How to write a novel synopsis

Below is a kind of question-answer article on the basics of a synopsis, how to write one, and what editors look for in a synopsis. Any questions, please post!

Why do you need to write a synopsis?

It provides prospective editors/agents with an overall and detailed summary of your novel, introduces the characters, plot and setting, and gives a brief glimpse at your writing style and ability.

When should you write the synopsis?

Either before you write the book, during, or after. Though chances are, if you start writing it at the beginning, you will have to do some major revisions as your plot changes, characters come and go, or you scrap one of the scenes entirely.

If you start writing the synopsis before the book, it will serve more as a guideline or outline for your writing; just be sure to remember that it’s not set in stone, and that you can make changes to both the plot and synopsis. Though it does help to have a basic one-page “draft” of the “stuff” in your novel to refer back to as you work.

So, what exactly is a synopsis?

As stated above, it’s a short 1-2 page summary of your novel that provides prospective editors/agents with an overall and detailed summary, introduces the characters, plot and setting, and gives a brief glimpse at your writing style and ability. It’s extremely important because editors want to know exactly what happens in the book; it is not the same thing as the back blurb on a printed book. It gives out much more information and details, no cliffhangers.

What tense is it written in? What about perspective or style?

The synopsis is usually written in present tense—this way it makes a bigger impact on the reader, and will push the action forward more in such a small space. It can be written in either first or third person—that really depends on how your book is written. For example, if your book is in third person, you don’t want to write in first person. As far as style, try to mirror the style you use in your manuscript, this way the editor gets an idea of what the rest of the book will be like, and whether you have mastered that particular writing style. In other words, if your book is humorous, dialect-bloated, or dark, make sure the synopsis is the same.

What do you need to accomplish in the synopsis?

Several things, actually. And since you only have 1-2 pages (depending on the house) you need to do it quickly and cleanly:

1) Introduce your main characters

2) Introduce main conflicts

3) Explain the overall plot

4) Describe setting: time, place, world, etc.

5) Give a clear idea of what the novel is actually about

6) Include the conclusion. Tell who wins, who dies, what happens to everyone and why. Cliffhangers are hated—and will cause a manuscript to be rejected nine times out of ten.

Should I put characters names in ALL CAPS?

This really depends on each house. Some publishers like it to call out the names of characters, and to bring attention each time a new character is mentioned.

We at Leucrota Press hate it. We feel ALL CAPS belong in a script, not a novel, and that it’s distracting and unprofessional. You shouldn’t have to call out your characters name to bring attention to him/her—if you wrote the synopsis clearly and coherently, the writing should point them out on its own. You don’t need blinking signs and screaming kids to make an editor pay attention to your synopsis. That all depends on your writing.

How should I structure the synopsis?

1) Put your name, the manuscript title, and a contact number or email address in the top header. Be sure to keep it short—as you’re taking away space on the page from your summary.

2) Start at the beginning. Open your synopsis with the beginning of the book, telling what starts the plot moving forward, introduce the characters as they come, and the subplots as they arise.

3) Make sure your paragraphs flow logically and smoothly to the next, so that the editor isn’t distracted by choppy sentences, or has to go back and reread a paragraph if they get lost.

4) Use transition sentences. (If you don’t know what those are, stop now and break your writing hand so as to stop the madness.)

5) End with the ending of the novel. There is no need to explain the ending, why you chose that to happen, go into detail about the last scene, etc. Just say what happens at the end.

A Checklist for your synopsis:

1) Does your first paragraph contain a hook to grab the editor’s attention?

2) Do you mention all of your main characters?

3) Are the conflicts clearly defined?

4) Have you described where the story happens? When?

5) Are all of the main subplots mentioned?

6) Have you touched on every major advancement in the plot?

7) Have you said what happens at the end?

8 ) Check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

9) Check your tense—make sure it’s in present.

10) Is your name and the title of your novel on it?

11) Reread it. Sit back and think about it. Does it sound like a book you’d like to read? Does it stand up to some of the other books that you’ve read and loved?

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23 Responses

  1. Reading this kind of gave me a headache so I decided to go for the writing it when I’m done approach, just so I don’t have to think about it right now.

    You do give some great help about these things though. Stuff I wouldn’t have had the first clue about how to do will be much easier because you are willing to take the time to post useful information like this. Thanks for that.

    jt

  2. JT- Thanks.
    I know, it gave me a headache writing it…

  3. Great advice. Thanks for taking the time to put it up, headache or not.

    One question: You’re saying that if I wrote my novel in the first person (which I did), I should write my synopsis the same way, from the main character’s POV? Because I’d have an awfully hard time doing that. I wrote my synopsis in third person. But if that’s what you suggest, I could rewrite it.

    Thanks again!

    Lynn

  4. Lynn,

    If your book is in first and you wrote your synopsis in third person that’s fine – it’s more important to NOT write your synopsis in first if your book is in third.

    It’s better to try and stick with the same POV, but it’s not necessary. In one page it’s hard to get a lot of information in – you’re better off focusing on the content and clarity as opposed to humor, POV, or style. Editors can pick up those other things in your first few pages. It just helps (and does work) to make a better impression on the editor and get you manuscript more attention up front.

  5. Thank you for that! I had always assumed the synopsis was the same as the bookjacket, leaving the cliffhangers so whoever is reading it will be more likely to want to read and find out what happens. I’m glad I haven’t made that mistake yet!

    Becka

  6. Becka,

    Not a problem. Just remember that your editors need to know EVERYTHING if they’re going to be able to help make your story the best it can possibly be.

  7. Are there synopsis examples that you can point to?
    It would be helpful to see ones that you think are good.
    Thanks.

  8. I was wondering how one would write the synopsis of book of short stories one is going to write. Should there be a summary of the plot of each short story?

  9. Anuradha,

    I would check with each publisher on what they require for their submissions process, as this might change from house to house. If requested, a short (and I mean short) paragraph of each story would probably suffice.

    But again, as we don’t normally cover single author anthologies, I would contact each publisher directly if they don’t specify in their guidelines and simply ask. There’s never anything wrong with asking.

  10. Thanks. That helped.

  11. I’ve been reading different ideas on how to write a synopsis for a novel. One thing that I read was start out with the protagonist of the story and where they are when the novel opens. My problem with this is my novel starts out with the antagonist and my protagonist comes in later on in the story. Would I still write the synopsis the same way?

  12. The point of the synopsis is to merely give a breakdown of everything that happens in the novel, from how it starts, to who is in it, to what happens and how the novel ends.

    As far as the need to start with the protagonist, it’s not necessary. Starting out where the novel opens is more important, whether that be with the hero or the villain. Work the synopsis in order of the book’s flow, introducing characters as they appear, telling when they are killed off, and each event as it happens. Do not jump around, as it can be confusing, and simply move from one point to the next.

  13. Hi,

    I just happen to stubble on this site via google. Thanks for posting such useful information. The checklist was certainly helpful.

    I have a question. Unlike most of the writer you talk to…I don’t consider myself a writer. I’ve been working on a fic/bio and I’m having difficulties articulating my thoughts on paper. A friend told me that there are services that will take only your synopsis and write a novel using that for you. Is this true? And do you have any advise on this?

  14. hmmm….. thats an interesting business actually haha. but if you do that, then its not really YOUR story, its just your IDEA, and someone elses time and artistic skills going into it

  15. Editorkaheaku,

    One thing I would like to get cleared up if possible. Is the synopsis you describe above containing the begining middle and the end, all the main subplots, all the main characters, every major advancement in the story, all the conflicts clearly defined, expected for a one page or so query letter? Or as a multiple page cover letter that is submitted along with the first three chapters should the publisher/agent request it?

    I ask because it seems to be expecting a lot for a one page query letter with maybe a couple of paragraphs of descriptive space to encompass. Thanks for your time.

    Gary

  16. Gary,

    A one page synopsis is meant to give the beginning, middle, and end of a story. You don’t need to go into intricate details, but give enough of the story so that there are no cliff-hangers or surprises when the editor goes to read the story. It is not a chapter by chapter summary, but rather an overall explanation of what the story is about in its entirety.

    An editor will get the smaller details when they read the accompanying first three chapters. If between the chapters and synopsis they are interested, they will request the rest and sometimes a more detailed write up summary as well.

  17. The novel I am working on flashes back 3 years every few chapters and follows a different character. It all ties in at the end of course.

    I have heard that synopsis should be done in chronological order from some sources, but other sources say it should follow the same order as the novel.

    What do you think?

    If it is done chronologically there will be no twist ending in the synopsis and I worry that it will not represent my story the way I want it to.

    If I do it in the same order as the novel should I just start a new paragraph with the date whenever it changes?

    Thank you for your help

  18. Hi

    I found this on the web refrish my mind what is this about.

    Jerry

    perkins329@aol.com

  19. Thank you for all the wonderful information, you’ve been a great help. Should I write the synopsis in double line spacing or is single acceptable.

    Thx for your time.

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  23. […] How to Write a Novel Synopsis (by leucrotapress): A well structured post, instructional, and a good checklist at the end. […]

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