How to write a synopsis

So you’ve got to write a synopsis. If you’re unsure where to begin and struggling to get started, you’re not alone. They’re not long, but, just like a novel, they require a lot of thought—and lots of revisions—to get right. Writing a synopsis is a big step for any novelist, and it’s a part of the business many new writers don’t learn about until they’re ready to publish.

If you’re serious about self-publishing, you owe it to yourself and your work to learn how to write a synopsis that is appealing and lives up to your talent as a novelist.

With all that in mind, it’s time to learn more about the synopsis: its meaning, parts, and the step-by-step process for crafting one that sets you up for success.

What is a synopsis?

Speaking generally, the definition of a synopsis is a brief summary (of just about anything). But in the publishing world, it’s far more specific. A story’s synopsis is essentially an overview of all of the most critical parts of the book, from start to finish. It includes characters essential to the plot, motivations, and the complete narrative arc, including its resolution.

Synopsis example

What’s a synopsis used for?

It’s easy to confuse a synopsis for that teaser on the back of the book or on its online storefront page. But those are blurbs—lower-case b—and they’re used to sell your book to readers. (If that’s what you’re writing, we’ll cover that, too.)

A synopsis, on the other hand, is used by authors to help get their novel published. It helps agents pick the works they’d like to represent and is used to convince editors (and the publishers they work for) that a novel is unique, compelling, and, ultimately, good for business.

That all means that writing a great synopsis is important when you’re looking for an agent, editor, or publisher. But the synopsis is also essential for getting your work out to wider audiences, and before that can happen, you’ve got to craft a synopsis that resonates with the publishing audience. There’s an art to that, too. It’s not exactly a book report, but if you’ve ever had to summarize any novel in a straightforward way that still captures and holds the reader’s attention, you’re not entirely new to this synopsis thing.

How to start a synopsis

If you’re used to writing novels, a synopsis will seem short. They tend to be as few as 200 words on the low end, and 1,000 at the top. That’s less than two single-spaced pages to capture all the important characters, motivations, settings, relevant plot points, and resolutions. Any longer than that, and you risk losing interest from an agent or editor. So when you set out to write a great synopsis, the first step is to find your most concise voice and keep brevity top-of-mind from the beginning.

The next step should usually take the form of an outline. You’ll define your plan of attack and have a better understanding of where you stand as you tackle the synopsis itself. If you didn’t have an outline for your novel, now’s probably the time to make one.

What should a synopsis include?

A good synopsis typically kicks off with the introduction of the protagonist, or main character. Who are they? Where are they? What’s their mindset and situation as the novel begins?

From there, you’ll want to jump right into the plot as quickly as possible—starting with the inciting incident that kicks the narrative into motion. How does the protagonist’s life change, and what tension arises? Depending on your story, this will likely coincide with the introduction of other relevant characters that drive that action or the protagonist’s response.

To that end, it’s important to note that even if you’re proud of the wide cast of characters you’ve created, only those directly relevant to the main plot should make their way into your synopsis. While incidental encounters and ancillary characters can help give deeper insights into the protagonist’s mind and the world you’ve built in your novel, getting too far into the weeds will distract from the essential information and key takeaways your agents and editors are looking for.

After the inciting incident, move directly into the rising action—that is, how the plot unfolds. Again, focus only on the most critical plot points. If your protagonist has a nightmare that gives readers insights into their backstory and psyche, that’s not nearly as important to the plot as when they wake up to find a stranger in their hotel room. Keep things moving, and don’t be afraid to explicitly state a character’s motivation as they respond to and participate in the action around them. The novelist’s guiding principle of “show, don’t tell” can take a back seat to clarity and conciseness here. It’s ok to boil your more complex moments down to the nuts and bolts and explicitly state the emotions around these events.

When all the plot points essential for understanding the plot’s climax are in place, move right into it. What significant events transpire, what emotions does the protagonist experience, and how do the protagonist’s actions lead to the plot’s resolution?

Distilling your novel this much might make you feel like you’re compromising your work and that you’re leaving out what makes your novel so special—tone of voice, wordplay, vivid imagery. But keep in mind that the agents and editors reading your synopsis are here to learn how you craft a narrative and how your novel fits into their publishing landscape in as little time as possible. Pique their interest in these broader terms, and they’ll be more than delighted to find out you’re also a powerhouse of prose when they read your full novel.

Femail self-publisher jotting down notes & ideas for her synopsis

What’s next?

Now that your synopsis is ready to send: Edit! The importance of editing can’t be overstressed. Take a long hard look at what you’ve composed, and look for opportunities to sharpen things up. Does the reader really need to know about this character? Have you provided more background than necessary before diving into the plot? Each sentence should be working hard. If you can achieve the same result with fewer words, you’ll win points with agents and editors.

Once you’ve trimmed things back, look again for what’s missing. Have you explained the “why” of each vital action the protagonist takes? Did you take something for granted because you thought it would go without saying? Find a place for that on the page.

Most importantly, even if you’re great at self-editing, you’ll absolutely want to get a second opinion (or ten). The most helpful ones will come from people who’ve read your novel. You may have to explain a synopsis, but their familiarity with your work will offer a great perspective. They can tell you if you’ve missed anything that they found essential to appreciating the story’s plot and emotions or what stood out and surprised them.

With everything extraneous removed, and the essentials in place, revisit the synopsis as a whole. How does it flow? Is the opening attention-grabbing? Does the conclusion give a proper sense of the takeaway you want readers to get from the novel itself (without having to state it explicitly)? Polish and repeat.

What else?

That covers the not-so-basics of synopsis writing. Here are a few more things to keep in mind to help you get started, stick the landing, and get a positive response.

  • Look for synopsis examples for books you’ve read and enjoyed. You may be taken aback by how stripped-down they are. Agents and editors are seasoned readers that can fill in the blanks and derive deeper meaning than a page or two might usually communicate—so long as the synopsis is well structured, well written, and respectful of their time and intelligence.
  • Clearly define important terms and concepts, accounting for what might not be common knowledge to readers less familiar with the topic or genre. If the climax takes place during the big cricket game, you’re better off explaining the situation as “on the brink of defeat” rather than “three runs shy and eight balls in hand.”
  • When you first mention an integral character (and you should, for the most part, only mention integral characters), give their name in ALL CAPS. It helps readers scan and recall the essentials of your synopsis. Other characters that play a role in the plot but whose emotions and motivations aren’t critical shouldn’t be referred to by their proper names; the janitor can just be “the janitor.”
  • Avoid using dialogue. Even if your plot is driven by riveting conversations, distill exchanges into their sentiment and outcomes. That heated exchange can be described as just that.
  • Don’t spell out your themes or the novel’s construction in literary terms. You don’t have to say that your work is “a new twist on a coming-of-age story,” or that an event is a “plot twist” or the “climax.” Things like that should be apparent from the rest of the synopsis.

That said, if a literary technique, style, voice, or point of view is critical your characters and plot, there’s room for them in your synopsis. Does an unreliable narrator obscure the true motivation of a character? Does the prose deteriorate as the protagonist’s dementia worsens? Make the reader aware of that if it helps explain the tension and plot arc in your work.

Female self-publisher planning to write a synopsis

Synopsis example

The synopsis: a synopsis
Now for some fun. Let’s synopsize the process of what we just learned:

A talented writer sets out to write a compelling synopsis of their new novel in hopes of selling it to a publisher. Despite their undeniable writing skills, they feel unprepared for this new undertaking in a business landscape utterly unfamiliar to them. But, despite their fear of rejection, they set out to learn everything it takes to ensure their success, knowing it’s an essential step towards realizing their dreams of being published.

After drawing up an outline, they write a concise draft that summarizes all the most important parts of their novel, focusing on only the most important characters, their motivations, and emotions as they spell out the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution of the plot—without using those exact terms.

Just as they near completion of the synopsis, they realize that a few extraneous details are getting in the way of the flow and that a key element of the narrative has been left out. Determined to see this through, they revise and share the synopsis with a trusted confidant, mom. Her thoughtful insights provide exactly what the synopsis needed to reflect the unique and utterly compelling nature of the novel to even the most jaded of literary agents.

Filled with newfound confidence, they send the finished synopsis out to publishers, knowing that whatever happens, not a single stone has been left unturned—and that new avenues of opportunity are, at long last, about to open.

Synopsis vs. Blurb

A blurb is entirely different from a synopsis, both in its use and how it’s written. Blurbs should pique the interest of anyone you think should read your work without giving away the entire plot (if there even is a plot at all).

If you have a publisher they’ll likely handle writing the blurb. But if you’re self-publishing, your blurb is entirely up to you. Aside from typically being only 150-200 words, there are far fewer rules when writing a blurb. It’s your opportunity to sell your work on your terms.

A blurb for a novel will usually include much of the same general information as a synopsis (protagonist, motivations, inciting action) but may only hint at the rising action and, of course, leave the climax and resolution out entirely. It’s more likely to follow the voice of the work itself (though it doesn’t have to). And it can be more direct in describing the nature of the novel. If it’s a gripping sci-fi romp where the rules of physics have gone out the window, you can come right out and say so.

Beyond novels, practically every type of book can use a good blurb. A blurb for a collection of poetry can explicitly state the themes, structures, and intent of poems. Photo books may not contain a single word, but their blurbs should describe the imagery within and tell the otherwise-unwritten story of how the photos came to be. Anthology blurbs can list the authors and works they contain and their significance. And blurbs for short story collections can introduce the unifying theme—or tease the breadth of their subject matter.

You can treat your blurb like a sales pitch or an extension of the book itself, with as much or as little flair as you like. Be intriguing. Be coy. Be bold. Be whatever suits you and your work.

And, just as you would with a synopsis, consider getting a second opinion on your blurb before you put it out to the world.

Ready to pen your masterpiece, synopsis and all? Get started on creating your trade book today.

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