Ever try to write a sales pitch for your novel? It’s the one you’ll find on the back or inside flap cover of a print book or on a site where your book is being sold.
This sales pitch, or book cover synopsis (which I’ll just call a promo synopsis after this), is sometimes incorrectly called a book blurb. The blurb is generally the term used for a promotional quote by another author praising your book. Also, don’t confuse this synopsis with one you’d write for a query letter to an agent or editor. That’s a completely different kind of synopsis.
If you’ve never written a promo synopsis, you’re probably thinking, How hard can it be? It’s just a couple hundred words. If that’s what you believe, then you’ve clearly never written or attempted to write one. Or maybe you have written one for your own book, one you whipped up in a few minutes and thought you did a pretty good job of it. Maybe you did. Maybe you’re a synopsis genius who can whip up a killer synopsis on a coffee break.
If you did manage to write one fairly fast and it’s not as good as believe it is, then it may be hurting your sales. And if your synopsis has any grammatical or spelling errors—even one—anyone reading it might well wonder how good the writing in the novel is if you can’t even write a couple hundred error-free words (regardless of who wrote the synopsis).
Why is a promo synopsis so hard to write. Most of the time it’s because you’re the author and every fiber in your being is rebelling against squeezing your masterpiece—that’s tens of thousands of words and likely took you years to write—into a few paragraphs. In your eyes, it’s like dismissing the painting of the Mona Lisa as “a nice painting of a smiling woman.” With that whole novel floating inside your head, it’s tough to sort out what’s most important and will grab your reader hard and fast.
A compelling synopsis tells your reader what kind of book it is, what it’s about, and what makes it potentially interesting and without spoiling the story. Think of your synopsis as a commercial for the book (or a movie trailer if that helps). You must convince your reader that it’s worth buying.
Okay, let’s put theory into practice. My wife claims that I don’t know how to write a good cover synopsis. The reason she says that is because I tend to be wordy and I fall into same the trap I warned you about above. I have trouble condensing it to the bare essentials. It’s not that I don’t know what makes for a good synopsis; it’s that I let myself get sidetracked with unnecessary details.
With this blog, I’m going to prove to my wife that I can do it. While this is aimed at fiction books, this process, with modification, should work for ANY book. Condense it to the essentials and make it interesting.
We need to filter out the extraneous and focus on the book’s contents. Do that by answering the following questions.
NOTE: Nothing in the responses to these questions should give away any secrets of the novel because you do NOT want any plot spoilers in the promo synopsis.
(1) What kind of book is it? Choose a few broad keywords (I’ve suggested some possibilities below) that describe the type of novel it is. If none of these fit your book, add some of your own. Don’t get too specific and do NOT try to narrow your book to ONE best category.
Our purpose here has nothing to do with finding the genre your book fits into. These are merely words that help describe the type of story line you have. If you have horror, humor, and detective elements, then list all of those. If there’s a bit of romance, add that as well.
SOME POSSIBLE KEYWORDS TO CONSIDER: nonfiction, fantasy, romance, sci-fi, historical fiction, modern fiction, horror, suspense, thriller, post-apocalyptic, spy novel, crime, police/detective, war story, mystery, gothic, memoir, biography, adventure, humor, comedy, coming-of-age, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s fiction, young adult, erotica.
Now add a few more specific keywords to narrow down your story type. If it’s fantasy, is it high fantasy (like Lord of the Rings). If it’s horror what are the horror elements: vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, alien monsters?
(2) Who are your main characters? This will help focus on possible audiences. If you have a group of main characters (such as you find in the Harry Potter novels), pick the leaders or strongest ones. For Harry Potter, I’d probably name Harry and Voldemort because they are the primary protagonist and antagonist.
(3) Where does the novel take place? What is the setting? Is the setting urban, modern, historical (be specific)? On Earth, not on Earth? What country, region, etc., if these matter.
(4) What is the novel’s theme? Consider your “theme” as what’s really important in the novel at a deeper level and what it might mean to the reader. It might be as simple as good vs. evil, although that’s a very broad theme, and you should look for something more specific.
Not all novels will have a clear-cut or easy-to-find them. Some may have more than one. Finding the theme to your novel will help you craft your promo synopsis, but it’s not essential to it. I’ve included some links to help you ferret out your theme.
(5) What is the overall mood of the novel (light, dark, somewhere in between)? Stating this will help you craft the wording and tone of your synopsis.
This next question (6) gets a little tricky. The response to this next question depends on the type of novel, so I’ve broken it into two pieces. If you’re writing a genre novel with a hero/heroine or protagonist/antagonist and where there’s external conflict with a goal and resolution, then use question 6a.
If you’re writing a literary novel that focuses more on internal conflict, resonance, and the human condition/human struggle, then try question 6b. (Example literary novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby).
If you’ve got something in between or a mix of both, try answering both 6a and 6b. Here are some novels that might fit both categories: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many of Mark Twain’s novels. The original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is not classified as a horror novel at all. It’s usually considered Gothic and science fiction, and it deals with some heavy social and philosophical issues.
(6a) What is the goal of the main character/characters and what’s at stake in the novel? In other words, who is affected by the outcome?
(6b) What is the purpose of the novel? What is the novel trying to convey to the reader? What’s the deeper meaning of it?
Now, comes the most difficult question.
(7) If someone asks you what your book is about and you have no more than 30 seconds to answer it and at most 4-5 sentences, what you would say about it? This is where you focus on the nitty-gritty of your book’s story line really and figure out how to pitch it.
You might be able to do this in one sentence if your particular book lends itself to that. We can do that with Jurassic Park: Someone has figured out how to clone dinosaurs, sets up an amusement park where people can see them, then the dinosaurs get loose. One of my favorite one-line synopses is this: What if someone goes back in time to kill the Apostle Paul?
These are almost good enough to serve as the entire synopsis because they’ll hook a reader interested in the particular type of story all by themselves. Unfortunately, not every story is that easy (or even possible) to sum up in one compelling sentence. Try doing it with Harry Potter or Star Wars or with some of your favorite novels and movies. You might come close to one sentence with some. It’s a good exercise nonetheless.
The reason we struggle with writing a good short synopsis is that we want to give too much detail, and we believe that we must add background so the reader understands what’s going on. That’s not the purpose of a book synopsis. Its purpose—its only purpose—is to interest the reader in buying the book. Keep it short and sweet. With some stories, we may need a bit of explanation or background, but resist the temptation to go overboard. If you find yourself explaining, STOP and start again, because you’re likely doing it wrong.
Having answered these questions and written those brief synopsis sentences, you should hopefully have a better idea of your novel with all the details and minor plot elements stripped out.
Your next job is to distill the results of these answers down to something that describes the essence of your novel and its main characters. Remember that good stories are about people not ideas. If you synopsis ends up sounding like a list of ideas or concepts instead of how the characters in it are affected, then you’ve missed the point and anyone reading your synopsis won’t be hooked.
As an exercise, let’s play with crafting a synopsis for Harry Potter, a novel everyone should know.
Here’s a very lame one I concocted for the whole series.
In a world where magic is real, a group of characters attending a school for wizards learn that an evil wizard who was defeated once is attempting to come back to seek revenge and establish himself in a position of power. Will the characters find a way to defeat him before he can take over?
Sadly, I’ve seen self-published indie authors do similarly ineffective book synopses. While it’s accurate and short, it’s impersonal. We don’t know anything about the characters, the setting, or when this takes place. You can find a couple of different synopses for the first Harry Potter novel on Amazon.com. It’s fun to look at them to see how supposed professionals wrote them and the audience they seem targeted for.
In the synopsis I wrote, note the last sentence. Does asking that anticlimactic question really add anything to the synopsis? My answer is no because the reader has probably already posed it in his own mind before starting the book. Adding it says we don’t trust our readers to figure out what needs to happen to resolve the situation. I see such questions in a number of synopses, and I always have the same reaction: Don’t do it.
I wrote this particular blog post for selfish reasons. I was having difficulty crafting a decent synopsis for the novel The Mosaic that Chris Keaton and I have been working on, and I wanted to see if I could come up with a process to help get the job done. At the same time, if it helped our blog readers, so much the better. Let’s see how we can do with it.
Let’s summarize the questions to answer for a synopsis:
(1) What kind of book is it? Jot down several keywords.
(2) Who are the main characters?
(3) What is the setting for the novel?
(4) What is the novel’s theme?
(5) What is the overall mood of the novel?
(6a) GENRE NOVEL: What is the goal of the main character and what’s at stake and for whom? Who is affected by the outcome?
(6b) LITERARY NOVEL: What is the novel trying to convey to the reader?
(7) How would you answer the question “What is your novel about?” in 30 seconds with only a handful of sentences.
Here’s what I did for The Mosaic:
1– Fantasy, YA novel, magic, modern
2– Main characters are 14-year-old twin sisters, their grandmother, and Severin (a guardian of the Mosaic and who is also known as the Black Knight). The major antagonist is the Witch Queen. Various other magical creatures appear in the novel.
3– Set in modern-day world, primary in a mansion converted to a private museum in a small town (population 1000) in Kansas.
4– One theme is basic good versus evil. Another is that life can hand us unexpected surprises (the main girls learn about the existence of magic and real fantasy creatures).
5– Overall mood is serious most of the time, but not dark, and it has a few humorous moments.
6a– Goal is to defeat the Witch Queen and to prevent her from gaining control of the Mosaic. At stake is the fate of the world because she will attempt to put Man and Magic Beings under her power.
7– At one time, Man and Magic Beings lived together in harmony on Earth. When the Witch Queen sought to take control, the Elf Queen sealed all of the Magic World inside a magical Mosaic. Over time whenever tiles of the Mosaic were broken off, whatever magical thing or Being they held was returned to the world. The Witch Queen was just released, and she wants the Mosaic for the power it contains.
Trust me when I say that this is the first time I’ve been able to condense the novel to those bare essentials, with no spoilers or extraneous information.
I’m not going to flesh out the synopsis here, but I hope you can see one able to take shape.
Now, apply this method to your own novel and see what happens. I make no promises, but I think it will help.