Step-By-Step Guide to Writing a Synopsis

Summarizing Your Novel

More often than not you will be requested to send through a synopsis (or summary) of your novel with your query letter when you approach agents and editors. They may also request all or part of your manuscript, as well.

It is important to understand that a synopsis or summary is not the back blurb of your novel. It is a step-by-step account of your manuscript and breaks down the entire novel, ranging from 2 to 10 pages in length (generally, the shorter the better).

When requested, agents and editors will read your query letter first, then the synopsis, then your manuscript. I recommend that you prepare all three for every book you write, as you never know when you might need them.

Do I have to write both a query letter and a synopsis?

Different agents have different preferences for what should be included in every submission, but you will ALWAYS need to have a premise for your novel, no matter what. Even if a synopsis is not required for your submission to one editor or agent, another might require it. Always check each individual editor/agent website that you are querying for their guidelines.

If nothing else, your synopsis will help you to nail down a premise for your novel and assist in identifying sections of your manuscript that might need further work before you begin to query.

What’s in a synopsis?

The synopsis is a breakdown of your entire manuscript. It can range from 2-10 pages (although the shorter the better), and briefly explains your characters, the conflict/plot and the resolution. In the synopsis you do not want to keep the reader guessing – you want to give away all of the books’ secrets (including the ending) in the most concise, compelling way possible.

Because you’re essentially writing a mini version of your book, you may struggle to write your synopsis. Some authors love the, while others hate them. As a pantser, I don’t outline my projects which makes it more of a challenge when it comes time to writing my synopsis. However, I have come up with the following 8 stages to ease the pain.

The 8 stages of writing a synopsis

Stage 1: Finish Your Novel

Write the book! Seriously, make sure you’ve finished writing your manuscript before you start to write your synopsis. Pro tip: if you’re writing a synopsis before you’ve finished your book, you’re actually writing an outline. If you don’t know where the story is going, neither will the reader of your synopsis.

Stage 2: Summarise Each Chapter

Read through your book, summarising each chapter into one or two sentences. Note that some chapters will be significantly longer than a sentence or two, particularly the opening chapters and the climax, and if you’re working with multiple points of view then you might need to add in a little bit more.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the point of this chapter?
  • What is the most important thing that happens?

Stage 3: Don’t Keep Secrets

Include the ending! One of the main purposes of a synopsis is to show the full arcs of your plot, subplots, and your characters. Don’t forget to include all the resolutions. If you don’t resolve certain aspects of the novel, the agent/editor reading your synopsis will know that this is by design.

Questions to ask:

  • Are the characters fully developed?
  • Are the character and story arcs expressed in the chapter summaries?

Stage 4: Embellish the Beginning

The first paragraph of the synopsis should give the same basic information you convey through the book’s first chapter(s). If you’ve been using our story beats, these include: inciting incident and key moment.

Questions to ask:

  • Where and when does this story take place?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What problem is your protagonist facing right off the bat?

Stage 5: String it Together

Start to string your paragraphs together in a coherent way. Some paragraphs might need to be split up further, others might be better together. If your novel has multiple points of view, you might need to group certain aspects together for flow.

Questions to ask:

  • Do the sentences paint an accurate picture of your manuscript?
  • Do the points of view flow naturally into each other?

Stage 6: Focus on Plot

Read through your synopsis so far with a focus on plot. As you read through you might be able to highlight a few plot holes and lost information. This might mean that you need to go back and revise a bit of your novel, or maybe you’ve just missed out on some key information in your synopsis. If it should be there but it’s not in your novel, you need to revise your manuscript.

Questions to ask:

  • Does your synopsis accurately reflect your book’s plot?
  • Have you only included information that is expressly in your novel?

Stage 7: Focus on Character

Read through with a focus on character arc. What kind of character arc does each character have? If your synopsis shows a negative arc for your character but has a positive arc in your book, you need to revise your synopsis (and vice versa).

questions to ask:

  • Does the reader get a good sense of who your main characters are and how they evolve throughout the story?
  • Do you need to add in any pertinent information into the synopsis to help the reader understand character motivations?

Stage 8: Trim and Edit

Trim and edit. Your synopsis should not be longer than 10 pages – the shorter the better. When an agent or editor requests a synopsis, they will usually specify a length requirement. Check each guideline carefully to ensure you meet the requirements.

questions to ask:

  • Is the synopsis too long?
  • What can be culled to help the synopsis read better?
  • Have you met the guidelines specified by the agent or editor?

How do I format my synopsis?

Check each agent/editor website to see if they have any formatting requirements, as most will. Generally, we recommend following these guidelines:

  • Your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense, regardless of the POV or tense that your book is written in.
  • The first time you write a character’s name, it should appear in ALL CAPS to be easily identified.
  • On the first page include the agent/editor details that you are querying, word length, and genre of your novel, unless specified otherwise.
  • Use 1.5 or 2 point line spacing.

Submitting Your Synopsis

It’s time to submit your work! Congratulations on making it this far! It can be a heart-wrenching process, but look what you’ve achieved! Before you hit the send button:

  • Triple check the submission guidelines of each agent/editor you are submitting to.
  • You might need to create multiple synopses for the same book as you begin querying multiple agencies.
  • When you’re finished submitting – take time to celebrate this amazing achievement!

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