I can’t bring myself to believe that ANY editor or agent would be so cruel as to require an author to write a synopsis and then not put it to the use God intended. Besides a synopsis is a vital part of any submission. The pages/chapters tell an editor you can write. A synopsis tells an editor you have something to say.
What an editor looks for in a synopsis is 1) the logic and structure of the story, and an escalating tension. Will this hang together? Will it pull readers along? He/she wants to know 2) a bit about the characters and how they behave through the arc of the story. Are the hero’s and heroine’s actions consistent and are they worthy of the reader’s concern? Will readers like these characters? He/she is also judging 3) whether there are elements in the story that will make a book commercially viable. Why will people want to read it? Is the author balancing the difficult issues she wants to write about with things that will pique the readers interest?
As an aside, I’d like to take a minute to illustrate that balancing thing because it’s so important in thinking about ALL the stories we want to write. This is the gist of a conversation Eileen Dreyer had with her editor when she proposed her Kathleen Korbel Silhouette Intimate Moments JAKE’S WAY.
Eileen: I want to write a romance with an illiterate hero.
Editor: Hum. Well, I don’t know…
Eileen: Did I mention to you that the illiterate hero is a cowboy?
Editor: Why didn’t you say so in the first place?
Beyond the things listed above, there are a couple of other things the synopsis lets you do that may be relevant to selling your book. You can talk about the story, as well as tell it. In an overview you can summarize your story in a sell line that the editor can take to an editorial meeting to help HER sell your story to her editorial department. Patricia Coughlin’s Rita Award winning book MERELY MARRIED might have been explained in the sell line as: A marriage of convenience book where the duke marries a dying spinster — but then she lives. Or you can write what is called a “high concept” line like the one for JAWS: Shark terrorizes beach resort.
You might also want to give a little background information in your synopsis if you are using an unfamiliar historical period/event or new technological advance as the basis of a story. Or you might want to say a word or two about how you mean to tell the story. I wrote something in the synopsis for COLOR OF THE WIND about using epistalatory material (the heroine’s letters) to further the plot. Keep this stuff brief, but it may be useful in giving your editor further insight about what you mean to do.
To get back to the correct length of a synopsis — your original question –this varies from editor to editor or project to project. The best way to judge what kind of a synopsis an editor wants is to get the information from her directly. Whenever an editor gives a workshop, someone invariably asks this question, and the editor dutifully answers. Track down a tape of her last workshop and find out. Ask someone who submits to her regularly. Sometimes tip sheets will tell you what kind of a synopsis an editor or house prefers. If you’re really worried about this, it’s not inappropriate to call an editor — though I would probably track down her assistant, if she has one — and ask outright. Or let your agent guide you to the correct synopsis form to accompany your submission. After all, your agent works with this editor every day, and that insight is part of what you’re paying her for.
Everyone has a theory about how long synopses should be, and I guess that one page per 25 manuscript pages is as good a rule of thumb as any. That’s in the ball park for what I’ve done most of my career. I have a friend whose synopsis advice is, “sell the sizzle, not the steak,” and her synopses run three to five pages. I couldn’t do that, but it works for her.
Keep in mind that synopses are highly personal things. You have to be comfortable with the way you tell your story in the synopsis just as you must be comfortable telling it in the text of the manuscript.
The thought I’d like to leave you with in all of this is that in spite of all the cursing, twitching, and gnashing of teeth we go through over writing a synopsis, NO EDITOR EVER TURNED DOWN A MANUSCRIPT SHE WANTED TO BUY BECAUSE THE SYNOPSIS WAS TOO SHORT, TOO LONG, OR IN THE WRONG FORM.
Cling to that truth.