9 Tips for Writing a Perfect Synopsis

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Creating a synopsis for your novel is one of the hardest writing assignments you’ll have. It is also one of the most important elements of your proposal. Therefore, today I want to give you some tips to make it the best it can be.

Some authors like to write their synopsis before they start writing the book because the exercise gives them the framework for their story. For others it works 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 end result is a near perfect synopsis.

I’ll quickly state what a synopsis is not. It isn’t a sample chapter; it doesn’t include a list of characters; and there is no dialogue in a synopsis. It is a detailed answer to the question, “What happens in the story?”—without saying, “In the story…”

  1. Start with a hook. It can be several sentences up to a paragraph. Think like a marketing person writing back cover copy for your book as you write this opening.
  2. Introduce the agent or editor to your main characters and clearly describe their conflicts and their goals in ways that make us like, sympathize, dislike them, and care about what might happen to them.
  3. A synopsis for a full-length novel should be about 5–6 pages, double-spaced, .5-inch paragraph indents with no extra space between paragraphs. Write it in present tense, third person, and in the same style as your story.
  4. Highlight the pivotal events in your plot—in chronological order, of course—that are most important to the main characters. This answers the question of what happens in the story.
  5. Very important: convey the emotion in your story. It will connect the agent or editor with your main characters.
  6. Transitions from one event or paragraph to the next must be smooth and easy for the reader to follow. In many proposals I have to read the whole manuscript to track with what’s being said in the synopsis. Avoid this mistake.
  7. Tell the resolution of the main characters’ conflicts and the conclusion of your story. This will show the agent or editor your ability to bring everything together to a reasonable and satisfying conclusion.
  8. Make every word count. Polish and tighten sentences and paragraphs until you have removed superfluous words, and only the perfect words, sentences, and paragraphs remain.
  9. Proofread to correct grammar and punctuation errors. Do not simply trust your computer’s spellcheck.

As the competition increases for fewer and fewer publishing slots, the quality of your proposal becomes ever more important. The business portion—your book’s comparative titles, your personal marketing plan, sales numbers on previous books, future book ideas—demonstrates your knowledge of the industry. But a perfectly written synopsis quickly shows an agent or editor the level of your storytelling ability, and that will make him or her want to read more.

What do you like or not like about writing a synopsis? What is the hardest part for you in writing it?

56 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    Thanks for the blog advise. I think the hardest part of synopsis writing is keeping it tight and informative instead of a bunch of “he said/she said” or “he did this, she did that”.

    As the writer we know too much of our own story. We’ve over-thought it for months on end, and now it has to be honed down to nutshell form and it’s hard to “see the forest” and not all the trees.

  2. Sarah Thomas says:

    My first synopsis was a BEAR. After that, I kind of felt like I had the hang of it and it wasn’t too bad writing the second and third. The challenge I have is in making my synopsis LONG enough. I’ve entered contests and sent in proposals that required a one-page (single spaced) synopsis. How short is TOO short?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Sarah, if the synopsis is one page, it can be single-spaced. Anything longer should be double-spaced. It’s hard to think how you could write the hook, introduce the main characters and their struggles and goals, and highlight the most important plot lines in less than a page. If yours is shorter than that, it might mean you need to include more details of the plot so the reader has a more complete idea of what the story is about.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    Thanks for these tips, Mary. For me, the trickiest parts of synopsis writing is letting my voice come through in the telling of the story. I’m good at summarizing what the story is about, but making it pop with language and voice is something I’m still working on.

    I’m not overwhelmed by writing a synopsis anymore. I usually write one before I begin my novel but find that things change in the writing of the story, so the synopsis needs tweaking after I’m done with it. 🙂

    Perfect timing for this post. I’m going to be working on improving mine for ACFW, and now I have your helpful tips to guide me. Thanks!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, getting the style, voice, and emotion of the story into the synopsis is a real challenge. Careful choice of the perfect words will help.

      Great suggestion to write a synopsis draft when starting the novel and then tweaking and refining it when the story is completed. That approach could be useful for many authors.

    • I also write mine before and then rewrite it after to incorporate the changes I made while writing the novel.

  4. Tiana Smith says:

    This is really helpful. It’s hard to find advice on synopsis stuff because most agents focus on query advice. So, thank you!

  5. Great post, Mary! It is perfect timing for me too since I am meeting up with my CP tonight, so we can work on our first ever synopsises. I admit we have been putting this off. 🙂 But we have got to buckle down and just do it. We have already braved the treacherous waters of the “query letter.” lol We are planning to submit our proposals in November! Have a great weekend everyone! 😀

  6. Anita Mae says:

    Great tips, Mary. You’ve laid out synopsis writing so cleanly that even I can see where I’m lacking.

    As a pantser, I used to write the synopsis at the end. But now that I’m at the stage where I’m submitting proposals instead of complete manuscripts, I don’t have that luxury. For me, that’s the hardest part – needing to mentally see my complete novel with all the conflicts, goals and motivations, and arcs with only a few chapters written. I took a plotting class once and they gave out a spreadsheet to aid in the process of getting it all down, but I find it stymies my creativity because it’s too detailed. When I use it, I feel like I’m writing on demand with no room for deviation. I guess that means I’ve evolved into a pantser hybrid.

    I never wondered if my voice showed in my synopsis. I figure if I have a voice, it will come out no matter what I write. Well, as long as I don’t keep changing the same words to suit others. (Like contest judges and critters who have their own way of writing.)

    I will now copy your post to OneNote to keep handy. Thanks!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Anita, the spreadsheet approach doesn’t work for everyone. It sounds like you are one of those authors who knows your characters well going into the writing of your novel, and you let them take you through the development of the story. As long as you have some means of tracking the conflicts and resolutions, motivations, and arcs to be sure they are working effectively, you don’t have to feel boxed in by someone else’s structure.

      I’m not familiar with the term “pantser.” Please define.

      • Anita Mae says:

        Panster: Writing by the ‘seat of your pants’.

        I have a clear idea of my characters and their conflict, and where I want them to end up. Sometimes, that’s all I have to start writing. As I write, the story develops. If I reach a point where I can’t think of anything, I go for a drive. As I drive, the ideas come and I go back to writing, developing the story further. The ‘black moment’ materializes along the way and I work at it until it fits. When I reach the end, the parts are all in place.

        Because it wasn’t written from an outline/spreadsheet, I now have to go back and solidify the arcs, conflict, goals, etc, but that’s okay. The main thing is that the story was written with pure creative freedom. I didn’t plan it all out ahead of time and then try to liven it up. That’s why I say using a plotting spreadsheet stifled my creativity.

  7. Michelle Lim says:

    This is exactly what I needed today, Mary! Thank you!

    The hardest thing for me is my love of plot. I want to have the editor love all the twists and turns as much as I do, but you just can’t get that into a synopsis. There is too much. When I force it, I lose emotion and voice in my writing. Very tricky.

    Thanks for this blog. I will refer back to it the next time I have to write a synopsis.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Michelle, if possible keep one or two twists in to several of the highlighted plot lines. It could enhance interest and show the depth of your story.

      I hope you have to write your next synopsis soon.

      • Michelle Lim says:

        Thanks, Mary. Me too. I’m excited to hear I can add a few twists in the synopsis. Now I’ve got a goofy grin on my face. It is funny what excites us as authors.

        I appreciate the kind words.

  8. My first synopsis was written after I completed the book. I’ve gotten pretty good feedback on it and even have three versions of it based on page requirements. I tried writing one beforehand for the next book in the series, because I was asked for a series proposal, and I think it’s paralyzing me. I’ve done nothing but fight with it, and set it aside three months ago because I started something completely different.

    Sometime in the next 24 hours I’ll be typing The End on this completely different novel, that I’ve written in less than three months. With no pre-planning or plotting done beforehand. More often than not when I quit for the day, I had no idea what came next. It wasn’t until I hit 15,000 or so that I even knew what the end was. Couldn’t even start back cover type stuff until I was over halfway through it, and I only finalized it yesterday.

    I’ve never found the actual writing of the synopsis to be all that hard. I had some great examples to look over. But now I’m wondering if, for me, there is such a thing as writing it too early.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Rachel, you and Anita sound like you are after-the-manuscript-is-written synopsis writers. Whatever works better for you. The main goal is that the finished synopsis explains what the story is about and makes the agent or editor want to read more.

  9. Thank you, Mary. I am waiting to finish my novel before writing a synopsis, but I have thought about it and writing one has seemed like a daunting task. Your do’s and don’t provide a great road map. I have one question / concern. You said in #3 that the synopsis should be written in the same style as the novel. I’m not entirely clear on how to do that for my YA novel. It is written from a third-person limited point of view, but the narrative voice somewhat echoes the voice and attitude of the teenage protagonist. For example:
    Ever since Daedi’s disappearance, she [the main character] and Maeda had developed a strong bond. She couldn’t let that be ripped apart now, especially not on account of a stupid unicorn.

    I can infuse some of the style into the synopsis, but I am concerned that if stay close to the style of the narrative, I will sound like a teenager. Would having a professional tone everywhere in the proposal except for the synopsis make it clear that using words such as “stupid” and “nuisance” in the synopsis are indicative of the narrative voice?

    Thank you and blessings!

  10. Leah Good says:

    Thanks for this post. Quick question. I’ve heard many different “rules” for how long a synopsis should be (1 page for every 10,000 words, as short as you can reasonably make it, 4 pages no matter how long the story, etc.) Are agents okay with receiving a synopsis shorter than their personal rule of thumb, or do they like to see their directions followed exactly?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good question, Leah. It is important to follow each agency’s submission guidelines. Why? Because this demonstrates your thoroughness in researching and following directions, which is an indication of how easy you might be to work with.

      As Rachel commented above, you may have to write several versions of your synopsis, depending on which agents you are submitting to.

  11. Fabulous information, Mary. I think the hardest part for me is writing a synopsis in the same style as the story. Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case, but my nonfiction and fiction work have always sounded very different, and I tend to write every synopsis like I was writing an article.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Cheryl, weaving in the style is the big challenge, and you bring up a good point. It must be even harder for those who write lots of articles. Writing a synopsis takes a deliberate shift of gears. I hope these 9 tips help.

  12. Lots of good information, Mary. Honestly, there’s nothing I like about writing a synopsis. I find Camy Tang’s synopsis worksheet to be very helpful, because it breaks it down into manageable steps. I’m slogging through one to get it ready for ACFW next month. God willing, it’ll be done by then. 😉

  13. Dale Rogers says:

    Thank you for summing it all up for us, Mary.
    I have a better understanding now of what a
    synopsis should be. The hardest part for me
    is boiling down my story to the most important
    elements. I get into the action so much, it’s
    difficult for me to leave it out and focus more on emotions and revelations.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Dale, start by asking yourself which plot lines are most important to the story. Focus on those. They will tell the agent or editor what the story is about, which is the goal. Then concentrate on folding in the emotions and conflict resolutions for those plot lines and the story’s ending.

  14. Larry says:

    I often try to avoid reverting to writing some daft essay like in my school days:

    “The main theme of “Moby Dick” is…”

    I did not relish then having to cram several hundred pages of exploring human nature, the search for God, the struggle between Man and the Divine (or Man and Madness, which some replace as a struggle with the Divine, as the good sea captain might tell us) into a handful of pages, and I certainly do not relish doing so now 🙂

    (Especially since it’s my own work and all…)

    The artists’ defense has always been, “if we don’t judge a book by its cover, how can we do so by a cover letter?” and while pithy, the pity is that I think there is much truth to that (which is why the query process involves gradually revealing more of the work to the interested party) which in this era of slush piles probably more properly needing to be described as swamp-marshes (I doubt Twain or Thackery had to worry about an agent or editor getting several hundred proposals a day!) means that the diamonds in the rough seem to get passed over for that which is easier to process and distribute. Like coal. That, combined with the hot-air of writers fuming at the great absurdity of the Kafka-esque system called the publishing industry, is the most likely why we have had global warming and these terrible heatwaves this summer 🙂

    In short: We writers suck at writing short summaries of anything, because we are drunk on the sound of our keyboards clacking. Such has doomed the Titanic, if not the Peqoud, and a great many book proposals, I suppose.

  15. Kate says:

    Thank you Mary for this clear and concise post. Perfect timing for me also.

    Many of my writing friends say they write the synopsis first. I am almost finished with my WIP…perhaps I’ll take some time and write the synopsis.

    I’ll be sharing your post with our Quills of Faith writers group and saving it for future reference.

  16. Thank you, Mary! With all of the upcoming conferences, my writing group has been discussing synopsis writing and one sheets. This post will really help.

  17. Mary!

    Wonderful and oh, so timely post for me.

    I JUST TYPED ‘THE END’ ON MY WIP!

    Now I’m heading over to my rough-draft synopsis to clean it all up. My goal is to have everything ready to send out by the end of this weekend. In fact, my beloved champion is taking our 10-year-old to the beach for her last Saturday of summer so that I can have the whole day to ‘git er done’ – VERY excited.

    Excited to write the synopsis? Sorta. A little scared, too. I mean, after all, once that’s done (query is ready, proposal will be completed with the completed synopsis) I’ll have no more excuses to hide this under a bushel, will I?

    Thanks again,
    Becky

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Congratulations on finishing your WIP, Becky. Yes, you have no more excuses. Once your synopsis is written and you’ve done a complete proofread, your proposal is read to go. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you have an experienced critique partner or editor review the manuscript before you attach it to your proposal.

  18. Good post, thanks.

    I don’t write good synopses because mine read very much like, “he did this and then he did that and then the did the other.”

    But now that I have down which plot points to put in, I’m going to work on putting in some voice.

  19. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you, Mary. Despite all the synopses I’ve written, it’s still one of the most difficult aspects of my writing life. I appreciate your clear and well-written tips!

  20. Judy Gann says:

    Thanks you for your clear, helpful tips, Mary! I’m saving this post for when I write my first synopsis in a couple of months. I have a sketchy one I’ve used in writing my novel, but it needs to be expanded and polished.

  21. Mary Keeley says:

    I’m glad the timing is good, Judy. It’s good to hear you’ll be ready to finish the synopsis soon. I hope it goes smoothly.

  22. Darby Kern says:

    I haven’t written a “proposal first” yet, but I’m thinking about giving it a try. I have a story outlined for the most part but very little of it written. If I write a proposal and dynamite synopsis how far can I deviate from it (provided a publisher has shown interest) in the manuscript? Obviously not too much, but writing is a process of discovery sometimes and things won’t jump out until you’re working on the manuscript. Do we need to deny those organic growth opportunities to stick rigidly to our synopsis?

    I guess the question is: how slavishly do we adhere to our synopsis so a publisher doesn’t says, “This isn’t the book you pitched.”

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Darby, it’s essential that the synopsis accurately describes your story. That is its purpose. If you write it before you write your manuscript, know that you’ll surely need to revise it after you finish your story.

  23. R.A.Savary says:

    Thank you for the reassuring and confirming message that a well written story and the emotion behind it is what agents are looking for – in a query as well as a book.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, R.A. It’s easy to forget to incorporate the emotion of the story as you write the synopsis, but avoid that mistake. The emotion is what connects the reader to the characters and the story, and if agents and editors don’t make that connection as they read the synopsis, your proposal will end up on the rejection pile.

  24. Nikole Hahn says:

    I wish every agent had the same formula for proposals. Great read! I’ll be saving this article.

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  27. Thank you so much.
    As a writer who is emotionally wrapped up in all of the events of the book (small as well as large), it is an undertaking to step out of it and look at the story in a summary point of view. This makes it very difficult to–not only write drier than we would want our writing to be–but, also in simplifying it to bring out the main events.
    This was very helpful advice for me!

  28. Anonymous says:

    my story has no major plot , and no antagonists or protagonists ! its just a story on the life of some family ! how am i supposed to write a hook ?!