Including a template for you to follow and a complete worked example
When you approach literary agents, you will need to present them with a submission package that includes a query letter, a sample of your manuscript and, of course, a synopsis. The synopsis will need to look professional – that is, it wants to follow a proper synopsis format – and it needs to do its job, of convincing an agent that your story sounds exciting.
That’s not actually hard to achieve, and this post will tell you exactly how to write a synopsis. We’ll reveal the two huge tricks that make your life easy . . . and give you an example synopsis too, so you can understand exactly how to put the rules into practice.
Sounds good? Let’s jump right in.
How to write a novel synopsis
A synopsis is a 500-800 word summary of your book that forms part of your agent submission pack. It should outline your plot in neutral non-salesy language and demonstrate a clear story arc. Every major plot twist, character, and any big turning point or climatic scene should get a mention.
Definition: What is a Synopsis?
A synopsis is:
A short summary of your story, in its entirety, from beginning to end, soup to nuts, nose to tail.
Written in fairly neutral, non-salesy language
Follows the same broad structure as your novel. So if, for example, you have a novel with two intertwining time-strands, your synopsis would follow the order of events as presented in the novel. Your novel’s structure trumps any chronological issues.
Probably about 500-800 words in length, but agents’ requirements differ, so do check against each agent’s submission requirements.
From this definition, it also follows that:
A synopsis is not like the text on the back jacket of a book. Those book blurbs are much shorter and normally offer only a teaser, rather than a full rundown of the book’s story.
For the same reason, a novel synopsis is not the same as an Amazon-style book description.
In fact, a synopsis is what you think it is. A 500-word long spoiler for your entire novel. Every major plot twist. Every major character. Any big turning point. Your big climactic scenes. They’re all there, briefly, succinctly and (yes) a little drily narrated.
Oh yes: and some good news –
If you can write a novel, then you can definitely write a synopsis. Writing a synopsis is a lot, lot easier than writing a whole damn novel, so don’t stress. You should be able to put together your synopsis in a morning – and still have time for a stroll before lunch.
I just said that a synopsis is kinda dry – and it is. In fact, I doubt if anyone has ever enjoyed reading one. It’s just not that entertaining.
So if it’s not for fun – why have it? Why do almost all literary agents ask for one?
OK, so this is how it works:
Most literary agents will look at your covering letter first, then turn to the manuscript. If they like the first three chapters, they’ll be thinking, “This looks great, but is it going to hold interest? Is it worth making that investment of time to read it all?”
That’s where the synopsis comes in.
Your synopsis is there to outline your plot and to demonstrate a clear story arc, a satisfying ending. It’s your tool to make someone read on.
That’s why your synopsis needs to:
Tell an agent directly and clearly what your plot is – it needs to give a clear picture of the narrative arc;
Clearly identify your main characters – and at least hint at any major character development arcs
Demonstrate implicitly its appeal and how plot momentum increases;
Share an ending that feels satisfying.
If your synopsis achieves all that – and your query letter and manuscript sample is up to scratch – the agent will ask you for the full manuscript. They can’t not. You’ve got them hooked.
Synopsis: Length, Tone, Format
A wonderful synopsis has the following ingredients:
Length: about 500 words (but check agency requirements – they can be quite variable). There’s a lot of advice around suggesting that your synopsis should run to no more than one page. We think that’s on the low side. Most good synopses we see run to two nicely formatted pages (ie: reasonable line spacing, normal margins and a sensible font.)
Language: Be business-like; clear, to the point, neutral. In particular, it’s fine to tell not show: this is a business document, not the novel itself.
Presentation: Be well-presented with no typos or spelling mistakes. Use normal fonts, normal margins, and line spacing no narrower than 1.5. It’s fine if your synopsis runs to two pages, but (unless an agent specifically asks for more), don’t run to more than that.
Character names: Put the names of main characters in bold or CAPS when you first introduce them. That makes the synopsis easier to navigate.
Character thumbnails: as well as highlighting your characters names , you should give a swift resume of who they are, on first introduction. So for example: “James Bond, (38), a British agent – handsome, cruel, seductive, and high-living – …”. Note that you can insert age in brackets without having to say “he is thirty-eight years old.” Save that word count!
Extra points: If you have a compelling way to ‘sell’ your story in 2-3 lines maximum, you could insert that little snippet up at the top of your synopsis.
Third person presentation: Even if your novel is narrated in the first person, your synopsis should be written third person. So (to pick one of my own 1st person detective novels for example), I wouldn’t write “I am a police constable in South Wales …”, but rather, “Fiona Griffiths is a police constable, based in South Wales…” You can instantly see how much more professional that sounds, right?
File name: Please don’t call your file synopsis.doc. That works fine for you on your computer – but the agent probably has 100 files from writers with that exact filename. So help the agent out. Your file should be in the format title-synopsis. So: farewell-to-arms-synopsis.doc, for example.
And once again: tell the story. Your job is not to sell the book, write blurb, or anything else, just say what happens in the story.
How to write a synopsis for your novel
The two tricks that make your task ridiculously simple
There are two big tricks in getting your synopsis right.
Trick the first
Don’t take your massive 100,000 word manuscript and try to figure out how to cram all its rich complexity into a 500 word precis.
It can’t be done. You’ll go crazy. Your synopsis will be terrible.
Instead of going from your manuscript and boiling it down, you need to go from your structure and build up.
That’s the trick. It works every time and it’s awesome. What’s your structure? It’s this:
Without looking at your manuscript, sketch out your plot using those headings in about 300 words. The ‘developments’ section obviously represents by far the largest portion of your novel, but it may not amount to more than 40-50% of your total word count here.
That’s fine. Missing out excessive detail is exactly the point. It’s precisely what you’re trying to do. So do it, and don’t fret.
Equally: don’t get into too much detail about character or settings or anything like that. Just focus on the exact plot mechanics for now.
Want more help on this? Need help to understand this trick in action?
Course you do:
We’ve got a free Agent Submissions Builder which gives you a precise template for constructing your synopsis – and your query letter. You’ll have both synopsis and query letter written in a couple of hours tops – and they’ll be excellent ones as well.
Second only to your novel, these are the most important documents you’ll ever write – so get them sorted fast, easily, and with excellence. You’ll be glad you did.
Trick the second
The second trick is equally simple and equally effective. It’s this:
Layer in information about who your characters are and how the events of the story impact them.
Synopses can feel like rather cold and baffling documents. When they do (and assuming they’re decently written), it’s always because the writer has focused entirely on plot machinery and hasn’t said enough about why it matters to the characters.
But we read books for the characters, so your synopsis has to engage with those emotional aspects too. Remember I gave you only 300 words for the actual plot machinery? The remaining 200 words are where you can express yourself with characters, emotions and character arcs.
Example (without character / emotion language):
“As BELLA walks into the class, a fan blows her scent towards a boy, named EDWARD CULLEN. Bella sits next to Edward in biology class on her first day of school. He disappears for a few days, but sees more of Bella upon his return. Bella is then nearly struck by a van in the school parking lot. Edward saves Bella, stopping the van with only his hand.” (Adapted from the Wikipedia synopsis of Twilight)
Example (with character / emotion language)
“As BELLA walks into the class, a fan blows her scent towards a mysterious boy named EDWARD CULLEN. Bella sits next to Edward in biology class on her first day of school, but he seems repulsed by her, affecting her feelings in the process. He disappears for a few days, but warms up to Bella upon his return; their newfound relationship is interrupted after Bella is nearly struck by a van in the school parking lot. Edward saves Bella, stopping the van with only his hand.” (Source: as above)
Do you see how much more engaging the second version is? Although the text remains quite dry, by including emotional / character-type language in its summary, we have some sense of the real, developing relationship.
Short message: don’t focus so hard on plot mechanics that you forget to layer in emotion.
Writing a Synopsis: Common Mistakes
Here’s what not to do.
Miss the agent’s word count by a mile. If an agent’s website gives you a particular word count to aim for, then deliver that, at least approximately. You may find you need a couple of different versions of the same documents, just because those blooming agents can’t cohere around one set word count. Jeepers. Those guys.
Go into detail about setting: If you were writing a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you might simply say: “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.” You don’t need more.
Go into vast detail about character: A few quick strokes are all that you need. (For example: “Ella, an experienced but overconfident assassin (36), …”)
Be scrupulous about plot detail: It’s fine to skip subplots or ignore some finer details. The truth is, you won’t have time to include those things in a 500-word summary. Agents know that the synopsis is at best an approximation of the story.
Hide the plot twist: A synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, opposite to a blurb, and your job is just to spill the beans, whether you like it or not.
Start telling us about the novel. So, for example, don’t say, “Then the novel picks up the story of Kate and Jacob …”. Say: “Meanwhile, Kate and Jacob …”
Cram in too many character names. Four or five is the maximum an agent wants to deal with. If you need to refer to other characters, just say, “the CIA agent” or “the beautiful doctor”.
Forget to put your character names in CAPS or bold. Make it easy for the agent!
Omit the title. Yes, we’ve seen synopses entitled “Synopsis”. Make sure you have both the title of your book and your name up at the top of your document. So your title line might read: A Farewell to Arms: Synopsis”, and beneath that in smaller text you’d have your name – maybe Ernest somebody-or-other.
Use an unhelpful filename. Your document needs to be yourbooktitle-synopsis.doc.
Write badly. Yes, a synopsis is a brisk, functional document, and you don’t need to write wonderfully. But you are still a writer trying to sell your work, so don’t allow yourself clumsy or badly expressed sentences.
Fail to use our incredible Agent Submission Builder. These tools help you structure and write your synopsis and your query letter in a trice. Or even less than that – a dice. You can get them for free here. Watcha waitin’ for?
If you’re not making those errors, you should be good to go.
If you need help on getting your plot structure right in the first place, then check out these links: how to plot, more on using plot outlines, and how to apply the snowflake method to your story construction process.
Synopsis: An Example
A perfect example of how to get your synopsis just plain right
For a perfect example of a synopsis, please see below.
This is a synopsis example penned by one of our own clients, Tracy Gilpin. The synopsis (and the book) went on to wow an agent and secure a book deal.
Synopsis of Double Cross by Tracy Gilpin
Dunai Marks discovers the strangled corpse of Siobhan Craig, an activist who is not only her employer but also a mother figure; Dunai had been abandoned at an orphanage as a baby.
Siobhan was about to present to government the results of a controversial population control model for possible implementation at national level. Dunai believes this is the reason she was murdered.
The investigating officer on the case is instructed by an agent of the National Intelligence Agency to treat the murder as a botched burglary. Although some evidence points in this direction, Dunai believes Siobhan’s murder was work-related, which means she and Bryan, an American statistician, could be in danger.
She strikes a deal with Carl, a private investigator. If she is able to find a motive for the murder he will show her how to go about catching the killer.
Dunai discovers Siobhan was blackmailing five people who stood in the way of her pilot project, and was involved with a subversive group of radical feminists called Cerchio Del Gaia whose insignia is a double cross.
Dunai and Carl investigate the individuals blackmailed by Siobhan. They include: an anti-abortion activist, the head of an all-male religious fundamentalist group, an Anglican bishop, a member of local government, and a USAID official. One of these suspects was the last person to see Siobhan alive, another is known to have approached a contract killer a month before her murder.
Cerchio Del Gaia becomes increasingly entangled in both Dunai’s life and the investigation, and she is told that if she joins the group she will have access to information about her birth. The National Intelligence Agency is on a similar tack; if Dunai infiltrates Cerchio Del Gaia, which they believe is an international terrorist organisation, they will provide her with information about her origins. Dunai turns down both offers and the mystery of her birth and abandonment is eventually revealed by a woman claiming to be Siobhan’s sister, Dunai’s birth mother and the head of the South African chapter of Cerchio Del Gaia.
Throughout the investigation Dunai has searched for Mr Bojangles, a schizophrenic vagrant who may have seen the murderer. When she eventually finds him he seems to be of little help, yet it is his ramblings along with another clue that leads to her close friend and colleague, Bryan, who has been wanted by the FBI for twenty years for terrorist activities in the US. Bryan murdered Siobhan after discovering she intended betraying him to the National Intelligence Agency to deflect attention from Cerchio Del Gaia and as proof that she abided by the law even when it meant personal sacrifice.
Carl, who is now romantically involved with Dunai, offers to continue her training as an investigator and she agrees to divide her time between this and Siobhan’s NGO.
We suggest using Tracy’s synopsis as a great example for your own synopsis format.
If you need more help writing your synopsis and agent letter, we offer this as one of our manuscript editing services. Or if you just want the agent submissions builder, you can go grab it below.
Happy writing – and have fun.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)