizabeth’s objective, which is “happiness together”, along with some of the obstacles she will have to overcome to achieve it. All in two sentences. What’s more, the hook summary ends with a question that links into the title of the novel. Posing a questions encourages the reader to proceed in order to discover the answer.
Tell us who the central character is, what their situation is and why we like them. Indicate what their objective is over the course of the story
We’ve moved on to the main synopsis now, which means that there will be some repetition from the hook summary (but that’s okay). Here we want to briefly introduce the central character, their situation, why we like them and what they are hoping to achieve.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet is the second of five unmarried daughters to a rural gentleman of modest means in Georgian England. Her mother is concerned that her daughters should be wed to suitable husbands, but despairs of the intelligent and witty Elizabeth’s desire to marry solely for love and mutual respect.
This introduces Elizabeth and her admirable attributes. It also tells us that her objective is to marry for love. It also tells us that her position is far from financially secure, which would have been a disadvantage at the time and therefore a significant obstacle.
Tell us about the event that triggers the central character’s engagement with the story and introduce any other characters who will be particularly important
This is really the moment that Elizabeth’s story begins, which in Pride and Prejudice is when she meets Mr. Darcy.
When the amiable Bingley rents a nearby estate, Elizabeth’s older sister Jane is much taken with him. Bingley’s friend, Darcy, is less amiable, seeming overly conscious of his superior social and financial position. Elizabeth and Darcy clash when he displays pride in his position and prejudice against those of lesser station and of less than perfect comportment (in particular some of Elizabeth’s family). Elizabeth, in turn, displays pride in her own worth and prejudice against Darcy’s perceived arrogance. And yet, there is a spark between them.
Tell us about an initial obstacle that your central character must face and overcome, as well establish their conflicts with other characters. You may also want to mention any characters who will help them towards their objective
Your novel will almost certainly contain obstacles and challenges that your central character will have to overcome in order to achieve their objective. Generally they will build in difficulty, so try and replicate that incline in your synopsis.
Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s unappealing cousin who will inherit, on her father’s death, the house her family live in asks for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. She refuses, thinking that she could never love him. Her more pragmatic friend Charlotte accepts him however, even though she doesn’t love him, as the alternative is spinsterhood. Elizabeth’s mother is furious but Jane and her father are supportive.
Clearly if Elizabeth had accepted Collins, it would have been a short and very unsatisfactory novel but it still represents a bump in the road for Elizabeth. Fortunately, she sticks to her guns, even though this puts her into conflict with her mother who wishes to see her married to someone of means, irrespective of their suitability. Jane and Mr. Bennet’s approval indicates that she has allies she can rely on.
Tell us about an inciting incident. The moment where the story takes a different direction
The key plot points in your novel may not follow the exact structure that plotting experts may recommend, or that I’ve suggested for this synopsis, but there are going to be hugely dramatic moments where your story’s shifts dramatically. You need to mention them, if not necessarily at this point.
To her amazement, Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him, which she refuses, confronting him about his behaviour towards Jane and Wickham. The next day, Darcy delivers her a letter, revealing that Wickham lied about the inheritance, which he received but gambled away, and also that he attempted to seduce Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister for her inheritance. Elizabeth realises she may have been mistaken about Darcy.
Elizabeth is clearly surprised by Darcy’s declaration, but she also realises that her forthright refusal was based on misunderstandings and misconceptions which, if her own pride and prejudices hadn’t blinded her, she might have avoided. Our reader can see that this obstacle to Elizabeth and Darcy’s happiness has become more complex.
Some things to bear in mind as you make progress with your synopsis
It is a good idea to lay out your synopsis in four paragraphs. The first paragraph is the “hook summary” or introduction. The second, third and fourth paragraphs relate to the beginning, middle and end of the novel and follows the usual structure of novel. The second paragraph, therefore, is where we introduce the main characters, the setting and the objective, as well as mention any backstory that is important to the story. The third paragraph covers the middle of the novel and, as a rule of thumb, this should probably take around half of the total length of the synopsis, as this is where the central character overcomes the escalating obstacles, conflicts and challenges that prevent them from reaching their objective. The final paragraph is the ending of the novel, where the goal is achieved after the final challenge is overcome. This is also where you can tidy up any loose ends.
It is a good idea to step back from your synopsis and check that it reads smoothly and has a logical progression.
Your synopsis should also remove anything that does not either describe an event in the novel or explain why an event happens. So, if Elizabeth rejects Collins, it is important the synopsis explains why. Likewise, it is important that it shows the changes in Elizabeth and Darcy’s feelings for each other.
It sometimes helps to keep your first attempt at a synopsis to a maximum of 300 words, with 75 for the beginning or set up, 150 for the middle and 75 for the ending. If you focus on the key plot events in this draft, without much explanation as to why they happen, it will help the structure. Your next draft should be about 600 words, with the same proportional split as to word count. In this draft, you can explain the events of the story, focusing on conflicts, characterization and logic. Once you think you’ve achieved this aim, go over it once again, attempting to create a smooth, engaging read.
William Ryan is the leader of a number of W&A writing courses. View all W&A events and courses
William Ryan has written four historical novels which have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the HWA Gold Crown for Historical Fiction, the Crime Writers Association’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (three times). William teaches creative writing at City University in London and has previously taught at the University of East Anglia. His latest novel, A House of Ghosts, was published in 2019 by Bonnier Zaffre. The Writers' & Artists' Guide to How to Write is published by Bloomsbury and available now.