The Unbelievable James Harris
10 Tips on Writing a Good Synopsis for Your Novel
Are you writing a novel? Have you written one? Are you trying to get an agent or publisher interested in it? Then I am so sorry but you are going to need to write a synopsis.
I HATE writing synopsisises! (things I also hate writing: novels, blog posts, shopping lists, lists in general etc etc) But agents, publishers and competition-runners flippin love them. Here’s some tips I use to make writing synopsiseses as painless as possible.
(If you have your own tips I’d LOVE to hear them. Leave them in the comments.)
Firstly, remember this is not a blurb. This is not a vague promise of thrills to come. This is a document that tells your story - all of your story, including the ending. And you usually only have a couple of pages to do it. But ho-o-o-ow?
1) You might want to start your synopsis with a sentence detailing genre/target audience and tone, plus a LOGLINE - a one sentence description of your story. Wha-at?! Impossible!
Try this template:
When [a significant event happens] in [time + place], [your protagonist] must [achieve the main objective] or [bad thing will happen].
2) make sure your protagonist is in EVERY paragraph. It's THEIR story.
3) Tell us about their FLAW. What's their damage? What's their personality defect that will
a) drive them through the story
b) make things happen
c) make them make interesting mistakes and also
d) how will they confront/change that defect in the third act?
This will show that however plotty, or twisty-turny, or madcap, or actiony your story is, there is also an emotional core. It demonstrates the heart of your story.
4) Be concise in your descriptions of side-characters - what's their name/title, and what do they want? Maybe one adjective on their general disposion: optimistic, grumpy, psychopathic etc That'll probably do.
5) You only have space for three or four key plot points. Make sure you include the real turning points and make sure the STAKES are clear for each plot point you include. So they argue with someone. So what? Someone steals their guitar? Why should I care? Tell us.
6) this is also true of EMOTIONAL STAKES. Make sure there is an EMOTIONAL arc in there - what's the inner journey your protagonist goes on?
THIS happens leaving our girl in despair because...
THIS happens and she's ECSTATIC because...
7) Include THE STRUGGLE.
They go here, they get this... BORING
Tell us (concisely) why that's HARD... DIFFICULT... PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Make sure the struggle is REAL, otherwise it's just a series of events linked by some nice strolls between locations/people
8) Don’t let too many paragraphs drift by where your protagonist does nothing. If, in one sentence, something is done TO them (they are DRAGGED here, they are TOLD this), have their *active reaction* in the very next sentence. We want ACTION! CAUSE AND EFFECT! STIMULUS AND RESPONSE!
9) Don't ASK us how we think it might end... "will she reach the marble castle and defeat the hoover god?"
How should I know? YOU TELL ME!
Tell us how it ends! If you don't know how it ends MAKE SOMETHING COOL UP. There are no synopsis audits once your book is done.
10) Once you’ve finished get someone with taste and discernment and patience to read your synopsis, then tell YOU what your story is. Did they get it right?
Ask them what the story is *about*. Are they right? If not: rewrite!
(Or steal their version if it’s better than yours)
So that's the theory. As an example, here's the synopsis I wrote for The Unbelievable Biscuit Factory when I entered the Hachette Children's Novel Award, one of New Writing North Northern Writers' Awards, in 2019. It won.
It won! It still doesn't seem real but I'm pretty sure it did happen.
Anyway, here's the synopsis. I was allowed 600 words, and this comes in at 580. You'll notice I didn't follow all my own advice, because I am a maverick. Hope this is useful!
The Biscuit Factory Synopsis
The Biscuit Factory is an anarchic, irreverent comedy novel for 8-10 year olds, told from the perspective of 11-year-old Haddie, a girl with a guitar and a temper.
Haddie and her friends, George and Naomi, are having a band practice at the Community Centre. The band is in trouble: they have a gig coming up and every time they try to play “F Major” they make the suckiest sound any of them has ever heard.
But practice is cancelled suddenly when they find their venue being eaten by a huge, fluffy monster.
It turns out that The Biscuit Factory that sits overlooking the town of Normalton has accidentally torn a hole between dimensions and a bunch of ABC’s (Annoying Big Creatures) have spilled through and are causing havoc around the town.
It is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Everybody in town knows that the Biscuit Factory is really a Super-Secret Scientific Research Facility in disguise, and they are always having weird “unplanned releases”. But everyone pretends that the fiction is true. It just makes life easier.
But not Haddie, not this time, because the Biscuit Factory’s Biscuiteers have coned off the Community Centre and are urging everybody to stay home and ignore the ABC’s, effectively canceling their practice. And, suspecting Haddie’s guitar may be partially to blame for the outbreak, they’ve confiscated it and taken it to the Factory for tests.
Haddie springs into action. She must infiltrate the Biscuit Factory to steal back her guitar. While there she learns that the Biscuiteers have no idea how to fix this mess other than to cone off the affected areas. They have accidentally opened a One Way Wild Door – a roaming portal pumping out ABC’s that is seemingly impossible to close. And as more and more ABC’s appear across town reality itself will start to destabilise. The fate of the world could be at stake.
She teams up with a rabbit disguised as a superhero – Man Man. He was trapped here after a previous Factory experiment. He has Learned The Ways of Men – if there’s a problem he will punch it until it goes away. He and Haddie find her guitar, but they are captured by the Biscuiteers.
The one man at the factory who may have a plan is Professor Whizz, but because he thinks the townspeople should be told the truth he is sacked. He joins forces with Haddie, and helps her to escape, steal back her guitar, then whisks her to his home lab on a flying surfboard to conduct tests.
They discover the sounds made by her guitar could open a door for the ABC’s to leave our dimension. But only when made in conjunction with her band, and with a machine called the Wibbly Woof (which opens portals via soundwaves) back at the Factory.
It’s now a race against time. The Biscuiteers are coning off areas of town affected by ABC’s, and working hard to stop anyone doing anything about this crisis – because it’s not their job.
As Man Man has a big, pointless battle with the Head Biscuiteer, and Whizz rebuilds the Woof, Haddie must get her band together, play a gig and convince someone, anyone to acknowledge the crisis, and to sing along with the suckiest song in the world in order to open a new Wild Door big enough for the ABC’s to return home, thus saving the world and also playing some amazing tunes along the way.