A well-written book description (also called a synopsis) is an essential marketing tool for your novel. Its purpose is to lure the reader in with just enough of a teaser that they feel compelled to crack open the cover and start reading. An alluring synopsis is the gateway into your book, yet too many authors don’t give their synopsis the respect that it’s due, and as a result they let their novel — and themselves — down.
A good fiction synopsis:
- always starts with attention-grabbing, descriptive words. Avoid beginning with “[Book title] is a [genre] about …”; this is redundant and comes off as amateurish.
- introduces your main characters and some insight into their dilemma(s). Limit the introduction to the principle two or three characters; you don’t have room to talk about anyone else. If secondary characters can be identified by their group, use this instead: e.g., The Church, the FBI, the government.
- should mirror the pace and tone of the book. If the book is a thriller, for example, the synopsis should be fast-paced. It should also highlight those elements of the book that most clearly identify its genre, or which will appeal to your target audience.
- should hint at whether the ending is happy or tragic, or it may ask a question, suggesting the outcome might be uncertain.
- makes every word count. If words or phrases can serve double-duty, all the better. You have a very limited space with which to get your message across.
- is a reasonable length, usually 1000 characters or less; any longer and your readers may zone out.
To see the theory in action, let’s analyze the synopsis for my novel, Baby Jane, a murder mystery with a paranormal twist:
There’s more to good and evil than meets the eye…
When human remains are found in her pre-war fixer-upper in an east Vancouver neighbourhood, Claire Dawson’s grand plans to fix the house — and her life — take a disturbing turn. Suspicious there might exist a relationship between the discovery and her own tragic past, Claire insinuates herself into the investigation, unknowingly placing herself in harm’s way and Homicide’s Detective Dylan Lewis in an impossible conflict of interest. And when Dylan’s grandmother, a Coast Salish medicine woman, wades into the mystery, challenging the demon whose earthly form is behind the murder, the three find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes battle where lines are blurred and worlds collide — but souls are ultimately freed.
Notice how the first five words of the body text immediately command the reader’s attention — the discovery of human remains always does — and indicates the catalyst for the mystery. The main protagonists, Claire and Dylan, are then introduced along with an indication of their individual dilemmas. A third significant character, Dylan’s grandmother, is introduced but not named: her age, ethnicity and role of medicine woman are far more important to the story; and indicating her ethnicity and relationship to Dylan serves double duty: the reader now knows that Dylan is Native without my having to say so, allowing me to emphasize instead his role as the homicide detective. Mention of the demon and “worlds colliding” tells the reader there are paranormal elements, while the “three find themselves embroiled” phrase indicates that Claire and the grandmother’s involvement will be as essential to the outcome as the police investigation. “[B]ut souls are ultimately freed” assures the reader the outcome will be favourable, and also that it’s of greater metaphysical significance than just catching a murderer; this is also hinted at in the headline, “There’s more to good and evil than meets the eye.” Once the reader finishes the novel, the double meaning of “lines are blurred” and “souls are ultimately freed” is revealed.
Note also the use of words such as “disturbing,” “suspicious,” “discovery,” and “investigation.” These choices draw attention to the mystery and are common keywords associated with the genre. The headline and final sentence bookend the synopsis with references to the paranormal, doubling its emphasis, and mimics a news headline.
Now compare this to the original. Baby Jane started out as a romance-suspense novel and the synopsis was initially written to reflect this:
When human remains are found in her pre-war fixer-upper in a hip east Vancouver neighbourhood, Claire Dawson’s grand plans to fix the house — and her life — quickly unravel. Still recovering from the loss of her unborn child and the cruel lover who fathered it, Claire’s fragile equilibrium collapses — until Homicide’s Detective Dylan Lewis reawakens in Claire emotions she thought deadened by grief. But with a murder to solve and strict rules to obey, Dylan finds himself torn between desire and responsibility. And when Dylan’s grandmother, a Coast Salish medicine woman, wades into the mystery, challenging the demon whose earthly form is behind the murder, the three find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes battle where lines are blurred and worlds collide — but souls are ultimately freed.
In the final version the relationship between Claire and Dylan is unclear; in the first version it is emphasized: the synopsis highlights the emotional state and tragic past of my protagonist Claire, the ensuing romantic relationship between Claire and Dylan, and concludes with a happy resolution. It uses romantic words such as “desire,” “lover,” and “reawakens.” These are all key indicators of a romance novel. The paranormal elements are mentioned but are secondary, as is the suspense.
Baby Jane, however, didn’t remain a romance-suspense novel. It wasn’t the book I had in my heart and thus I spent several months rewriting it. Although the eventual relationship between Claire and Dylan remains — it is essential to solve the mystery and to set up the book’s final surprise reveal — it now takes a backseat to the investigation and the parallel paranormal mystery, which was greatly expanded and now provides a metaphysical spine to the story. A new synopsis was therefore needed to reflect these dramatic changes. Had I used my original synopsis it would not have accurately reflected the content of my story, and would have turned off potential readers who were looking for a mystery, not a romance-suspense novel. This is an example of how merely changing a few words or sentences can completely alter the emphasis of your synopsis and attract a very different and perhaps unintended audience. It is therefore critical you consider who your primary target audience is when deciding which elements of your story to highlight.
After your cover, your book synopsis is your best chance at attracting readers. Take the time to make it the best it can be.