Catherine Cho is a literary agent at Madeleine Milburn and author of INFERNO: A Memoir. Originally from the US, her background is in law and public affairs.
The synopsis is often one of the most dreaded aspects of a query; however, it is one of the most important elements of a pitch. The vast majority of agents I know read the synopsis first and then the manuscript (I do this, I think of it as similar to reading the back of a book jacket), while other agents read the synopsis after reading the sample chapters.
You should think of a synopsis as an opportunity to showcase your writing skills. It’s a way to demonstrate that you can write clearly and succinctly and that you have a good understanding of your manuscript.
A synopsis should be around 500 words. (This is around one page single-spaced.) We don’t need a detailed scene by scene breakdown of your novel; remember, an agent just wants to get a general sense of what your book is about. We should know the general plot arc, we should also know the main protagonists of the story and what the narrative stakes are in the book.
You should begin your synopsis with a logline if you can. A logline is a one to two sentence pitch that sums up your book. There are examples of loglines online and it’s something often used in the film industry. It distils what your book is about and shares the emotional heart of the story.
Put your character names in bold or capitalise them. You don’t need to list every single character; try to keep the relationships simple and not overload the synopsis with too many character names. We don’t need to know every single character in the manuscript, just the primary protagonists.
Should you reveal the ending in your synopsis? There are different thoughts on this, but the general consensus is that you don’t need to reveal the ending of your book. However, if your book relies on a twist, then I would hint towards it at the end. You can end your synopsis with a question. For example, ‘Will Frodo destroy the ring and find a way to save Middle-earth?’ This hints to the dramatic conclusion of the story.
The most important thing about a synopsis is that it’s easy to read and that it’s compelling. Try to avoid making the book sound flat; sometimes writers want to be sure to be as concise as possible, and what happens is that the story sounds mechanical. Let the tone of the novel come across in your synopsis.
Avoid extraneous details or character motivations and background. We want to have a sense of immediacy. There’s also no need to go into the themes of your novel. Let the themes of the manuscript come across naturally.
Before submitting to agents, I would take your synopsis and show it to someone who is unfamiliar with your book. Do they understand what the story is about? Are they keen to read more? Think of your synopsis as a marketing document: your goal is to make an agent stop and want to read the full manuscript.