Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis


Jane Knows

I received the following question from working writer Sharon Hale:

I read a lot of information in your Writing Advice Archive regarding queries; however, I could not find any information on writing the synopsis that will accompany the query letter. I am a newbie, who is beginning the process of writing the synopsis and query letter. Do you have any information on the synopsis?

Why yes I do! Let’s start off with the basics.

What is a synopsis?

The synopsis conveys the narrative arc of your  novel; it shows what happens and who changes, from beginning to end.

There is no single “right” way to write a synopsis. You’ll also find conflicting advice about the appropriate length, which makes it rather confusing territory for new writers especially. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a 1-page synopsis and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. Most agents/editors will not be interested in a synopsis longer than a few pages.

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., the whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of god, a genre romance ending in divorce. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, 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 usually aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language (Miss Snark recommends “energy and vitality”).

General principles

  • Tell what happens in an energetic, compelling way
  • Use active voice, not passive
  • Use third person, present tense
  • Clarity, clarity, clarity
  • Less is more—a good thing for you!

4 things you must accomplish, no exceptions

  1. Give a clear idea of your book’s core conflict
  2. Show what characters we’ll care about, including the ones we’ll hate
  3. Demonstrate what’s at stake for the main character(s)
  4. Show how the conflict is resolved

Common pitfalls

  • Mentioning too many characters or events; you have to leave stuff out!
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns; you have to leave stuff out!
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation; every word must earn its due
  • Confusing series of events and character interactions
  • Writing flap copy rather than a synopsis (do not editorialize, e.g., “in a thrilling turn of events!”)

Wordiness is typically the No. 1 problem

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.


At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter about his remarks at the staff meeting.

Jane’s Very Special Synopsis Secret

A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.

Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement)

How to draft a short synopsis

Start off strong; it will probably be similar to the hook that’s in your query letter. Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph. Decide which major plot turns/conflicts must be conveyed for everything to make sense, and which characters must be mentioned. (You should not mention all of them.) Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula. The ending paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved—yes, you have to reveal the ending! No exceptions.

Additional resources

If any experienced synopsis writers are reading, please share your tips in the comments. Also, if you have a question for me, send me an e-mail. You’ll see your question answered as part of Jane Knows.

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