How to Write your Synopsis

You’ve done it! You finally finished drafting and revising that behemoth of a novel and it’s on the road to publication and getting into the hands of readers. Next step, distilling thousands of words into a single page. Despite how small and simple it seems, many authors struggle with this often-forgotten task, including myself.


If you’re aiming to be traditionally published, you’ll be asked to hand one in to an agent or an editor. You might have to produce one in other scenarios.


No matter if you’re a planner, pantser, or anywhere in between, this hefty and intimidating task can be a vital building block to making your book the best it can be.


What a Synopsis Is — and Isn’t


A synopsis is a one-to-two page summary of your novel which covers the protagonist’s story arc and other vital details. It encompasses the ENTIRE story from start to finish, with spoilers, which means plot twists, turning points, major scenes, and the ending are included. Subplots are typically excluded for brevity.


While length requirements vary by industry professionals, around 500 words will be optimal for most situations.


The synopsis serves as an outline to tell the reader the premise and narrative arc of your story and major characters. It will also communicate that the novel is realistic, fresh, fits genre expectations, and doesn’t present any major problems. A standout synopsis displays the tone and writing style of your novel. An interesting protagonist, an intriguing subject matter, and engaging themes will help strengthen your synopsis.


A synopsis is not the same as a back cover or jacket blurb that you would read when you pick up a published book. Blurbs are designed to intrigue the reader to pick up your story as a sales pitch. A synopsis is neutral in tone. While a back cover blurb can help in writing your synopsis, it’s not a substitute for it.


Why Write It?


We all live busy lives and most of us, especially those in the publishing industry, don’t have time to read hundreds of full-length manuscripts that can be over 100,000 words on a weekly basis.


If you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal, you will be writing a synopsis either while querying for an agent, on submission to editors at publishing houses, or both. You’ll also likely need it for writing contest entries. In many cases, this is your only chance to convince an industry professional that your book is worth working on, so you have to make it count. A less than impressive synopsis will mean they may never read any chapters of your manuscript.


Indie authors, you’re not off the hook. While self-published authors don’t have to query agents or publishers, many services that cater to authors will recommend or require you to hand in a synopsis of some form. Cover artists, editors, formatters, book trailer creators, among others, can use that one-to-two pages to get a better idea of what your story is about that you won’t get in a back cover blurb alone. Plus, they aren’t required to read a potentially 100,000+ word manuscript. An early lesson I’ve learned from writer friends is that a story with a chaotic synopsis is likely not ready for publishing.


How to Write It


There are some things you can do to make the synopsis your own, but in general, you want to keep quite a few things in mind.


First of all, make sure you include the title of your book so it’s not lost in slush piles! The best title for the document will be “[your book title]-synopsis”.


If you have two-to-three lines that can help “sell” your story that aren't technically part of the synopsis, they can be added to the top.


Show the plot progression, including plot twists, from beginning to the satisfying end. Yes, please write down the ending, this is not the time to be coy about spoilers. While you want to mention plot twists, don’t go into great detail about them; it’s supposed to be enough detail to intrigue readers. Describe the protagonist’s arc as well as their relation to the other important characters. Don’t forget to mention any important themes and setting information as well, but leave out non-vital specifics.


Don’t name more than five characters, though in most cases, you want to limit this to two to three (the protagonist, the antagonist, and a major supporting character). Put their names in bold or in CAPS when first introduced. Other characters will be listed by their roles like “the artist” or “the baker”.


Your synopsis should follow the same structure as presented in the novel. So if you have multiple timelines or character arcs, the order of events should follow the one in your novel. Keep your subplots to an absolute minimum, as you probably won’t have any space for it. Same for any unneeded details. Make sure it’s an accurate representation of your story to avoid any bait and switch situations.


A problem with writing a plot synopsis is how dry, cold, and mechanical it can get. A great way to warm it up with emotion is to factor in how your characters are impacted by the events of the story, including the twists and turns. Try to vary your sentence structure and length to keep reader interest high.


No matter the tense and perspective of your novel, the synopsis in fiction will always be written in third person, present tense. The synopsis should be written in an active, yet neutral voice. Avoid a sales pitch tone like seen in cover blurbs. Stay away from editorializing, meaning, don't use phrases like "in a flashback" or "a critical scene" in the synopsis. You also can’t be too wordy. If written correctly, your synopsis will have clean, lean, and powerful language that will preview your writing style to readers.


Tips and Tricks


All of this can sound overwhelming, especially for a first timer. Here are a few ways to make it easier.


Your outline can help you write the synopsis, given that it’s up to date with the manuscript you’re submitting to industry professionals. Even though I don’t have an extensive outline of my book before I do my first draft, I typically have an outline of chapter summaries by the time it’s off to beta readers.


If you don’t have an outline and prefer to narrow down the information from more to less, write a one to two sentence summary of every scene/chapter in your novel. Then cut out the subplots and less important details until you have a 500 word (or so) document.


If you like to start small, begin with a single sentence of your story and work up to a paragraph, then to a page, adding in the details of the major characters, conflict, and plot as you go.


Use your favorite plot beat progression (like Save the Cat or The Hero’s Journey) and write a sentence or two from each beat in your story. In an article on Publishing Crawl, Susan Dennard uses The Hero’s Journey to create a Star Wars synopsis.


A cover blurb can be a great starting base for your synopsis, where you can add in the plot twists and other vital information. Vice versa, you can use the synopsis to create your cover blurb.


For extra inspiration, take a look at the synopsis of your favorite book, movie, or TV show, and see how it summed up the critical parts of the story.


Once you’re done, have a friend read through the synopsis, preferably, someone that hasn’t read a draft of your book. Have them ask questions in order to help fine tune the synopsis.


But I’m Writing Multiple POVs!


If your novel has more than one POV character, here’s two remedies you can use. The first is writing the plot arcs for each of the viewpoint characters, one at a time. The second, and the one I used for my upcoming debut novel, is writing the character arcs in the narrative order they appeared in the book. If you have more than three POVs, this can get complex, so I suggest picking the main ones to work with. While I wrote four POVs, I opted to only mention the main two POVs in my synopsis, as they carry the majority of the narrative.


The Synopsis as a Revision Tool


While writing a synopsis is typically done when you are submitting your novel to industry professionals, a synopsis can be used earlier in the process, when drafting and/or revising. Having your whole story on one to two pages can give you a broader view of your story, pointing out major strengths and weaknesses before writing your first (or later) draft. You can point out plot holes and places you can make your story stronger, cutting down on revision time.


While you’re reading the synopsis, ask yourself the following:

  • What does this story need?

  • What’s missing from this story?

  • What can be removed from the story?

  • Are there any plot holes?

  • How can I improve pacing, flow, and tension?

Once you finish the synopsis to your satisfaction, share it with a writing friend or a critique partner (or both) and ask them what they loved and what questions they had while reading it. Through several rounds you can tighten your story and give it more sustenance.


Closing Thoughts


The synopsis is a valuable and essential tool in your writer’s toolbox, no matter your publishing goals. Hopefully, you’ve learned a few things about writing that synopsis and it’s less daunting now than before. It’s your big chance to show off your storytelling skills on one sheet of paper. Don’t panic, you’ve already written thousands of words. A few hundred more is easy.


Meet Janine Batiste

Janine Batiste writes futuristic and science fantasy, inspired by her fascination with the abundance of possibilities surrounding our real-world future. With a bachelor’s degree in biology, and a penchant for platformer and JRPG gaming, her stories are immersive, fantastical tales of adventure and friendship, partially influenced by her childhood as a military brat moving repeatedly to new locations. When not writing the latest heart-pounding story, Janine is usually exploring her current home of South Florida, crafting her latest culinary dish (many of them being chocolate-filled writing fuel), or gaming.


You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, Pinterest and Goodreads. Or you can visit her website: https://janinebatswrites.wixsite.com/home


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