What a novel synopsis is

A novel synopsis is a description of the characters and storyline of an author’s manuscript. A brief synopsis runs two or three single-spaced pages, while a longer one (suitable for more complex novels) may run eight or twelve pages. Agents and editors use these in the traditional publishing acquisitions process to see if the novelist knows what they’re doing before investing in the time it takes to read the full ms. As a DE you can use these in your edit to help you understand the story the author is trying to tell.

A good synopsis briefly describes who the protagonist is, including what they want (the external goal) and what’s getting in their way. (Conflict!) Then it describes what the protagonist’s current situation is and what plot event occurs that pushes them on a new path. Something happens (an inciting incident) that moves the protagonist from the current situation into the world of the story.  Why the protagonist takes this step (motivation) is crucial to include.

Next, the synopsis needs to tell who the antagonist is and what they want, and to describe secondary characters and their relationship to the protagonist.

The major plot events should be described, including how these affect the characters’ goals and motivations. Turning points, where some plot milestone is reached (the lovers kiss for the first time, the first clue to the mystery is found) should be emphasized. A turning point drives the plot in a new direction.

Subplot should be introduced and their relationship to the overall plot identified.

Finally, the synopsis should include the culmination of the plot: if there’s a black moment where all is lost, that should be described; if there is a moment when the protagonist must make a choice, that should be described. Then the resolution should be described.

Below is an example of a brief synopsis for a novel that sold to a publisher. The important thing is to describe the characters and to show goals and motivations as well as major plot points – without getting mired in play-by-play.

Sample Synopsis

When former B-movie actress Maureen Haines’s converted barn burns down, her first concern is that her husband Gary has been killed. When it turns out that he wasn’t hurt in the fire, she realizes that he has disappeared. At first, she chalks it up to his unhappiness with her decision to file for divorce and assumes he’ll return eventually. A brilliant scientist, he’s sometimes unpredictable and her experience shows that patience is the best solution to any problem involving him. The fire attracts more attention than she’d like, both from the media and a former lover, Steven F. Miller III.

When she finds evidence that Gary’s having an affair, her anger overcomes her unconcern and she sets out to find him. Her friend and attorney, Debra, tries to reason with her but Maureen is furious that Gary has betrayed her – despite the fact that she’s ready to divorce him. Miller, as she calls him, thinks there’s more to the story than she’s seeing and accompanies her to the most likely places where Gary would go. Maureen’s determination to find out what Gary is up to is in no small part owing to the fact that if she can prove he’s having an affair, a clause in their prenuptial agreement will allow her to divorce him without having to pay alimony.

As Maureen pieces together what might have caused Gary to leave, she finds herself the target of mysterious threats. At first she’s afraid that it’s a former fan who stalked her some years previously, helping her to her decision to retire from the movie business and to marry Gary.

But when Gary shows up with a wild story about enemies wanting to steal his scientific research, Maureen doesn’t know what to think. With Miller’s help, she looks into the threats against her and against Gary and comes to the conclusion that Gary has set the whole thing up to add spice and drama to her life – Maureen being addicted to drama. By giving her an adventure, he’s hoping she’ll settle back down into their married life.

Disgusted with Gary’s antics, Maureen returns home, fuming. There she learns that some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit the scenario she’s decided must be true and now she doesn’t know what to think or do. Should she trust Gary and believe him?  Or was she right in the first place that he’s having an affair and trying to cover it up with an elaborate farce?  As she and Miller look deeper into the problem, they learn that the fan who previously stalked her has escaped prison and may be behind the strange threats.

Her uncertainty about her future becomes an immediate short-term problem when the fan shows up at her home, expressing his desire to be with her. At first she thinks the fan is responsible for the threats. Then she realizes that Gary is manipulating the fan to do his dirty work for him. Gary has been having an affair – with Maureen’s friend Debra – but doesn’t want to lose the money that he would if Maureen were able to prove it. Not wanting to do the dirty work himself, he arranged matters to make the fan do it for him.

In the end, Gary is de-clawed, and Maureen goes on to a second act with Miller.

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