A synopsis is a one-page summary of your novel, used to demonstrate your story-crafting skills to a literary agent (or publisher).
Most publishers don’t accept manuscript submissions directly from authors, so if you’d like to follow the traditional route to publication, you usually need to sign with an agent.
Your synopsis is one of the items an agent will ask you to submit to them so they can assess your suitability for representation. The other items include a query letter and a sample of your writing.
When writing your synopsis:
- Use the third-person present tense
- Type it up in a legible font with single spacing
- CAPITALISE a name the first time you mention it
- Follow the agent’s guidelines
Generally, a synopsis should fit comfortably on two A4 pages, but the length really depends on what the agent wants to see. The agent’s specified guidelines (usually found on the agency’s website) should let you know specifically what they’re looking for in terms of length. To save yourself some time and trouble, it can be a good idea to prepare a few synopsises of varying lengths.
Don’t try to cram more onto the page by using a tiny font or reducing your page margins. The whole point is the synopsis should be concise and easy to scan.
Your synopsis needs to demonstrate a coherent plot and the emotional journey of the main character.
The plot will usually follow the three-act story arc (with an inciting incident at the beginning, rising action in the middle, and a climax and resolution at the end) and should give a sense of how the events of the story emotionally affect the protagonist.
If you’re writing literary fiction, your synopsis doesn’t matter too much because your writing style will be more important than you plot. But if you’re writing genre fiction, your synopsis is crucial in showing an agent you know how to structure an engaging story.
As you can probably imagine, writing your synopsis can also highlight potential problems in your plot. If you’re struggling to write a concise, logically connected summary of the events of your novel, you might find it isn’t yet ready to be submitted to agents.
Sometimes when I get the synopsis, it indicates that the story fizzles out, or it doesn’t continue as strongly as the opening chapters, or the characters don’t act consistently, or any other number of problems that make a book unsatisfactory.
Lindsey Fraser, Fraser Ross Associates (source: laurathomascommunications.com)
The 3 most important things to remember about synopsis writing
1. Your book won’t be rejected based on your synopsis
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when writing your synopsis. How on earth can you reduce the plot of a whole novel and all its nuances onto a page or two? In reality, you can’t – and agents know this. They won’t assess your novel’s potential based on your synopsis alone. They’ll look at your covering letter and sample pages, too, and if they see potential, they’ll ask to see your whole manuscript. What you submit to them essentially gives them a sense of your novel and writing skills.
2. Your synopsis is not back-cover blurb
Your synopsis shouldn’t be written in persuasive sales language, nor should it withhold any major plot points. Remember, you’re not writing a teaser to entice readers to buy your book; you’re writing an informative document that will be read by literary professionals. Don’t shy away from revealing your story’s juiciest moments!
3. A synopsis is not an outline
Writing an outline is a useful way of looking at the bones of your plot, but a synopsis needs to demonstrate more than that. Your synopsis should elegantly show how your story works as a whole. Describing the events of your novel in the order in which they happen might not be the best way to do this. Your synopsis needs to also mirror the style of your book; an outline doesn’t. If your synopsis doesn’t follow the chronology of your novel, make sure it’s clear this is the case. Do what works best for your book.
The synopsis [is important] because it tells me what the author thinks the book is about and how they see it.
Jane Finigan, Lutyens and Rubinstein (source: writersandartists.co.uk)
What should a synopsis include?
THE MAIN STORY THREAD
Novels can be complex, and some contain multiple, interweaving story threads. Don’t try to cram them all into your synopsis, spreading them too thinly. For the sake of clarity, you might have to leave out one or two threads of your story. It’s better to do this and show clearly connected events than try to cover too much ground and end up with half-expressed ideas.
Some writers are reluctant to give away the ending of their novels in their synopsis, but an agent really needs to know what happens at the end of your story if they’re going to be able to accurately assess your story-crafting skills. Make sure the ending can be seen to thread back to the beginning of your synopsis so that the agent can see how the whole plot hangs together.
It’s crucial to convey character and motivation in a synopsis. Describe why the people in your story act the way they do and show how this shapes the plot. Start with your main character. How do the events of the plot force them to change? This is the emotional arc of your novel. What motivates the supporting characters to initiate important plot events? Demonstrating this gives logic to your story.
THE POINT OF VIEW
Mention the point of view (POV) that you use in your novel. You don’t need to go into great detail, unless your synopsis doesn’t make sense without doing so – there’s no need to say where it switches if this happens often. This is one way an agent can get a better sense of how your novel is written.
A FLAVOUR OF THE NARRATIVE STYLE
If the novel is whimsical or serious, upbeat or melancholy, this should come across through the events and writing style without you having to say so – but don’t worry if your synopsis reads less artfully than your manuscript. You have to fit a lot of information into your synopsis, so that will have an effect on the writing style. You’re not trying to perfectly demonstrate your novel’s narrative style through your synopsis (your sample pages will do this better), but you can still provide a flavour of how your novel is written.
The point of a synopsis is not to explain much. It’s to show what happens. It is not intended to be lyrical beautiful writing.
Janet Reid, New Lead Literary & Media (source: jetreidliterary.blogspot.co.uk)
A MENTION OF THE GENRE
Clarify the genre at the start of your synopsis, even though you’ll have already mentioned it in your covering letter. It serves as a reminder and helps put the events of your story in context.
ANY IMPORTANT MISCELLANEOUS DETAILS
If the novel is set in a certain time period or special setting, state this in the synopsis. If your novel is aimed at a certain age range, state this, too – and write your synopsis at a similar reading level, using similar vocabulary. If there’s anything particularly unique about the way your novel is written, briefly mention it in your synopsis.
Things to avoid when writing your synopsis
Don’t explain the mechanics of the story, e.g. ‘the themes are …’, ‘this is a story about …’, ‘the plots intertwine when …’. It’s unnecessary to do this and takes up valuable room in your synopses.
Avoid instructing readers how they should feel about the events of the story. Instead of using words like ‘heartbreaking’, ‘uplifting’ or ‘hilarious’, let the plot communicate the emotions.
Likewise, don’t include questions aimed to tease the reader, such as ‘Will Anna save the day?’ and ‘Can Hector overcome his crippling self-doubt?’. This sounds hackneyed – and you shouldn’t let questions like this go unanswered in your synopsis anyway.
Don’t be too wordy. You’re a writer, so use your writing skills and scrutinise your synopsis for clunky phrasing and repetition. How can you make your sentences flow succinctly? Edit, edit, edit.
What makes my eyes glaze over is an overly long synopsis of the story.
Alice Lutyens, Curtis Brown (source: curtisbrowncreative.co.uk)
Different ways of writing a synopsis
Some writers find forming their synopsis a piece of cake, while others might really struggle. I recommend setting your manuscript aside for a few weeks before tackling writing a synopsis. This way you’re more likely to remember only the most important elements – which is exactly what should be the focus of your synopsis.
There’s no universal way to write a synopsis, but if you’re struggling, you might want to try one or both of these methods:
CUTTING YOUR NOVEL DOWN TO SIZE
Write a detailed outline and remove all minor plot strands and characters. Rewrite what’s left so that it makes sense and the key events hang together logically. Keep cutting away less important bits until you’re left with something the right length for a synopsis.
BUILDING YOUR NOVEL UP FROM THE CORE
Start with your hook, then expand this to a paragraph that summarises the beginning, middle and ending. Flesh this out with the most important plot points that show how the main character gets from the start to the end of the story. Adjust the order of your paragraphs if necessary to make sure the synopsis flows artfully. Join up all the points and make sure there are no superfluous explanations included.
NOTE: I talk about how to develop the hook for your story in my post about query letters.
If you’re still struggling to know where to start when writing your synopsis, try answering the following questions. You’ll see your synopsis start to take shape:
- Who is the main character of your story?
- What does their normal, everyday life look like?
- What’s the inciting incident that propels the character into the story?
- What is your character striving towards? What’s their goal?
- What happens that makes it harder for your character to reach their goal?
- Who else helps or hinders them along the way, and how?
- Does your character hold true to their beliefs, or do they take a new approach? Does anything make them change their mind?
- What’s the event that sets the main character down an inevitable path towards achieving (or failing to achieve) their goal?
- How do they achieve (or fail to achieve) their goal? Does this change the character in any way?
- How is the character’s everyday life different now they’ve been through their experience? How are their relationships different?
What if your novel is the start of a series?
Your submission should focus on this first book that you’re pitching. If your novel could possibly lend itself to further books in a series, mention this in your covering letter. If you’re sure your book will be the first in a series, very briefly include your ideas for this in your covering letter. You could also send a shorter, separate synopsis for each of the books in the series to show the agent what you’re planning.
They may or may not be interested in these, but it doesn’t hurt to include them. Your submission should focus on pitching your current novel, because if you don’t do a good enough job of demonstrating your abilities with this one, an agent will have no reason to be interested in the rest of the series.
What if your novel is really, really long?
Firstly, consider whether your manuscript is too long. Does it need redrafting? Editing? Splitting into multiple volumes? Make sure your manuscript is an appropriate length for your genre, and take into consideration that agents and publishers are less likely to take a chance publishing a huge tome by a new, unknown writer …
Regardless, just because your novel is long, it doesn’t mean your synopsis has to be. You might have several subplots (which can be left out of your synopsis) or you might have lots of obstacles that your protagonist has to overcome in the middle section of your novel (in which case, only mention the most crucial).
Remember, your synopsis doesn’t have to include every single plot point.
Final tip: Show your synopsis to people who haven’t read your book
This is the best way to see whether you’ve included the right plot points and made it clear how they connect. If the person reading your synopsis is honest with you, you’ll also be able to get a sense of how interesting and engaging your story sounds, too.
Because you’re so close to your story, it can be hard to assess the effectiveness of your synopsis. An outside perspective can help you see where you might have left out any crucial information – or whether it feels too bloated with detail.
Where to find agents
Once you have your covering letter, synopsis and sample chapters prepared, you’re ready to start pitching. First, though, you’ll need to decide which agents to submit to. Ask yourself: Is the agent reputable? Are they taking on new clients and books in my genre? Do they seem like a good fit?
You can find agents in the following databases, but always check out their website, too.
- Writers&Artists – https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/listings
- AgentMatch – http://www.jerichowriters.com/agentmatch
- Publishers Marketplace – http://www.publishersmarketplace.com
- Writers Market – http://www.writersmarket.com
- AgentQuery – http://agentquery.com
- Manuscript Wish List – http://manuscriptwishlist.com
Make sure your manuscript is ready to pitch
You don’t want to pitch your manuscript before you’ve filled in all those plot holes, suitably infused your themes and smoothed out your character motivations. If you’d like professional feedback on your draft, consider hiring me to conduct a manuscript critique.
To learn more about writing a synopsis and see lots of analysed examples, I recommend Nicola Morgan’s book Write a Great Synopsis.