Of all the silly, outrageous things publishers and agents ask of you when submitting your book, the most silly, outrageous request of all is the one-page synopsis. If you’ve ever had to write one before, you’re already groaning. If you don’t know what that is, let me explain:
Most agents and publishers, of course, want a synopsis of your book. Whether they want it at the initial query stage or by request once you’ve piqued their interest, most ask for one. A synopsis a summary of the events in your book–beginning to end, including the full, spoilery conclusion–in a few pages. In a few pages if you’re lucky. Some publishers and agents, more than we’d like, ask for something even more harebrained: that the synopsis be confined to one page. And usually, that means one double-spaced page.
So now you have to detail your WHOLE FRICKIN’ BOOK in one page?! The plot, the characters, the twist, the ending, the theme, all of it. In one page! What are these people thinking?
Publishers and agents will tell you they have a few key reasons for this briefest of brief summaries. Those being:
- They don’t have time to read a description of your book that’s almost as long as the book itself.
- They’re judging how good of a writer you are from your ability to be succinct and yet engaging (yes really).
- They’re judging how good the book is. If it can’t be summed up sufficiently by breaking it down into bare bones parts, it’s probably too rambling and disjointed.
So how do you sum up an entire book in just ONE page? That is, about five paragraphs? I’m going to give you an example here, using a story we all know: Cinderella. I’ll go paragraph by paragraph.
PARAGRAPH ONE: Introduce your main characters–that is, only the ones who really matter and move the story along. You can’t jam your main character and sixty side characters in there. Only talk about who is important. In this case, it’s Cinderella and her wicked stepfamily. Yes, she gets her Prince and she has a fairy godmother, but we’ll mention them later. Also the dancing/singing mice, if you’re going by the Disney version, are not important. You should also introduce the premise in your first paragraph.
After the death of her father, Cinderella languishes in a life of poverty and servitude at the cruel hands her wealthy, wicked stepmother and stepsisters. Forced to do their bidding, she dreams of a life free from chores and degradation, and is prone to daydreaming to escape the unfair realities of her life.
(I always wondered about Cinderella’s father–why did he marry such a nasty woman in the first place? Was it for her money? Did he work for her Dad?)
PARAGRAPH TWO: Describe the conflict. What is happening in this story that, well…makes it a story?
When the Prince of her kingdom throws a ball with the intention of finding himself a wife, Cinderella is desperate to attend. She sews her own dress and gets her hair and nails did, but her stepmother and stepsisters dash her hopes, destroy her dress, and leave her at home to wallow in despair.
(Apparently, to find a wife all you gotta do is throw a party. Was the Prince just going to pick one like you’d pick out a cantaloupe in the produce section?)
PARAGRAPH THREE: The climax. What is the pivotal moment in the story?
To Cinderella’s amazement, she learns she has a
Deus ex machina fairy godmother, who conjures up a wealth of finery for her and sends her off to the ball. There, the Prince meets and falls in love with her, but Cinderella must flee the celebration prematurely–for the spell is broken at midnight. In her haste to depart, she leaves behind a glass slipper. The Prince vows he will not rest until he finds the woman whose foot fits the special shoe.
(Let’s not even get into the impracticalities of glass shoes and it being a size that only a single woman can wear. Also WHY does the spell break at midnight? You can turn a pumpkin into a coach and mice into horses, but you can’t hold a spell past 12:01?)
PARAGRAPH FOUR: The aftermath. What happens after the pivotal moment, how does the story conclude (tell this fully)?
Though her stepfamily tries to keep her from trying on the shoe, when the Prince arrives at their house, Cinderella manages the opportunity to put it on. The Prince realizes Cinderella is his dream girl, and Cinderella gets her man, and the life she’s always dreamed of. Upon leaving her stepfamily’s house, Cinderella burns it to the ground and her stepmother and stepsisters are forced to beg in the streets for the rest of their days.
(This is my version.)
PARAGRAPH FIVE: Wrap up the synopsis, with some notes on theme.
Through struggle and hardship, Cinderella finds a light in the darkness. She learns that being humble and good-hearted brings its just rewards in the end.
(And also a Prince who picks out his wives based on the size of their feet.)
There you have it. Writing a one-page synopsis is never easy, and you’re probably going to feel like you’re leaving tons of things out, but it can be done. Focus on the main characters, plot points, and theme, and you’ll keep it brief. Or, barring that, write a long synopsis and keep whittling it down until you have one page. Or use smaller font so you can get more on the page.
(Don’t do that, I’m kidding.)