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How to write a novel synopsis (with an example)
What is a synopsis, you ask? We tell you, in detail, what a synopsis is and how to write a very good one.
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 do it. We’ll reveal the two huge tricks that underlie every great synopsis . . . and give you an example synopsis too, so you can understand exactly how to put the rules into practice.
Most 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 said, synopses aren’t blurbs. A synopsis is your pitch to agents, who’ll pitch to publishers – the sellers. Later comes a blurb for readers – the consumers. Blurbs are designed to intrigue readers enough to pick up your book, whilst synopses tell agents and publishers whether they can sell your book in the first place.
Synopses are technical documents and they need to:
Tell an agent directly and clearly what your story is;
Demonstrate implicitly its appeal and how plot momentum increases;
Share an ending that feels satisfying.
How to format your synopsis
Its purpose is to sum up your plot and make clear what USP your book has.
A wonderful synopsis has the following ingredients:
Length: about 500 words (but check agency requirements – they can be quite variable)
Language: Be business-like; clear, to the point, neutral.
Presentation: Be well-presented with no typos or spelling mistakes, normal fonts, normal margins, 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.
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. 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
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, remember. Missing out excessive detail is exactly the point. It’s what you’re trying to do here. So do it, and don’t fret.
And 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 an example of this trick in action?
Of course you do:
There’s an Agent Submissions Builder pop-up on this page which offers you tools for constructing your synopsis (and your query letter – we never do things by halves here!), and you should grab that Submissions Builder with both paws. You’ll have both synopsis and query letter written in a couple of hours tops – and they’ll be excellent ones as well.
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.
We can help YOU get published. Did you know, we have a complete course on getting published? The course covers absolutely everything you need to know: how to prepare your manuscript, how to find agents, how to compile your shortlist, how to write your query letter and synopsis – and much, much more besides.
That course is quite expensive to buy . . . so don’t buy it. The course is available completely free to members of Jericho Writers. Not just that course. You get our Agent Match tool for finding literary agents. You get our awesome How To Write course. And every month, our members get the chance to pitch their work live online to a panel of literary agents.
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.”
Go into vast detail about character: A few quick strokes are all that you need.
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 700-word summary. Agents know that the synopsis is at best an approximation of the story.
Hide the plot twist: Okay. You don’t have to give away your very final plot twist, though you must make it clear there is one. 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.
A sample synopsis
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.)