Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis

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.

Tight

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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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
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62 Comments

  1. Thanks for the excellent tips! I can write the NOVEL itself no problem (well, not exactly that simple – go thru many drafts and late nights along the way) but the synopsis stops me cold. Wordiness, that’s me! Will definitely be referring to this blog posting when I have to write my next synopsis.

  2. Great article! And thanks so much for including one of my articles on writing a short synopsis in your tips. I really appreciate it

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  11. My agent recently submitted my manuscript and synopses to editors for consideration, and she required that I offer both a one-page and a two-page synopsis. So it’s not a bad idea to have both lengths at the ready.

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  16. Thank you, Jane, for a great roadmap. I am writing my synopsis for a literary memoir with plans to send to 3 agents who have already requested proposals and sample chapters. My questions: as a memoir synopsis, should it be written in first or third person? And I am assuming that 2 pages (max) is best?

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  21. I was happy to find your tips on synopsis writing. I’m about to write my first and was a little nervous about getting it right. I’ll be sure to use your tips and put out a clean, clear and to the point synopsis.

  22. This is most useful as I’ve been a published writer in a previous incarnation as a research journalist. But, now knowing what I need to put forth for a fiction-based novel, I find this much easier to work with.

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  32. Thanks for the advice! What a lovely resource this site is. Writing a novel… easy-peasy, compared to boiling the whole thing down to a synopsis.

  33. Very Insightful and Comprehensive information on Synopsis writing! I’m
    about to submit to a publisher for my first book that happens to be a Memoir.
    Just wanted to ask you if there are any do’s & don’ts or anything to take
    care of while writing Synopsis for a book written in First Person POV i.e.
    apart from what you have shared here. Thanks a ton! and Wish you all the Very
    Best in your Future Projects!!

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  36. Hello,
    I’ve recently read on an agent’s submission page to send a synopsis with three first chapters. Do I still send some sort of query letter too? Otherwise,
    where do I include my personal information?

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