After completing a novel or a nonfiction manuscript, you’ll need to draft a synopsis before you can pitch your book to agents and publishers. It may sound easy to summarize a book, but composing a perfect synopsis requires you to familiarize yourself with some publishing industry standards. Without understanding and adhering to these guidelines, you may never get your manuscript into the right hands.
What is a Synopsis?
A synopsis can range from one page to several pages in length. This document contains a compelling summary, written in the third person and present tense, that describes the main plot points and main characters in a story. A good synopsis covers all of the important turning points in the narrative arc. A book synopsis usually appears as part of a book proposal, and its purpose is to interest a publishing company or literary agency in reading a full manuscript.
The synopsis differs from a blurb, the paragraph-long description that appears on a book jacket or back cover of a book. Unlike a blurb, a synopsis explicitly reveals any plot twists. The entire story should be explained in the synopsis, whereas the blurb only introduces the inciting incident. A synopsis is sometimes confused with a pitch, as well. A pitch is a shorter version of a synopsis, usually limited to one or two paragraphs, that writers send out as part of a query letter to literary agents.
Writing Your Synopsis
Lori A. May, an instructor in the MFA program at University of King’s College-Halifax and contributor to The Write Life, explains, “In some ways, you may do well to approach writing the synopsis as though this were a mini story in its own right.” Your mini story must be entertaining and well-told. Although a one-page synopsis is standard, you may also want to prepare a longer version that covers additional subplots. Within your short synopsis, you should aim to pack the first paragraph with essential information, including the inciting incident that brings your main character into the world of the story, a conflict that arises, and an element that makes your story unique. At the same time, you should try to write this information in a similar style and tone to the rest of your manuscript.
In the second paragraph, cover the major plot points in your story. As you explain the plot, be sure to develop the motivations of the protagonist, antagonist, and any important sidekicks. Although you won’t include every character, subplot, or flashback, it’s important to describe the most important elements of your book. The reader should form a clear idea of the book’s major themes.
In the third paragraph, reveal how the story ends and how the protagonist concludes his or her emotional journey. By the end of the synopsis, you should also communicate some technical information, such as the book’s title, genre, and word count. You may want to mention the story’s point of view (POV), since all synopses are written in the third person. If this is your first time writing a synopsis, have someone review your work to make sure that the story arc seems straightforward.
Follow any submission guidelines provided. Use single spacing, unless an agent or publisher requests a different format. Many publishers and agents expect to see specific subcategories in a submission package. For example, they may ask you to include a synopsis under the headline “Project Overview” or “Plot Overview.” Some agents and publishers prefer chapter summaries in lieu of a manuscript synopsis (or in addition to it).
Courtney Carpenter, writing for Writer’s Digest, advises, “[The synopsis] gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.” Show that you are flexible, able to edit and follow instructions. Revise your work to include active verbs and proofread every time you make changes. These are important parts of the synopsis writing process, and you should make sure that each version of the proposal looks perfect before you send it out.
Over the course of selling your book, you’ll also need to send a cover letter, or query letter, containing a shortened version of the synopsis. It’s easiest to create this pitch after you’ve already drafted the longer summary. The pitch should include your book’s title, genre, and word count. Distill the summary of your book to one or two paragraphs (150-300 words). This shortened synopsis must contain the most essential outline of the plot and protagonist’s emotional arc. Most experts recommend memorizing this content. If you do, you’ll be prepared to give the “elevator pitch” for your book to anyone, whether you’re attending a literary conference or riding in a taxi cab.
Why Synopses Matter
Jane Friedman, a publishing veteran with a consulting company and influential blog, describes why the synopsis is so crucial to agents and publishers alike (and why it can be so hard to write). She says, “A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., ‘it was just a dream’ endings, ridiculous acts of god, a category romance ending in divorce. It can reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure.” When an agent or publisher sees any red flags in your plot, he or she saves time and avoids your manuscript altogether.
As a writer, you want to hook your reader by showing that your plot has all the essential elements. By writing a polished and entertaining synopsis, you move one step closer to having your full manuscript read. Without a great synopsis, even the best draft won’t receive any attention at all. In addition, you can think of writing your synopsis as an opportunity to improve your book as a whole. Remember, any plot holes that you identify while crafting your synopsis may be areas of opportunity you can use to make your manuscript stronger.