Conquering the Synopsis

Oh the dreaded synopsis. Just that eight-letter word strikes fear into the hearts of writers. My dirty little secret? I actually kinda enjoy writing them. Give me a choice between a synopsis and a query, and I’d pick a synopsis every single time.

Think of it this way: With a query you only get 300 measly words. Just think of what you can do with several pages!

Alright, so let’s touch on the basics first.

What is the point of this horrid document?

Good question. An agent (or editor) wants this document so they can get a quick snapshot of what your book is about from beginning to end. They want to make sure there aren’t any gaping plot holes or common tropes/cliches, and they want to ensure your plot makes sense, your characters develop, and you don’t break any genre rules (like killing off the love interest in the end of your romance). More than anything, they want a brief overview of your manuscript so they can see if your story is new and refreshing, and something they might be interested in representing/acquiring.

Synopsis Basics
  • Your synopsis must cover your entire plot from beginning to end.
  • The ending must be included. No exceptions!
  • Your synopsis should be singled space and approximately 1-3 pages in length. (Check specific submission guidelines for the agent or editor to confirm how long they want it to be.)
  • Regardless of how your manuscript is written, the synopsis must be written in third person, present tense.
  • Don’t include dialogue.
  • Skip the rhetorical questions.
  • Typically there should be no more than three named characters–protagonist, antagonist, love interest/other side character. For all other characters you should refer to them by their role–waitress, brother, ex-boyfriend.

Beyond the basics, there are probably a hundred different ways to tackle actually writing the synopsis. Like drafting, each writer has their own way of doing things with their own unique quirks. Below are the steps I typically take when working on my synopsis.

Step 1: Have A Completed Manuscript

For me, I can’t possibly write a synopsis without having finished the manuscript. I’m not much of a plotter, and although I know some people fiddle with their synopsis while plotting, I am not one of those people.

Step 2: Dissect Your Chapters

Read through your manuscript and for every chapter write a brief one to two sentence description of what’s happening. Focus on what the key elements of that chapter are. How does the character develop? How does the conflict deepen? What makes this chapter important? Do this for every chapter until you’ve got a tidy document of chapter descriptions.

Step 3: Glue It Together

Now that you’ve got a brief description for every chapter, read through what you have. Obviously you’re going to have some blanks in there so go ahead and fill them in. Add in some pretty transitions, and work on sentence structure so everything flows together. Focus on the plot right now, ensuring that you’re covering all your bases from beginning to end. Remember, this is just the main plot. With a synopsis, you won’t be able to fully flesh out all the sub-plots and minor characters. Stick to the basics.

Step 4: Inject Emotion

It’s important to remember that the synopsis isn’t just showing the plot development, it also needs to cover the character arc. Read through it a second time now and make sure you’re showing how your character changes from beginning to end. Did a significant character die in your manuscript? Tell us how the main character feels  about it, tell us how they’re evolving as they wade through the conflict.

Step 5: Tell Don’t Show

That’s right–tell don’t show. Contrary to probably every piece of writing advice you’ve ever received, this is one time where you need to come straight out and say it. You want your synopsis to be lean and powerful, so in this instance, you need to tell us about the character (e.g. Jane’s a hopeless romantic, Scott’s a football fanatic). While you’re at it, sift through and substitute any bland words you have with spicier ones–substitute sprinted for ran, boiling for hot. This is definitely an instance of quality over quantity. You want less words, but the words you choose have to pack a punch.

Step 6: Polish & Shine

This is where you need to let it sit for a little. Read it through again–trim it, edit it. Send it off to your critique partners so they can offer suggestions. Definitely try and send it to one or two people who haven’t read your book so they can tell you if it fits as well together as you think it does and that it makes sense.

Once you’ve done that…voila! Your synopsis is complete.

Some Final Tips
  • The description for your first chapter and the beginning of your synopsis may be longer than the others. That’s fineAnd actually, it’s necessary. In the first paragraph of your synopsis you want to make sure that you have a basic introduction to your main character, introduce the conflict, and ground the reader in the world. This is especially important if you’re writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy where setting can be incredibly important. This first paragraph is one section that you don’t want to skimp on. However
  • You do need to limit the main character’s back story. One to two sentences at most, and only if it’s really necessary for us to understand the plot. Did your main character’s parents get divorced and now, because of that, she has no desire to ever get married? Sure, that you need to include. But unless it’s essential to our understanding of the character, skip it.
  • Synopses are functional documents that should be well-written. But because of the nature of synopses, resist the urge to include purple prose or flowery statements. Let the strength of your writing show by your ability to distill an entire novel down into a few concise pages.
  • If you’re looking for additional material on synopsis-writing, let me direct you to the post that I pull up every single time I’m working on one. This is one of my go-to synopsis writing resources, and you can find it here.


And that is how I write a synopsis. Any questions? How about you? How do you go about writing your synopsis? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!


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