How to write a synopsis

Writing the synopsis for your novel is a task generally loathed by writers, yet it is an essential part of selling your book.  Why?  And why do writers hate the process so much?  Shouldn’t we enjoy having the chance to demonstrate how brilliant and exciting our plot is?

What a synopsis is for

A synopsis is really just a summing up of the main plot points of your novel and the journey of your main characters. If your sample chapters are a demonstration of your writing ability, your synopsis is a demonstration of your ability to put together your content in a way that will draw the reader through the story and satisfy them at the end. If a publisher or agent enjoys your sample chapters and is excited by your synopsis, he or she will ask for more.  The synopsis may also be used later as a selling tool in order to win over other people or departments who will be involved in the process of producing your book. It may also be used to sell a series or prove you can come up with a sequel.

When to write it

Should you write your synopsis before or after your manuscript?  It depends on your method of planning.  If you prefer to plot your novel first before writing, there is much to be said for coming up with a synopsis first which you can use as a working plan.  It may need revision at the end to account for unexpected events but the basics will be there.  Most writers, however, tackle the synopsis at the end, which is probably why it becomes so dreaded a task.  Your precious manuscript is complete and ready to go out into the world, and now you have to squeeze all the magic out of it and bash out the main points in a page of dry, academic prose when all you want to do is get the thing out there and move on to the dizzy excitement of planning a new book.  Tough!  It’s got to be done.

How to write it

There are many resources online which give advice on synopsis, and links to them are included below.  These are the basic points I have picked up which I feel would suit the majority of unpublished children’s writers who are drafting a synopsis for the first time and need something to suit the majority of publishers/agents they are submitting to.

  1. Length – one single page is a good length welcomed by most publishers.  It doesn’t need to be double spaced unless you feel that will aid readability.
  2. Voice – omniscient (all-knowing) narrator is best.  Don’t write from a character’s point of view. Try to be consistent with the tone of your novel within reason, for example if it is a comedy you don’t need to squeeze in as many gags as you can!  Use the present tense.
  3. Content – concentrate on the journey of the main character or characters, what happens to them, the main plot points and the climax at the end.  Forget minor characters, subplots and anything which digresses too much.  If you are struggling with what to include, imagine someone asking you at a party what your book is about and you having to explain in a few sentences above the noise.  Then expand it using only the most important plot points until you have filled the page.  Don’t hint or tease like you would on a blurb on the back of a published book. Your publisher or agent needs to know what happens!
  4. Polishing – some agents and publishers will read the synopsis before anything else.  Try to look on your synopsis as a selling tool and spend time perfecting it.  It should, of course, be free of errors, but also clear and concise but not dry.  Your book is exciting/humorous/emotional/dramatic so make your synopsis reflect that.

You will probably hate your synopsis by the time you have spent hours beating it out.  Don’t worry.  If you’ve done all you can, send it off with your sample chapters and your covering letter, and get on with the next book.  And this time, perhaps try writing the synopsis first or even as you go along.  It may save you a least a little agony later.

Resources

Try these links for articles and discussions about synopses.  You will find advice that is conflicting but it just proves there are no set rules about synopsis writing.  Before submitting, check the requirements of your chosen publisher or agent.  They may ask for a particular length or even a chapter by chapter breakdown.  If that is the case, you will already have your prepared one page synopsis ready to adapt.  Good luck!

Writer and former editor Caro Clarke

A practical and really useful step-by-step breakdown of what it takes to create a synopsis based on an existing manuscript using a real example.

Crime writer Beth Anderson

An deservedly oft-linked to article that goes into detail about crafting a great synopsis.

Fiction Writer’s Connection

Short and punchy summary of the main points.

Writer Joshua Palmatier

Useful article with author’s synopsis of one of his own books.

Agent Nathan Bransford

Brief but salient advice from the agent’s point of view, followed by a good range of agonized comments!

The Literary Consultancy

In-depth how-to article by Rebecca Swift that also appears in the Writers and Artists Yearbook.

eHow article

Short how-to article that makes the process sound even more complicated than it already is…

Amazon

Try looking up your favourite novel and reading the summary.  It will be more like a blurb in tone but will give you an idea of a tight precis.  This link is for Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief.

Wikipedia

Alternatively read novel summaries on Wikipedia for inspiration.  This one for Tolstoy’s War and Peace must have taken a while…

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14 responses to “How to write a synopsis

  1. Well actually about the lenght of the synopsis, it seems it is a given to have it spaced out. And while I understand the importance of writing an effeCtive synopsis, I really think that asking for a one page synopsis double spaced whether your story is 75 000 or a 150 000 words long is hardly fair.
    Yet the submissions guidelines seem very clear. They want it spaced out and they want one page. In most cases. But some cases, they go even further than that, asking for two paragraphs or half a page. Why not one line, while they are at it? It is hardly a synopsis anymore. .

    • I know just what you mean! In fact, you could say that pitching a novel is becoming more and more like pitching a film, selling the whole concept with one sentence: “It’s going to be like Lassie Come Home crossed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on acid” and so on. It’s interesting that, at the recent writers’ conferences I’ve been to, several editors have said that they nearly always immediately put aside the synopsis and start reading the writing first. They refer to the synopsis later to clarify how the plot is going to pan out, but that’s only if they are suitably seduced by the prose, so a bit of extra brevity may not do much harm.

  2. Hi Lou
    I was wondering if you write a synopsis for a picture book?
    Do I have to write a short summary of what my story is about? Or should just write that I hope that they will consider my story for publication?
    I have an idea of how I would like my book to be set out and what I think that the characters look like, but feel that it is best to keep those ideas to myself…..(And give my opionion if they want to publish?)
    Thanks!
    Libby

  3. Hi Libby,
    Publishers differ, but if in doubt or it’s not clear from the website, I would send a covering letter (or email if they accept email submissions), a synopsis and the manuscript. Although it will be short, the synopsis may come in useful if they need a quick summary of the story to see if the theme or idea fits in with their list. In terms of layout and the look of the characters, you may or may not get much say depending again on the publisher’s style of working. But if you feel very strongly that a certain illustration would suit a certain page I’m sure it would be acceptable to mention this briefly in the text.

  4. Helen Haydn-Jones

    Hi Lou. Thanks for all your advice. It’s really good of you to share your expertise with the uneducated! I’ve written a short rhyming story, and I’ve had good feedback from non- industry people. Since there are no chapters as such ( think Snail and the Whale), shall I still do a synopsis? I have written a rhyming introduction, or would this annoy potential publishers?

    • Hi Helen! If in doubt, I would still do a short synopsis. It might be something that gets passed around at meetings to sum up your story later on down the line, even if it doesn’t get much use as part of the submission package. Re the rhyming introduction – it’s a fine line between amusing and annoying your recipient and only you can make that decision! Personally I think if it’s done well it could be fun, but it depends on the publisher. Someone commented on another thread (just been trying to find it but can’t at the mo) that they got a rejection in rhyme in response to a rhyming story which I thought was fabulous!

  5. Helen Haydn-Jones

    Thanks Lou! For your time and help. I shall post any developments.

  6. Hi Lou, thank you for investing so much time and effort in putting together resource guides for aspiring authors.

    I have a quick question that I hope you can help me with. How long should a synopsis be for a 1200 word illustrated story I’ve written? A one page synopsis would almost be the same length as the story.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Shad, sorry for taking a while to reply. For a picture book a very short synopsis will be fine so don’t worry about trying to make it a page length – a paragraph will do unless anything on the publisher’s website indicates otherwise.

  7. Is it true that publishers only read the synopsis and don’t even bother with the manuscript?

    • If the synopsis is bad, that is possible! It depends whether they read the synopsis before or after the sample chapters. Having been to a question and answer session with publishers covering this subject, it seems they all have different preferences. But whether they read the synopsis or the chapters first, they will stop reading if it doesn’t interest them – hence our job is to make sure the reader is hooked right from the first line!

  8. Dear Lou
    I have wrote a set of childrens picture books where there are around ten main characters that have lots of different adventures, etc. I hope to get them published in the future but was just wondering when I do the synopsis to the agent do I write only about one particular book ? Where would be best to explain about the idea for a series, all the main characters, etc. Would it be best in a covering letter or included in the synopsis ? Any help is much appreciated. Thank you.
    Elaine

  9. Synopsis. Hmmm. Is this diferent from a covering letter? From the research I have done with the help of your brilliant site and the list of publishers accepting unsolicited material, I cannot see any request for a synopsis when submitting picture book manuscripts, only a covering letter.
    Regards,
    Gary

  10. My other question is this: Can I submit a manuscript to more than one publisher at once?

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