5 Tips on How to Write a Novel Synopsis

PhotobucketGIVEAWAY: I am (again) excited to give away a free copy of the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. Good luck to all! (Update: Kaitlyn B. won.)

I’ve never met a single person who liked writing a synopsis. Seriously — not one. But still, synopses are a necessary part of the submission process (until some brave publishing pro outlaws them), so I wanted to share 5 basic tips today regarding how to compose one in case you’re query agents or getting ready to pitch at a writers’ conference.

A synopsis is a summary of your book. Literary agents and editors may ask to see one if you’re writing an adult novel, a memoir, or a kids novel (young adult, middle grade). The purpose of a synopsis request is for the agent or editor to evaluate what happens in the three acts of your story to decide if the characters, plot and conflict warrant a complete read of your manuscript. And if you haven’t guessed yet, they’re pretty tough to write. If you are indeed putting one together and sending your work out, check out these tips below:

1. Reveal everything major that happens in your book, including the ending. Heck, revealing the story’s ending is a synopsis’s defining unique characteristic. You shouldn’t find a story’s ending in a query or in-person pitch, but it does leak out in a synopsis. On this note, know that a synopsis is designed to explain everything major that happens, not to tease — so avoid language such as “Krista walks around a corner into a big surprise.” Don’t say “surprise,” but rather just tell us what happens.

2. Make your synopsis two pages, double-spaced. There is always some disagreement on length. This stems from the fact that synopses used to trend longer (six, eight, or even 12 pages!). But over the last five years, agents have requested shorter and shorter synopses — with most agents finally settling on 1-2 pages, total. If you write yours as one page, single-spaced, it’s the same length as two pages, double-spaced — and either are acceptable. There will be the occasional agent who requests something strange, such as a “5-page synopsis on beige paper that smells of cinnamon!” But trust me, if you turn in a solid 1-2 page work, you’ll be just fine across the board.

3. Take more care and time if you’re writing genre fiction. Synopses are especially difficult to compose if you’re writing character-driven (i.e., literary) fiction, because they may not be a whole lot of plot in the book. Agents and editors understand this, and put little (or no) weight into a synopsis for literary or character-driven stories. However, if you’re writing genre fiction — specifically categories like romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, horror or science fiction — agents will quickly want to look over your characters and plot points to make sure your book has a clear beginning, middle and end, as well as some unique aspects they haven’t seen before in a story. So if you’re getting ready to submit a genre story, don’t blow through your synopsis; it’s important.

(When you’re ready to submit, check out these lists of numerous agent interviews: fantasy agents, science fiction agents, general fiction agents, horror agentsnonfiction agents, middle grade fiction agents, and young adult fiction agents.)

4. Feel free to be dry, but don’t step out of the narrative. When you write your prose (and even the pitch in your query letter), there is importance in using style and voice in the writing. A synopsis, thankfully, not only can be dry, but probably should be dry. The synopsis has to explain everything that happens in a very small amount of space. So if you find yourself using short, dry sentences like “John shoots Bill and then sits down to contemplate suicide,” don’t worry. This is normal. Lean, clean language is great. And lastly, do not step out of the narrative. Agents do not want to read things such as “And at the climax of the story,” “In a rousing scene,” or “In a flashback.”

5. Capitalize character names when characters are introduced. Whenever a new character is introduced, make sure to CAPITALIZE them in the first mention and then use normal text throughout. This helps a literary agent immediately recognize each important name. On this subject, avoid naming too many characters (confusing) and try to set a limit of five, with no more than six total. I know this may sound tough, but it’s doable. It forces you to excise smaller characters and subplots from your summary — actually strengthening your novel synopsis along the way.

GIVEAWAY: I am (again) excited to give away a free copy of the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. Good luck to all! (Update: Kaitlyn B. won.)

Photo courtesy Flickr’s @Doug88888

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About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for this informative article. It comes at a time when I need it most. I have written and rewritten my synopsis and you gave me some pointers to make it even better.

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  2. says

    Dear Chuck: Somehow you revealed a little known fact during this blog. I never knew, or heard anyone else ever…say anything about a synopsis being dry. That’s wonderful. I have always been under the impression it had to be compelling, sassy, leading, etc, etc. Going the dry way to really explain the beginning, middle, and ending sounds like it will make the process ten times easier. I know what happens in the book, I wrote it!

    I’m hoping to visit with you again at the Clarksville conference in June. As you suggested when I met you there last year I have published one book, and have one in the hopper that will be published, hopefully before June. The name of my first one is Bottom Bones. The first chapter is on my web site. I’m posting the second book’s first chapter as soon as I am finished with the proof copy. The name of that one is The Escapes of Madlyn Witherspoon. Hopefully they will both sell well. Thanks for posting this report about synopsis. That was very insightful.
    Regards,
    James M. Copeland

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  3. Marilyn says

    Thank you so much for this article. I am miserable at writing the synopsis. Your advice about declaring everything is exactly what I needed to know. I find myself with holding information, not wanting to give everything away and I struggle against this. I had no idea that you could do a two page synopsis! This information will really help.
    Once again, thank you for a very informative article!

    Marilyn :)

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  4. Z.J. Czupor says

    Dear Chuck: How serendipitous. I’m currently writing a synopsis for a contest entry, so your article was most timely and helpful.

    Cheers,
    ZJ

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  5. Dona McCormack says

    Chuck:

    Thank you for saving me from an immense blunder! I was under the incorrect assumption that a synopsis should be a longer document, detailing character arcs and sub-plots along with the main plot. Had I read your article AFTER writing ten pages, I would have been an unhappy girl, indeed. You’re assistance has been invaluable.

    Dona

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  6. says

    Yes, the whole ugly truth about synopses–except a note that editors may specify a different length, which takes precedence over the 2 pages mentioned.

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  7. lasvegaslinny says

    Do you always write the synopsis in the same person and style as the story (first person, gothic)? (don’t worry, that”s not it) Do you always introduce the characters in the same order as they appear in the book? I want to summarize with a description of the heroine’s plight, then jump back to the first act, first scene.

    Thanks for all you guys do … if it wasn’t for sites like this I’d never get these questions answered. I learn something everyday from my fellow writers, and I thank them all for sharing so generously.

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  8. Lourdes says

    Thank you for the information, but I find sitting down to write daunting enough. I don’t know if I could do this. What happens if you make changes while you’re writing? What made sense or seemed plausible during the writing of the sypnosis may change as you write the novel. Am I wrong in thinking this?

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  9. Mel says

    I wouldn’t have thought to give away the ending. That seems so frustrating, but I guess from the agent’s perspective they need to know you can wrap up the story. Good advice! Thanks!

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  10. Cherry Dunagan says

    I’m so glad to have found you. Recently, I have been asked to write my first book. Your tweets and links have been a great help in understanding how to do this. Not just for me but other writer friends I share them with. Thanks for the help.

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  11. Stacie Joslin says

    Thank you for the tips! The synopsis is one of the hardest things for me to write, ranking up there with the query letter. I will now be writing yet another new synopsi, this time however, I will have a guide to assist me.

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  12. says

    Thanks for setting me on the right track as I begin to assemble my submission package. I would never have known to capitalize a character’s name at first introduction, or what length to strive for. Now if I could just decide whether this is a collection of family saga stories, or try to weave them together into a novel that spans 5 generations!

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  13. says

    Chuck, I love #4, especially the part about not stepping out of the narrative. Good advice. I’m looking forward to more great tips when I see you at MWW later this week.
    Deborah Lucas´s last blog post ..LOOSE ENDS

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  14. says

    Great tips! I especially appreciate #4 regarding “staying in the narrative.” You’re so right! The climactic action, for example, should speak for itself without having to label it as such (not to mention how diatracting that can be). Very useful advice!

    Thanks!

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  15. Miden W says

    Thanks so much for the advice!! You’ve definitely made the synopsis a lot less intimidating.

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  16. says

    Dear Chuck:
    I read the report earlier, but it just seemed fitting that I read it again. I have self published with Create Space with three novels and not written any synopsis lately. However, I might start doing that again. I really do appreciate all the help you have been from Tennessee to Arkansas. If I had not had your book titled Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript to go by I might not have been able to comply with all the rules needed for self publishing.
    I wish it were possible for me to go to your class in Greece. Wow, what a chance!
    Good luck on your new title, Red Dog Blue Dog. I feel you must be a dog lover in order to write about them.
    Keep up your good work!

    Sincerely,
    James M. Copeland

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  17. says

    Grear tips! I am in the minority, as I actually enjoy writing a synopsis. I find it helps pinpoint areas of weakness in my manuscript, and then helps guide me through revisions.

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  18. says

    So the difference between literary and genre fiction is that literary is character driven? First time I’ve heard a clearly given definition. Many thanks!

    Also reinforces my preference for genre stuff – I want strong characters and strong plot, and is literary writers feel like its okay to skimp on plots, explains my lack of interest. Of course, most classic literature has very strong plots, which raises the question of where this craziness came from, but the world is like that.

    While not as cool to me as your view of literary vs genre, also some good advise on synopsis here – I always feel like the writing when I summarize a story is too dry. Good to know that’s how its supposed to be.
    Jessica´s last blog post ..My Voice

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  19. Michelle Turner says

    This was extremely helpful. Thanks to people like you, my fears are slipping away.

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  20. Susan says

    Synopsis is the name of the boogieman that hides under my bed or sometimes in my closet. I know he’s there. He knows I know he’s there.

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  21. says

    Thank you for this great outline. I wrongly perceived the synopsis to be very similar to the query letter. This makes things more clear for me, and helps alleviate a bit more stress when ready to pitch.
    Thank you!

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  22. Greg Lara says

    This information is very useful and much appreciated! I love the fact that it assumed I know nothing about its subject matter, because, in fact, although I am not new to writing, I am new to the publishing world.

    Thank You!

    PS. That last sentence is plenty of reason to send over that free book! :D

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  23. Anne says

    Very informative. I’ve read many tips on writing synopsis but your guidance is fresh and different. Thanks!

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  24. Ashlea Green says

    Thank you so much for this great advice Chuck! I’ve written a children’s book and I would absolutely love & appreciate the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents. I’m also trying to pursue a career as an agent so this is definitely in my field. Thanks for this opportunity & literary advice!

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  25. John Dorcinville says

    Such exciting advice regarding the writing of a synopsis. But it’s so unusual to learn that people don’t enjoy writing them, because I do! There’s a thrill to it because it’s your entire story summed up into a few short paragraphs, and seems like a good opportunity to review and reevaluate your plot.

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  26. Olaf Ott says

    Disappointed that you don’t see synopsis applying to literary fiction. I try to have my characters change, grow, “come of age,” have an arc that can be summarized and communicated in synopsis. Otherwise, great list, useful. Want to try it out.

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  27. says

    As a re-newbie, this advice was perfectly time for my seeing it tweeted. I did my synopsis Debut Dagger and found it was really great for catching a few weaknesses, which were easily fixed in my plot. It’s still difficult but I am now including pitch and synopsis files in my Scrivener docs. I look them over and tweak them as I’m writing, feels like an outline but ends up more useful later! Wasn’t aware of capitalizing character names first time mentioned -good to know! thanks for the great article!
    Cris Gasser´s last blog post ..Librarians Top Picks for Good Reads

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  28. Rav says

    It is absolutely true that the end of the story is an important aspect of overall story telling. I like the way it is said here. The end part has a critical role to play and need to be part of synopsis.

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  29. Grisselle says

    Awesome tips! I’m beginning to write my first novel and I’m trying to learn all that I can when it comes to writing, from writing a sypnosis to editing, and also publishing. Your tips would help me a lot on creating that perfect sypnosis. Thanks for sharing!

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  30. suzy vadori says

    My background is business writing, so perhaps I’ll be the first person ever to love writing the synopsis. I’ve been looking forward to pitching it since I began writing my novel almost 2 years ago!

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  31. Steve Graham says

    I’ve been writing what I hope will be the first novel of a trilogy… some would characterize it as sci-fi, but I prefer to call it near future apocalyptic. I’m nearing my final edit of this 400 pager and now need to start looking for an agent. So thanks for this helpful article on writing my synopsis… going to be very helpful reference in going forward. Hopefully I’ll interest just the right agent and find that publisher. Just a quick question here– I’ve been told somewhere along the line that if I self-publish (even as a download) I hurt my chances at landing a publishing deal. Any truth to that?

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