(Erm, I have just read this post of mine from a year ago, in which I professed to be terrified of synopses. Silly me. Maybe I've learnt a lot the last year. Maybe practice makes almost perfect, or at least better, or at least less scary?)
A synopsis is much shorter (and harder to write); it shows perfectly what the book is like and what it's about, without the need for chronological outlining. A synopsis omits sub-plots and minor characters. It tells us who the MC(s) is/are and their motivations, sets up the conflict, setting, theme, voice and denouement. The purpose of the synopsis is to sell the book and the idea, and give the agent or editor a very clear idea as to what this book is like. It must be brilliantly crafted and the more time you spend on it, the better.
You are highly likely to need a synopsis in order to sell your book. It will usually go with the covering letter and sample chapters. Even published authors are likely to need to write synopses for their editors before their editors can wave a contract under their faces.
So, the answer to the question, "How do I do an outline?" is: you just say what happens, in what order, giving the POV. Just lay it out as clearly as possible and be as brief as you can while fitting everything in.
And the answer to the question, "How do I do a synopsis?" is only a bit more complicated.
- Keep it brief. How brief? Different people will give you different rules, for one good reason: there is no single rule. If you want a rule: keep within two sides of A4, though you'll get agents / editors who don't mind if it's a bit longer. One side is likely to be preferable to two - ie, generally, the shorter the better. I have heard it said that single-spacing is fine - fine, whatever. I care not whether it is single-spaced or triple, as long as it's clear. If I was an agent I'd probably prefer double. But then, "Mine's a double" kind of rolls off my tongue. Honestly, spacing in synopses doesn't require a firm rule.
- Make sure you say what genre it is, and what length. Mention the setting. We need to know.
- Always make it 3rd person (but say if it's written in 1st).
- Present usually works best for a synopsis.
- Say what happens in the end.
- Omit minor characters and sub-plots.
- Don't include unanswered questions, such as, "Will Jeff save the world?"
- Don't tell the reader how exciting / brilliant the story is.
- Make the writing tight - you are a writer and everything you write should be up to standard.
Not easy to write, and therefore something that we shy away from, but writing a synopsis at any stage (before or after writing the book) can be a very useful and focusing act.
Edited to add two tips from blog readers -
Emma Darwin says: "The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively."
And Gemma Noon: "Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculuously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't."
No excuses now: just do it!