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What is a synopsis…

Posted on 12/11/2021 in The Kelpies Prize Writing

… and how do I write one?

The Kelpies Prize for Writing

As part of the Kelpies Prize for Writing, we ask entrants to send us a synopsis for a book they have written or could write. It’s a term that pops up a lot in publishing, but what does it actually mean?

Put simply, a synopsis is a brief overview of a book. It should give the reader a good summary of what your novel, picture book or non-fiction project is about and who it’s for.

Structure of a synopsis

Many writers find them tricky to write (“How can I condense my whole book into just one page?!”), but it can helpful to think about a synopsis as having just three main parts.

For fiction (novels and picture books), these include:

  1. 1. A pitch line or hook: A single introductory sentence or question that summarises the main thrust of your story. If you can think of a pithy, attention-grabbing one-line pitch, even better!
  2. 2. Readership and genre: This should include information about who the book is for and what genre it fits into. This is especially important when writing for children. Is your book for 6-9’s or 9-12’s? Is it fantasy, historical, sci-fi, humour, realist? All of the above?
  3. 3. What the book is about: This should make up the bulk of your synopsis. Tell us about your book’s plot!
      • Who are the main characters?
      • Where and when is the story set?
      • What happens? (In other words, what’s driving the story forwards? What does your main character want, and what’s getting in their way?)
      • Why is this important? (Why should readers care? What’s at stake? And how does the action unfold?)
      • How does the story end? (How is it all resolved? What has changed by the end of the book? What kind of journey have your characters been on?)

A synopsis for a non-fiction book might differ a little, but should still have the same three central parts:

  1. 1. A pitch line or hook: A single introductory sentence that summarises your book.
  2. 2. Readership: Information about who the book is for and what age group it is aimed at. Is it for general readers or those interested in a specific subject area?
  3. 3. What the book about is about: Like with a fiction synopsis, this part should make up the bulk of your book summary. We’d like to know:
      • The subject matter or concept
      • What your book will include (e.g. If your book is about the history of Scotland, what periods will it cover? Which notable people or important events?)
      • What sets your book apart (It is likely there will already be books on the market covering your subject, so think about what makes your book stand out. Perhaps it’s funny, or offers a unique take on an established subject. Tell us what makes it special!)
      • Your expertise/interest (Why are you particularly qualified to write this book? Perhaps you have expert knowledge about this area, or maybe you’re just really enthusiastic about this subject. Either way, we’d really like to know!)

A few final pointers

Keeping the structure outlined above in mind when writing your synopsis will ensure it’s as reader-friendly as possible, but here’s a few final pointers you may also find useful:

  • Keep it short!: A good synopsis should be engaging and lively, so it’s best to keep it brief if you can. Try not to over-describe – just give a simple, broad overview of the plot or contents. One page is ideal. If you’re really struggling to keep your summary short it’s a sign that you’re either giving us too much information or that you need to look at simplifying your plot/concept.
  • Synopsis, not blurb: Blurbs (both the copy on the back of a book and descriptions of a book online) and synopses have very different purposes. A blurb is like an advertisement – it entices a reader in but usually doesn’t give a huge amount of detail about the contents. A synopsis, on the other hand, is all about content – editors and agents need to be able to read it and instantly know what your book is about. Think information, not intrigue!
  • Comparison titles: All books are unique, but it’s really useful if you can include a couple of comparative titles in your synopsis. If you had to list similar books in terms of tone, voice, subject matter etc., what would those books be? This not only tells us that you have a good knowledge of the current book market, but also acts as a helpful kind of shorthand – it instantly communicates what your book is about and who its potential readers are.
  • Tell us the ending!: It’s tempting to try and leave your reader wanting more, but we’d really like to know how your story ends! This can be tricky if you haven’t written a full first draft yet, but at this stage it’s still helpful to know where you imagine your story going (even if that changes once you actually get there).

Best of luck to everyone entering this year’s Kelpies Prize. We look forward to reading your entries (and brilliantly written synopses!).

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