EGWG Writing Class # 6

Writing a Synopsis

What is a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a concise summary or general survey of something from beginning to end.

Most literary agents will read your query or cover letter first and then read the chapters or however many words they’ve requested. If they like what they’ve read, they will read the synopsis to see if the story holds their interest. The synopsis will tell them if your work is worthy of their time to pursue, and they’ll ask for the complete manuscript.

The synopsis outlines the main plot, shows a clear story arc, and gives a satisfying ending. A good synopsis will cover the major conflict and its resolution while describing the emotional development of the protagonist. That’s it. A synopsis is a business tool, not a sales tool like a blurb. Don’t waste your time on supporting characters, settings, subplots, descriptions, dialogue, backstory, or writing styles. (See language below)

Basic Requirements

Length. A synopsis will be between 500 and 800 words. The requirements for the synopsis length will differ from agent to agent. Check the specific requirements before you send it to anyone. Not following the specifications will indicate you can’t follow directions, and you might be challenging to work with. It will also get your submission tossed in the trash.

Language. Write the synopsis in a clear, to the point, and business-like manner. It’s fine to tell and not show because this is a business document, not the novel itself, or a sales pitch.

Presentation. It should not contain typos or spelling mistakes. Use a standard font, margins, and line spacing no narrower than 1.5. Many synopses will run to two pages, and that’s fine unless an agent specifies one page. Keep it within the word limit and don’t use over two pages.

Character names. Put the names in caps and bold when first introduced. It makes it easier for the agent when reading the complete document.

Character sketches. Give a quick and short resume of who they are. The format would be: name, age, profession, personality. For example, JAMES BOND, (38), a British agent, handsome, cruel, sensual, and high living.

Use the third person. No matter how you’ve drafted your novel, use the third person for the synopsis.

File name. When you email your file, do not use general computer names such as synopsis.doc. The agent will have multiple files to look through to find yours, and many will be similar. Use the title of your novel, for example, farewell-to-arms-synopsis.doc. This will make your offering easier to find.

Outlining Your Synopsis.

  1. Research the requirements. Each company in the publishing industry, and individual editors, will have unique needs. Go to their website and print out what they want. Do they want a one or two-page synopsis? How many pages or chapters do they want you to send them? What font or type size? You must adjust your synopsis to fit each different requirement. Consider it a test. If you can’t follow those simple directions, how well will you work with them?
  2. Wait until you have completed your manuscript. An established author may send in a synopsis of what they plan to write, but you can’t. Once you’ve finished, you’ll be better able to identify principal characters, plot points, and conflict. You must know how the story ends, and that is liable to change from what you think it will be at the beginning.
  3. Make a list of your protagonist, a love interest, antagonist, or a best friend secondary character. Mention only the most essential characters in the synopsis. Write out who your characters are. Make sure they aren’t flat characters. They all need to be well-rounded. Each character must affect the story in some significant way.
  4. Sketch out the major plot points. The plot points are part of the narrative arc of the story and seldom include a subplot unless it’s crucial to the story arc. If you’ve written a memoir, you might write a one-sentence summary of each chapter. If you’ve written a screenplay, make a list of what happens in each act. If it’s a collection of short stories or poems, show the principal theme of each work.
  5. Identify what’s unique about your story. Agents and publishers have to read hundreds of synopses a week. Make yours stand out by stressing what is exceptional in your story. You might have used a different POV, maybe from an animal’s point of view. Do you have a unique plot twist? “The murderer was closer than he thought.” Is your story of special interest? “This memoir explores growing up in a religious cult.”

Drafting a Nonfiction Synopsis

While publishers require fiction writers to submit a synopsis to an agent or publisher, many nonfiction writers don’t think about needing or writing one. But, if going the traditional publishing route, you will need a synopsis. Nonfiction writers often have the added challenge of presenting historical context, source material, and research methods to help publishers gauge their work.

Write in the present tense. Highlight the key points in each chapter. Write as if you’re telling a story, avoid dry writing, or rattling off a string of facts. Publishers want to see if you can write in a manner that flows and will draw readers into your story.

Show your knowledge and enthusiasm for the subjects dealt with in your story.

Before you begin, ask yourself these basic questions about each chapter in a book, or paragraph if it’s an article: “What was it about?” and “What do you want to say about it?”  

First Sentence. Introduce the title, the problem your book will solve, and a brief historical context. 

Second Sentence. State the main overall idea of the book. Make it general enough to cover the complete book and not just parts of it.

Third Sentences and onward. The next sentences should cover one key idea in each chapter and continue until you include all the chapters or sections of the entire book or article.

Last Sentence. This sentence should discuss the conclusion/statement you made at the end of the book or article.

If the publisher or agent requires more detail, write several sentences on each chapter. Above all, be sure your synopsis is clear, engaging, and error-free. 

Drafting a Fiction Synopsis

  1. Remember to write in third person.
  2. The first paragraph should introduce your major characters and a general idea of the plot. This is the hook. An example would be, “When Jane Doe’s plane crashes in the interior of the Amazon, she realizes that to survive, she must overcome her internal demons. Jane is joined by the only other survivor of the crash, John Smith, a mysterious botanist.” 
  3. Summarize the critical events of the plot (plot points) Include the obstacles the principal character must overcome and describe how they overcame them. Avoid subplots and backstories unless they are vital to understanding the main plot. Don’t put in too much detail about subplots or minor action scenes. You don’t want your synopsis to be confusing.
  4. End with the resolution where the character reaches (or doesn’t) the goal. Remember, this is not the blurb. Don’t leave off the ending. They need to know how the book ends.
  5. Make sure you’ve included only the necessary information. Include what the character does, feels, and confronts, but not every detail of the plot. Leave out any side characters if you can. Don’t include dialogue, instead summarize what’s said. If minor characters are necessary, refer to them by their roles, not their name. “The nurse led Joe down the hall.” Or “Joe talked to the barman.”
  6. In the final paragraphs, show the character’s growth or their developing emotions—the character arc. Make sure you’ve described what the character has learned and felt throughout the novel. For example, “Invigorated by her discovery of the medicinal plant, Jane rushes back to John, where she hears the shocking news that he is gone.”
  7. Avoid commenting on the quality of your work or what you expect the reader to experience. The plot should speak for itself. Don’t use phrases like “in a tear-jerking scene” or “in a stunning flashback.” Just describe the scenes as they happen. When Jane realizes what had happened, she becomes depressed.
  8. When you reach this point, you may realize your book needs extra work. Take a day or two to consider and make revisions while in the editing stage.

Editing Your Synopsis

  1. Format your synopsis according to the agent’s requirements. Generally, you will double-space your work and use a 12-point font such as Times New Roman. Be sure to include your name and the title of the book at the top of every page. Always use one-inch margins when sending work for publication.
  2. Whatever you submit must be pristine. Read through your work to find typos, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, or missing words. Look for and remove unnecessary words, phrases, or clichés and make sure your writing is clear and concise. Have it read to you out loud, have others read it and give you their opinions, hire a proofreader, use programs such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid. Those two have free trial periods. Take advantage of them.
  3. Tailor your synopsis to each publishing house or agent you submit to. Use their guidelines. If they want one page only, cut down your summary by focusing on just the major conflict. If they ask for four pages, go into more detail, perhaps by including subplots. Warning: If you do not follow their specific guidelines, they may not, and probably won’t, read your submission. It’s a test, don’t fail it.
  4. The synopsis can be a part of a proposal that includes a query letter and a sample of your written work. What to send is also in their guidelines. (We’ll cover query letters separately). 
  5. Once you’ve done all that, send it off, and sit back and wait. It might take several weeks or months for the agent to get to your submission.




Variations on Synopses

Speculative Fiction

In Science Fiction and Fantasy, world-building is crucial and must be included in the synopsis. Write a brief paragraph of one or two sentences, stating only the information that applies to the main plot and the protagonist’s goal. For example, “on the planet Beltain, the climate is becoming too warm for plant growth” or “Aliens have landed on earth, but they can’t adapt to oxygen. To survive, they take over human bodies.”

If asked for a longer synopsis, include more world-building, settings, or key subplots.

In Summary

  1. Aim for clarity. Professionals don’t have time to figure out who is who and what is what.
  2. Introduce only 3 to 5 characters—don’t confuse the editor or agent.
  3. Use third person – present tense. It’s a professional convention for synopsis by traditional publishers.
  4. Don’t over-explain your world or location. Slip that information into another sentence, “fleeing across miles of hard rock desert” or “in the grip of a blizzard.”
  5. Delete all unneeded words such as really, very, absolutely, totally, and all wordiness.
  6. Show what happens, don’t tell. 
  7. Avoid vagueness “after many adventures,” or “a lot of crazy things happen until.”
  8. Put action into each paragraph. Avoid thoughts of feelings unless they lead to action.
  9. Avoid passive voice. Eliminate or rewrite all to be verbs. Passive voice dulls the text, so replace the passive with the active voice.
  10. Reveal the ending. Professionals need to know.

Common Mistakes in Writing a Synopsis

Missing the word count requirement. If the agent gives a specific word count, you might have to rewrite your synopsis several times to meet that number. Follow the requirements.

Too much detail about the setting. Be succinct, set in rural England, set in the Rocky Mountains, set in Chicago. That’s all they need.

Too much detail about the character. Agents don’t expect the longer or more refined detail. Remember, you only have a certain amount of words. Don’t waste them.

Hidden plot twists. The synopsis is the perfect place to use spoilers. Tell the twists you’ve included.

Telling about the novel. Don’t say that the novel picks up … or … this novel tells the story of …, etc. Stick to the guidelines.

Too many characters. Introduce four or five characters, max. That’s all the agent wants to deal with in a synopsis. If the story needs others, use identifying terms such as, “the FBI agent” or “his secretary”.

Forgot to use capitals when introducing characters? Make it as easy as you can for the agent.

Title missing. The heading “Synopsis” isn’t enough. The title and your name should be at the top of your document. For example, The Daisy Chain, and below that your name in smaller text, Penelope Clark.

Used a generic filename. Make it easy for the agent to find your work.

Bad writing. You don’t have to write as if you had a magic pen, but you’re a writer trying to sell your work. Don’t use clumsy or badly expressed sentences and edit until the synopsis is error free.

If you’re not committing these errors, congratulations, you’re probably good to go.

As usual, my email is [email protected] if you have questions, let me know. I’ll try to help.