Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.


To begin with, you don’t want to make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters and conflicts. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.


How concise? Some sources will tell you to write one single-spaced page of synopsis copy per 100 pages of your manuscript (but in its final form the synopsis should be double-spaced). For example, if your manuscript contains about 100,000 words, then divide that number by 250 (the approximate number of words you should have on each page), which translates to 400 pages. Divide that page count by 100 and you get four—the maximum number of single-spaced pages for your synopsis.


In my view that's too long. A better option is to write a one-page précis of your book. This is a very short description of the story that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end in two or three paragraphs. I recommend writing this brief summary in my piece “Writing the Query Package.” Think of a short synopsis as the blurb that will appear on the back cover of your book. This copy should be tight and punchy while still including the who, what, where, and when of your story. Do NOT give away the ending.


Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have it all ready to send.


Boiling down a long and complicated story this much can be a challenge, but remember that you need to summarize your plot/story in only one paragraph in your query letter. Writing that crucial paragraph can be a good place to start developing a concise synopsis, because you can use that brief summary as the first paragraph of your synopsis. This graf can be seen as a general overview and a quick introduction to your book. After that, beginning with the second graf, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your characters, what they do, and what happens to them.


Keep in mind some things that agents and editors do want to know, including:


• What is the story about?


• What is the problem?


• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?


• Who are the main characters?


• What do these characters want?


• Why do they want it?


• What stands in the way of their getting it?





1. Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.


2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.


3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or beauty or a deformity). So if a minor character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics, you should mention that.


4. Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.


5. Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.



A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says:


Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, we skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then we’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is discarded.


That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think that Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard.


Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your query package, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in outline form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.



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