Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis

Synopsis writing

Photo by reamyde / Flickr

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.

Tight

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

Also: I offer a synopsis critique service

I can help you improve your query, synopsis, and first five pages.


Upcoming Online Classes

Posted in Getting Published and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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.

Join the conversation

141 Comments on "Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis"

Notify of
avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Veronica Scott
4 years 6 months ago

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.

BellaVida
4 years 6 months ago

Fantastic. Loved the tip about adding the protagonists feelings.

Nealwriter1
Nealwriter1
4 years 6 months ago

Sounds like I should start with my synopsis first and use it as a roadmap to write the novel.

Margaret Yang
Margaret Yang
4 years 6 months ago

To me, the most important parts are the inner stakes and outer stakes. I discussed them in my article on synopsis writing found here. http://www.help4writers.com/blog/?p=374
(Bonus: Wizard of Oz was my example synopsis.)

christine fonseca
christine fonseca
4 years 6 months ago

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

Lancelot
4 years 6 months ago

I figure if my 70-year old grandma who hates fantasy can understand a three-minute version of my whole story, I’ve synopsized well.

trackback

[…] Friedman returns to an oldie but goodie: How to write a synopsis that works; agent Jennifer Laughran answers word-count questions across most genres; Karen Dionne seeks an […]

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis | Jane Friedman The synopsis conveys the narrative arc of your  novel; it shows what happens and who changes, from beginning to end. (@saphirablue84 Did you see Jane Friedman's synopsis post? It lists additional resources too. Source: janefriedman.com […]

Livia Blackburne
4 years 5 months ago

And I’m late here, but thanks for linking to my list 🙂

trackback

[…] it or buy the rights to it, and to give you a nice fat contract for your trouble. Jane Friedman has exceptional how-to tips for writing a synopsis for your book that will make an agent drool. Pay attention to the part where she says you have to give away the […]

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis. Includes a list of great resources. […]

trackback

[…] can also refer to a section of a nonfiction boo proposal. Synopsis requirements vary widely. Click here to find out more about them. Sometimes you’ll hear synopsis used interchangeably with […]

trackback

[…] started with industry professional, Jane Friedman. In “Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis” she begins by defining the synopsis: “The synopsis conveys the narrative arc of your novel; it […]

trackback

[…] You may occasionally hear someone refer to novel proposals, which includes a query or cover letter, a synopsis and/or outline, and a partial or complete manuscript—along with any other information the editor or agent requests. This bears little to no relation to a typical nonfiction book proposal. Go here to read more about novel synopses. […]

trackback
Chelly Wood
3 years 2 months ago

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.

trackback
The Importance of Writing a Synopsis | Lionsong Publishing
3 years 15 hours ago
trackback

[…] Writing a synopsis. […]

trackback

[…] task, I dug into the Internet, and I  found Jane Friedman’s article and list quite useful: Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis. I also recommend: Movie Synopsis Examples on Writer’s […]

trackback
2 years 7 months ago

[…] How to write a novel synopsis also this […]

agreaney
agreaney
2 years 6 months ago

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?

trackback
trackback
trackback

[…] would not be longer than the extract from my manuscript. [Info on how to write a synopsis here, or here – ed]  If it asked for a short author note, I’d keep it short and not send half my […]

trackback
Patrice Beaulieu
Patrice Beaulieu
2 years 2 months ago

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.

Beka Olson
Beka Olson
2 years 2 months ago

Thank you. This, and the link to Miss Snark, have saved me.

deanfromromania .
deanfromromania .
2 years 1 month ago

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.

trackback
2 years 1 month ago

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis (Jane Friedman) – Outstanding advice, and many useful links. […]

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis (Jane Friedman) – Outstanding advice, and many useful links. […]

trackback

[…] recently had reason (albeit for the benefit of someone other than myself) to re-locate this excellent advice of writing the synopsis from Jane […]

trackback
[…] Det låter enkelt, men är ganska svårt. Men en sak som verkligen har underlättat för mig i manus nr 2 är att följa ett synopsis. Och då menar jag inte bara några rader om vad boken handlar om, utan ett levande dokument som jag går tillbaka till så att jag hela tiden har ett hum (fantastiskt ord – hum – förresten!) om berättelsens början, mitten och slut. Här har Sara Lövestam gjort läsvärt inlägg till synopsisens (!) lov. (Ja, jag vet att det heter synopsis även i bestämd form, men synopsisen låter… gulligare. So shoot me.) Vet du inte hur man gör? Nätet är fullt… Read more »
trackback
2 years 19 days ago

[…] tips for writing the synopsis, which is the hardest […]

trackback

[…] Should I send a synopsis with the query? Only if requested in the submission guidelines. Click here for instructions on how to write a synopsis. […]

trackback

[…] First three chapters ready, check. One-sheet ready, check. Registration and plane ticket, check. One page synopsis (my current […]

trackback
1 year 11 months ago

[…] of a local entertainment magazine, for which you were paid in DVDs), and what the freaking heck a synopsis […]

trackback

[…] who has more than 15 years of experience in the publishing industry, posted a concise road map for writing a synopsis. She is the co-founder of Scratch Magazine, all about the intersection of writing and money, and […]

Mandy Baldwin
Mandy Baldwin
1 year 10 months ago

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.

Magnus
Magnus
1 year 10 months ago

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!!

trackback

[…] Your friends and family ask you to “pick a movie already” when you’re on Netflix and you tell them, “I’m not picking a movie, I’m reading the synopses.” […]

trackback

[…] in order to begin soliciting publishing deals. Jane Friedman wrote about some basic tips for writing a novel synopsis  in her blog, as did Gary Smailes on his, but neither provide tips for a step equally importing, […]

Soph
Soph
1 year 9 months ago

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?

trackback
1 year 7 months ago
trackback

[…] help craft these materials, seeing as they don’t always come natural to creative writers. Visit Jane Friedman’s website for more info on writing synopses. Visit Writers’ Digests’ site for writing query […]

trackback

[…]  Jane Friedman has some solid guidelines on her blog, including advice on including feelings and emotions in your synopsis. […]

trackback

[…] my part to start. But I did as before: studied examples and looked for advice (like this site or this one) (Thank you, […]

trackback

[…] Veteran publisher and editor Jane Friedman said the secret ingredient in a good synopsis is to include the feelings and emotions of the characters. “That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot,” she wrote in this excellent post. […]

trackback
trackback
trackback

[…] Jane Friedman writes in her excellent blog post about writing-the-synopsis: “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.”  She lists these basic principles: […]

wpDiscuz