Note from Jane: The following post was published years ago, but I regularly revisit, revise, and expand it. I’ve also written a comprehensive post on writing query letters.
It’s probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare: the synopsis.
The synopsis is sometimes necessary because an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, the synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending. Synopses may be required when you first query your work, or you may be asked for it later.
Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy, or the kind of marketing description that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book. Instead, it’s an industry document that helps an agent or editor quickly assess your story’s appeal and if it’s worth them reading the entire manuscript.
How long should a synopsis be?
You’ll find conflicting advice on this. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a one- or two-page synopsis—about 500-1000 words, single spaced—and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. If your synopsis runs longer, anything up to two pages (again, single spaced) is usually acceptable. Most agents/editors will not be interested in a synopsis longer than a few pages.
While this post is geared toward writers of fiction, the same principles can be applied to memoir and other narrative nonfiction works.
Why the synopsis is important to agents and editors
The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., “it was just a dream” endings, ridiculous acts of god, a category romance ending in divorce. It can reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. Or it can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or the plot is hackneyed, your manuscript may not get read.
The good news: Some agents hate synopses and never read them; this is more typical for agents who represent literary work. Either way, agents aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language. An agent I admire, Janet Reid, has said that energy and vitality are key.
Synopses should usually be written in third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person). For memoirists, I recommend first person, but first or third is acceptable.
What the synopsis must accomplish
In most cases, you’ll start the synopsis with your protagonist. You’ll describe her mindset and motivations at the opening of the story, then explain what happens to change her situation (often known as the inciting incident). Motivation is fairly critical here: we need to understand what drives this character to act.
Once the protagonist is established, each paragraph ideally moves the story forward (with events unfolding in exactly the same order as in the manuscript), with strong cause-effect storytelling, including the key scenes of your novel. We need to see how the story conflict plays out, who or what is driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with it.
By the end, we should understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed. Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula.
If you cover all these things, that won’t leave you much time for detail if you keep the synopsis to a single page. You won’t be able to mention every character or event or include every scene—only those that materially affect the protagonist’s decisions or our understanding of the story’s events. You may have to exclude some subplots, and you definitely have to stay out of the plotting weeds. If there’s a shootout at the story’s climax, for instance, or a big fight scene, it’s fairly useless to get into the details of the choreography and how many punches are thrown. Instead, you say there’s a big fight and make it clear who wins and who loses.
To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in influencing the protagonist or changing the direction of the story. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how their story resolves. Any character that merits placement in a synopsis should have at least two to three mentions. If you can get away with only mentioning them once, they probably don’t belong at all.
A good rule of thumb for determining what stays and what goes: If the ending wouldn’t make sense without the character or plot point being mentioned, then it belongs in the synopsis.
A synopsis should get to the point—fast
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Very Wordy: At work, Elizabeth searches for Peter all over the office and finally finds him in the supply room, where she tells him she resents the remarks he made about her in the staff meeting.
Tight: At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter about his remarks at the staff meeting.
The most common synopsis mistake
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a mechanical account of your story (or the dreaded “synopsis speak”), without depth or texture.
Consider what it would sound like if you summarized a football game by saying. “Well, the Patriots scored. And then the Giants scored. Then the Patriots scored twice in a row.” That’s sterile and doesn’t give us the meaning behind how events are unfolding.
Instead, you would say something like, “The Patriots scored a touchdown after more than one hour of a no-score game, and the underdog of the team led the play. The crowd went wild.”
The secret to a great synopsis
A synopsis includes the characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening. That will help you avoid something that reads like a mechanic’s manual. Include both story advancement (plot stuff) and color (character stuff).
Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) =Decision (Story Advancement)
For stories with considerable world building or extensive historical settings
Some writers may need to open their synopsis with a paragraph or so that helps establish the world we’re entering and the rules of that world. This helps us better understand the characters and their motivations once introduced. For example, a synopsis of Harry Potter might clarify upfront that the world is divided into Muggles and wizards, and that the Muggles have no idea that a magical world exists. Or, this fact could be relayed in the synopsis once Harry Potter learns about it himself.
In a historical novel, a writer might have to establish cultural attitudes or facts that might not be known to contemporary readers, so that the characters’ actions make sense and the weight of the conflict is clear.
In science fiction and fantasy, try to avoid proper terms or nouns that have to be defined or explained unless such terms are central to your story (like “Muggles” above). Instead, try to get the point across in language that anyone can understand but still gets the point across. The goal here is to focus on telling the story rather than increasing the mental workload of the agent/editor, who has to decipher and remember the unfamiliar vocabulary.
Avoid splitting the synopsis into sections
In most cases, the synopsis should start and end without any breaks, sections, or other subheadings. However, on occasion, there might be a reason to add “sign posts” to the synopsis, due to your book’s unique narrative structure. For example, if your novel has intertwining timelines, or if it jumps around in time and place, you may want to begin each paragraph with a bold lead-in (“Paris, 1893”), to establish where we are. Other than that, avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play. Characters should be introduced at the moment they enter the story or when they specifically contribute to the story moving forward.
Common novel synopsis pitfalls
- Don’t get weighed down with the specifics of character names, places, and other proper names or terms. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story for just one scene, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say “Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.” When you do mention specific names, it’s common to put the name in all caps in the first instance, so it’s easy for agents or editors to see at a glance who the key figures are.
- Don’t spend time explaining or deconstructing your story’s meaning or themes. This can be a particularly persistent problem with memoir. A synopsis tells the story, but it doesn’t try to offer an interpretation, e.g., saying something like, “This is the story of how many ordinary people like me tried to make a difference.”
- Avoid talking about the story construction. This is where you add things that describe the book’s structure, such as “in the climax of the novel,” or “in a series of tense scenes.”
- Avoid character backstory unless it’s tied to the character’s motivations and desires throughout the book. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background; ideally, you should reference it when it affects how events unfold. If you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the synopsis.
- Avoid including dialogue, and if you do, be sparing. Make sure the dialogue you include is absolutely iconic of the character or represents a linchpin moment in the book.
- Don’t ask rhetorical or unanswered questions. Remember, your goal here isn’t to entice a reader.
- While your synopsis will reflect your ability to write, it’s not the place to get pretty with your prose. That means you should leave out any attempts to impress through poetic description. You can’t take the time to show everything in your synopsis. Often you have to tell, and sometimes this is confusing to writers who’ve been told for years to “show don’t tell.” For example, it’s OK to just come out and say your main character is a “hopeless romantic” rather than trying to show it.
- How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel (one of the best advice articles I’ve seen)
- How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis
- The Anatomy of a Short Synopsis
- The Synopsis: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Write It
If you’re looking for in-depth guidance, I offer a query letter master class that includes a 90-minute lecture on synopsis writing.