4 Easy Steps to a Great Synopsis

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Creating a synopsis for your novel is one of the hardest pieces of writing there is. It is also one of the most important elements of your proposal. But if you follow these steps, you can master this writing task every time.

Some authors like to write their synopsis before they start writing the book because the exercise gives them the framework for their story. Others find it’s better to write it when the manuscript is completed, because they learn how their characters’ conflicts will be resolved only as the story unfolds. Either approach is fine as long as the book’s end result is the best it can be.

Questions and Answers signpostFirst, let’s lay the groundwork. A synopsis does not include a list of characters, and there is no dialogue in a synopsis. It is a detailed answer to the questions: “What is the time and place? What happens in the main plot and how do the main characters precipitate the action and/or react to it? How do they change from beginning to ending? All without saying, “In the story…”

A synopsis for a trade-length novel should be about five pages long, single-spaced, depending on the complexity of the main plot. Write it in present tense, third person, and in the same voice and style as your story.

Agents and editors are the audience for the synopsis. They need to see how the story’s narrative and the main characters’ inner conflicts and goals unfold to a final, satisfying resolution at the end of the book. Save your cliffhanger questions for your back cover copy to tantalize readers to buy the book.

With this in mind take the following steps.


Before you begin writing, answer the following questions mentioned above: What is the main plot of your story? and What is the inner conflict and motivation of the main characters? Your answers to these questions provide the boundaries for what you will and won’t include.


Next, introduce the agent or editor to your main characters in the first couple of paragraphs and clearly describe their conflicts and their goals in ways that make us like, or at least sympathize with them and care about what happens to them.


Follow the events of the main plot—or outer conflict—in chronological order. At the same time fold in the main characters’ inner tensions and motivation—or inner, emotional conflict—showing how they cause or react to the action and propel the story forward.

Transitions from one event or paragraph to the next must be smooth and easy to follow. This is where many synopses falter because an author leaves a gap of pivotal information. Remember that the agent or editor reading your synopsis knows nothing about important details. Ask a friend or critique partner to read your synopsis with a special focus on pointing out gaps to safeguard against making this mistake.

Visualize two ribbons wrapping around each other from one end (the book’s beginning) to the other end (the final completion). Just as they have to be the same length to end up together, so do your inner and outer conflicts in order to culminate simultaneously in a final resolved ending.


Make every word count. Polish and tighten sentences and paragraphs until you have removed superfluous words, phrases, and unnecessary subplot detail.

Proofread to correct grammar and punctuation errors. Do not simply trust your computer’s spellcheck.

A deftly written synopsis gives an agent or editor a positive impression of your writing ability, motivating him or her to want to read more of your proposal.


What do you like or not like about writing a synopsis? What is the hardest part for you in writing it? Do you write the synopsis before or after writing the manuscript?


Do you dread writing the synopsis? Follow these four easy steps to a great synopsis. Click to Tweet.

21 Responses

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  1. Mary, this is a great, outstanding, terrific and…uh, I’m running out of superlatives…groovy post. Like, FAR OUT!
    * I enjoy writing synopses; it’s a bit like turning a novel into a very short story, and the challenge is energizing.
    * As for before or after…definitely after the novel is written. My characters tend toward a certain waywardness that cannot help but pull me along, and they get themselves into scrapes I could never have foreseen. They are literary incarnations of Samuel Johnson; I am merely their Boswell.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    This is super informative. I’m surprised by the length, though. Five pages single-spaced is plenty to summarize a novel while retaining some of the voice. I’ve seen requests for 3-pagers. Still an OK length. The synopsis requests that have to fit on a single page are the ones that drive me crazy with my 110K-word novels that run a major plotline parallel to and separate from the romantic element. Any suggestions for making the single-pagers easier?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      The length really depends on the complexity of the plot and goals of the main character. A single-pager for a long trade novel is effectually like an elongated description. You still need to answer the three questions and then fill in as many of the main crises-to-resolutions through the story to the ending one as you have room for.

  3. Have you seen Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella film, Ever After? The scene in which Prince Henry is rather unhappily about to marry the Spanish princess, who is REALLY unhappy, and she has this high pitched cry that keeps increasing in discomfort to everyone around her until she bursts into a rapid-fire stream of shrieky Spanish that is just heart-wrenching? She begs over and over, “Por favour, por favor!” not to have to marry the dashing prince ?
    Yeah. The high pitched crying and shrieking bouts of Spanish would be me.
    That was me, until I heard the tip to write a paragraph for each chapter, and then condense that a bit more. I think it was Lori Benton who gave that advice, but I’m not sure.
    Once I started writing my synopsises (synopsi?) like this, they became easier. Not easy, just easiER. Condensing so much into so little is hard, but once I can sort the story thread from the secondary stuff, it does help.
    I write it after, simply because one never knows what those characters will do!

  4. Mary, these are great tips. I am one who writes the synopsis before the story because it helps me put the story into focus and to visualize it before I write it.
    *The hardest part of writing the synopsis is putting the characters’ flair into the writing. I’m great at telling the story, but I need to work on making it more interesting to read. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, agents and editors are interested in the continuing flow of crises-to-resolution action through the story that will keep readers turning the pages. Write the synopsis in the same voice and character style as you’ll be doing in manuscript. You can always go back and refine that when the manuscript is complete.

  5. Micky Wolf says:

    So helpful, Mary. Your steps make this process more accessible, less overwhelming. Thank You!

  6. With my last manuscript, I completed the synposis before I started the novel. Of course, things changed somewhat as I went along and the synposis had to be adjusted, but having the outline helped me stay on course and also made it easier to wrap things up in the end.

  7. Katie Powner says:

    I agree with Carol…the one-pagers are the hardest. I usually start by writing a three page synopsis, then prune and prune and prune it down to one page. And this is always after finishing the novel because, as Andrew mentioned, you never know what the characters might end up doing!

    Shelli makes a good point about just adjusting the synopsis if something changes during the writing process, but I think I’ll always leave the synopsis for the end because I dread it so much.

  8. I don’t mind writing the synopsis. It’s the proposal I have trouble with. At any rate, I write the synopsis when the book is finished. If I wrote it beforehand, I’d probably have to go back and change it because somehow my novels do not end up entirely how I figured they would be at the beginning of the process.

  9. Thanks, Mary, for this great synopsis to writing a synopsis. It is now printed out and put in my Important Above All binder.

  10. Going with Jennifer’s paragraph by paragraph approach, if you write in Scrivener, you can write your 2-4 sentence synopsis of each chapter as you go. At the end, Scrivener will essentially compile a synopsis for you, and then you edit it and smooth it out.
    Doesn’t stop the screaming, though…

  11. Great post. So easy to understand. I’ve written lots of them, but dreaded doing it every time. I’m cutting and pasting this into my folder for First Things First. Next time, writing the synopsis shouldn’t be so hard. Thanks.

  12. M Ray Holloway Jr says:

    I am in the first book stage and looking for an agent, but I just wanted to say how helpful this article is to me. I appreciate your insight and willingness to share your knowledge.