Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis

Synopsis writing

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Note from Jane: The following post is an old favorite; I’ve updated it to be more specific and useful.

It’s probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare: the synopsis. The synopsis is sometimes required 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.

Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy—the kind of material that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.

Unfortunately, there is no single “right” way to write a synopsis. You’ll 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 one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—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.

While this post is geared toward writers of fiction, the same principles can be applied to memoir and other narrative nonfiction works.

Why the novel 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”).

Synopses should usually be written in active voice, third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person).

What the novel synopsis must accomplish

First, you need to tell the story of what characters we’ll care about, which includes the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for her.

Second, we need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.

Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.

If you cover those three things, that won’t leave you much time for detail. You won’t be able to mention all the characters or events. You’ll probably leave out some subplots, and some of the minor plot twists and turns. You can’t summarize each scene or even every chapter, and some aspects of your story will have to be broadly generalized so as to avoid detailing a series of events or interactions that don’t materially affect the story’s outcome.

To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in generating conflict for the protagonist, or otherwise assisting the protagonist. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how they might change, too. 

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. If the character or plot point comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and increases the tension or complication each time, then it definitely belongs.

The most common novel synopsis mistake

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture; it will read like a story without any emotion.

Think 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 novel synopsis

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)

Common novel synopsis pitfalls

  • Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of character names. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story only briefly, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say “Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.” That’s a huge and unnecessary tangent. When you do mention specific character names, it’s common to put the name in 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 any time in the synopsis explicitly explaining or deconstructing the themes the story may address. This synopsis tells the story; it doesn’t try to interpret what it means. (But it does tell us the characters’ feelings or reactions.)

  • Avoid character backstory. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background; you should only reference it when it effects how events unfold. This may mean, if you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the synopsis. However, if the flashbacks are really about what happens in the book rather than why something happens, then they may belong in your 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.

  • Don’t split your synopsis into sections, or label the different plot points. In rare cases, there might be a reason to have subheads in the synopsis, due to a unique narrative structure, but try to avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play.

  • 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 lyrical descriptions or attempts to impress through poetic description. You really can’t take the time to show things in your synopsis. You really 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 avoid novel synopsis wordiness

Synopsis language has to be very stripped down. 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.

How to start your novel synopsis

Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph. Then you’ll have to 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

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  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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  51. Hello Jane, thank you for your helping advises. I am not a writer but I have ideas filling my head constantly. What would be your best advise for someone like me? I would like to put some of my ideas on paper but, again, not a writer and not that young anymore. Thank you for your time and kindness.

    • The only way to start is to write. It’s both that simple and that difficult! You might enjoy the guide HOW TO BE A WRITER by Barbara Baig, or perhaps THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield, to help you take the first steps.

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  55. thank you so much for briefing me! i have a whole manuscript in hand but i just have one small doubt. i am from India. i shall be moving on with one of the publishing houses like penguin or Harper Collins in India. so would it be a better choice to find an agent or just proceed without one?the work is basically fiction.

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  57. Did a search on the word font so I don’t ask a question already asked. Should a synopsis be Times New Roman 12 point with 1″ top/bottom margins and 1.5″ side margins to match the style of a query letter? Thanks.

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  61. I love this posting. One thing that I would like to know is how to go about writing a synopsis for writing a series or a story that wont end for a while. Are there any advise or websites/articles that would help me with this?

    • It’s really the same process; you have to write a beginning-to-end summary (synopsis) for each book in the series. Sometimes, if you’re pitching an entire series (rare), you would write a synopsis for each book that’s even shorter than 1 page, so people can see the entire arc of the series. But it sounds like that’s not exactly your problem—maybe rather you don’t know what happens after the first book? I’d just focus on selling the first book in the series, which should be finished before you pitch it.

  62. Thanks for the advise Jane, but I have a question. Do I have to copyright my manuscript before submitting it to a literary agent? I’m a first time author and I would want to make sure that my idea is safe with the people I work with. Second, how long does it take for an editor to respond?

    • Hi Jackelin – No, you do not have to copyright your work before submitting it to an agent or a publisher. (It is actually protected under copyright law without you registering it.) Check an agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines for a stated response time. Response time varies from weeks to months.

      • Thanks Jane, that was fast. :) Thank you very much. I hope that I can assist to the San Francisco Conference next year and see if I can meet up with a good editor or literary agent to help me out with my book.

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  73. Jane, great article. I’d love to see examples. Agents are asking for anything from 1-2, or even 5+ page synopses. Seeing concrete examples based on existing works would be helpful.

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  77. This was a wonderful read. Thank you so much! I finished up my first novel and am now half way through novel two (this has been a long process) but that synopsis; I just don’t know. I’m going to give it another go now that I have read your post. It was super clear cut and well explained! Thank you!

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  81. Jane, thanks for this wonderful post. There are so many contradictory versions of a proper synopsis in books and the internet I never knew what to do. Now I will go back and tighten mine.


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