Keys to a Great Synopsis

When I posted my ideas on some Keys to a Great Book Proposal, a few writers said they were challenged to write a synopsis. I agree that writing an interesting synopsis is difficult. However, it’s not an element you want to omit from your proposal because a synopsis orients the editor to the book’s contents. Here are my answers to often-asked questions:

1.) Do I need a chapter-by-chapter synopsis?

For fiction, no. I think I get this question a lot because years ago, a popular and respected editor I worked with asked for this type of synopsis. This is because some authors the editor worked with sometimes took liberties with the plot once they sat down to write the complete book. The book the editor received was different from the one contracted! Hence, this requirement. I got in the habit of writing this type of synopsis and found it helpful when I wrote my books. I knew exactly where I was going and why, as well as what my chapter cliffhangers would be. Working this way is a discipline that gave me confidence. I recommend that writers try this method at least once to see how they like it. But I don’t ask for this in a proposal because few fiction editors want to see a synopsis presented in this manner.

However, nonfiction proposals do need a chapter by chapter breakdown to explain what each chapter will contain. This is because often in nonfiction, chapters are loosely connected by a topic but can be read as separate entities. Readers may skip around with nonfiction books, gleaning information they need and discarding the rest. So this type of synopsis is helpful for nonfiction proposals. However, I do recommend summarizing the purpose and theme of the book in an overall description of a couple of paragraphs as well, then moving on to the individual chapter descriptions.

2.) How long should the synopsis be?

Most editors prefer one to three pages (at the most), and so do I. If you really feel you want to write more, I suggest including a shorter synopsis, followed by a long synopsis. But consider — if you were an editor assigned the task of reviewing and deciding on hundreds of submissions every month, how much would you want to read? Would you be eager to read a ten-page synopsis for each proposal? I would not. Trust me, the shorter synopsis is your friend.

3.) What should I include in the synopsis?

Once an author has intrigued me, I tend to look at the writing, then refer back to the synopsis to see if the book is marketable. The synopsis tells me what plot elements the author plans to include. The most common synopsis mistake I see is the author unintentionally misleading the reviewer about what the book actually is — or perhaps more revealing – a synopsis for a plot the author meant to be for one type of book but the author has instead written another type of book and didn’t realize it. I plan to address this in a future post.

However, since the synopsis is so critical, this is a good reason to let an agent help you when she sees your spark of talent, or encourage you to try again with something else, rather than sending several misfires to busy editors. In fact, more than once I have helped authors identify their books properly and helped polish their proposals accordingly.

To avoid misidentifying your book, be sure:

a.) you are indeed writing the type of book you mean to write. Choose to write the type of book you read and love so you know what readers expect.

b.) your synopsis is an accurate reflection of the book. Don’t devote too much time to a minor character or element. Stay with the main elements to show the editor you know the focus of your work and won’t stray off into tangents.

4.) Do I reveal the ending in the synopsis?

I fall firmly on the side of revealing the ending. I want to know that the reader will be satisfied, and the ending is a major part of that. If I want to read a book with an ending I don’t know, I’ll do that in my leisure time.

Your turn:

What is the hardest thing about writing a synopsis?

Do you have trouble getting your synopsis to one or even three pages?

28 Responses to Keys to a Great Synopsis

  1. Avatar
    Laurie Alice Eakes May 24, 2012 at 5:00 am #

    Synopses used to terrify me. Now I find I rely on them to keep me focused on the story while writing.

    Recently, I was helping a newish writer with her proposal and had several questions after reading her synopsis. She said the questions were answered in the text and an editor had once said she flipped through the text to answer questions not answered in the synopsis. This surprised me.

    What do you think of this? Should the questions be answered in the synopsis, even if it makes it as long as three pages?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 24, 2012 at 7:45 am #

      Laurie Alice, that’s a great question!

      All of us understand that a synopsis has limitations and we won’t be learning about plot incidentals and color such as the family joke about how much Sis loves sweet tea. But writers do need to make sure the big questions are answered in the synopsis. This means the writer must show how all of the book’s overarching concerns will be resolved.

      To address the writer’s response to you, she does have a point in that questions will be answered in the text. And she does cite a comment from one editor, but not all editors (or agents) work in the same way. Another editor may not care to thumb through text and she may instead decide to move on to the next submission. Writers who include everything in a way reviewers can access quickly take less risk of trying anyone’s patience.

      On a note about how I personally work, my journalism degree and editing background serve me well in that I am very good at whittling down any wayward synopsis. Writers who struggle with keeping the word count down can find a third party who is also skilled at editing. This can be another valuable way critique partners can help one another. Just a thought.

      Hope this helps. Feel free to ask more questions. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Michelle Lim May 24, 2012 at 5:47 am #

    The biggest challenge I face with the synopsis is getting the plot in there. I realize that you just go for the major elements of the hero/heroine’s journey, but I tend to throw lots of twists or unexpected plot turns in my novels. This creates a bit of trouble in giving the proposal synopsis enough plot for it to make sense in three pages or less. Sometimes the turn in the plot has to be heard in the synopsis, or you can’t tell how I got there from here.

    And there is still this small part of me that wants to surprise every reader and putting spoilers in the synopsis makes me cringe, but I know it is necessary.

    Thanks for a great post, Tamela!

  3. Avatar
    Andrea Nell May 24, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    The synopsis is by far my biggest hurdle in putting together a proposal. I struggle with changing my past tense story to present tense. Why is it standard to do that in the synopsis? I also have a hard time ballancing how much of the plot to include and figuring out how to weave the big pieces together in a way that flows with out including all the smaller points that connect them. But I think the hardest part is making it as engaging as my story. By the time I finish boiling the plot down to the basic elements, it sounds more like a term paper than a good book. I haven’t mastered this skill yet. I’ll have to keep practicing. Thanks for this great post!

  4. Avatar
    Jeanne May 24, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    This is a great post. Thanks for your insight, Tamela. I think for me, the hardest part is writing it in a way that reveals nuances of the characters, rather than just me stating what happens in the story. You’ve given me great food for thought today. Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel May 24, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Great post, Tamela. Quick question and maybe I should know, but is it one to three single-spaced or double-spaced pages? That makes a difference. 😉 Thank you for the great info! Synopses are really hard to write, but one trick is to just write everything and then start slashing. Ask, “Does the agent/editor really need to know this right now? Is it crucial to the main plot or overarching theme?”

  6. Avatar
    Patrick E. Craig May 24, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    When I did my first synopsis it was for an editor that wanted a chapter by chapter discussion of the whole book. It was an excruciating process, but very productive. When I was asked for a synopsis from a different editor, I wrote a long version. Then I asked him how many pages he actually wanted and he said three. I should have asked first. However, what I discovered in the process was that writing the long version and then cutting it down was very helpful. It gave me a real sense of what I wanted the book to say and when I condensed it I could make sure that the major points were all there. I must say though, it is much harder to write a synopsis than it is to write a book. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Sundi Jo May 24, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    When I wrote my synopsis for my first book I had a team of people help me – people that knew my style and who I was. It was really helpful in making things come together.

  8. Avatar
    Michael Duncan May 24, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Tamela, great article! I especially appreciate how you bring us into the editor’s point of view. I sometimes forget that editors and agents have to sift through piles of work daily and, unless a longer one is specifically asked for, a shorter synopsis must be a God-send!

    My greatest difficulty in writing a synopsis is trying to include the action elements that are found in the novel. Whether they are sword fights, gun battles, or heroic journeys through treacherous terrain, I find it a great challenge to include that sense of the dramatic in the synopsis. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 24, 2012 at 11:29 am #

      Michael, in my view, for the purposes of seeing how the story holds together, you can say, “Sebastian and Cavendish dueled, resulting in Sebastian’s mortal injury. But before he took his last breath, Sebastian confessed that only Sabrina knew the whereabouts of the missing treasure.” So you see, the significance is not only the fight or journey itself, but the outcome and how it affects the plot. Now I want to read about Cavendish meeting Sabrina, don’t you? 🙂

      This way of presenting the action intimates that the writer will be sharing, in the novel itself, vivid detail as to the ins and outs of the duel, especially since your title page should identify your work as an action adventure novel.

      If your book is all about a journey, where the characters start out at home but we follow them as they travel to Fantastical Castle, you are right in that it might seem flat to say, “They passed the magic rock without realizing their mistake,” but in the synopsis, the editor is just trying to see the high points of your book. Once you wow him with your sample chapters, he will see the vibrancy of the magic rock, and be yelling at your characters to stop and pick it up. Then you’ve got him hooked and are on your way to a sale.

      That is my take, anyway. Let me know if I missed anything.

      • Avatar
        Michael Duncan May 24, 2012 at 11:35 am #

        That’s great advice. I always worry that my synopsis will sound like some sort of boring PBS documentary and the editor rushes headlong out of the door to do something much more exciting–like watching the grass grow. 🙂

        You have given me hope!

        Be blessed.

  9. Avatar
    sally apokedak May 24, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I always hated synopses until I started writing them first. Writing them first allows me to see what the story is about and keeps the story on track. So now…the hardest thing about writing them is plotting the story–finding the protagonist’s goal and weak spot, figuring out what motivates the antagonist, and discovering what keeps the protagonist going and finally gives him the strength to overcome. Once I have those, everything falls into place.

    Of course all this works in my own mind and not anywhere else. My synopses have, thus far, failed to compel any real, live acquisitions editors. 🙂

  10. Avatar
    Ruth Douthitt May 24, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    I tend to blather on and on and on…having editors look at it first really helps me get rid of the unecessary info.

    Writing a synopsis is intimidating to me. I am grateful I have friends who are willing to help me out!!

    Great tips and reminders. Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    TC Avey May 24, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Thank you.
    When I made the first draft of my synopsis it was ten pages long. From there I narrowed it down to three pages. I was really impressed with myself but I know it could still use work, after all, I am fairly new at this and so far no agent or editor has seen it.

    I do wonder though, I have been working on my query letter and I am under the impression a very mini synopsis should be included (main plot and the ending) is this correct? If so how many paragraphs should this information take up since a query is only one page?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

      TC, that’s a great question. I have an assistant who reviews most of my new submissions, but I will tell you how I work if for some reason I am reviewing on my own. I don’t need a full plot summary in a query letter. Intrigue me enough so I can see that you have a great story I can market. Something such as, “When Evangeline Endicott captures the attentions of Viscount Winthrop Lunenburg during the 1819 London Season, she holds a secret about lies that have been told about her — lies that will doom any prospects of a happy match. But her jealous enemy, Phonecia Fairfax, is ready to make those lies known to Winthrop. Will the ruthless Phonecia win the object of her affections, regardless of the cost?”

      In three sentences, you have told me the time period and setting, the identities and social positions of the protagonists, and the primary conflict. In short, you have presented me with a teaser. That alone is enough to tell me if you have written the type of book I am looking for at that moment, and in my view, is enough for your query letter. For more in-depth information, I’ll review your proposal.

      • Avatar
        TC Avey May 25, 2012 at 6:56 am #

        Thank you so much. I’m going to start re-vamping my query with this info! God bless and have a wonderful holiday weekend.

  12. Avatar
    V.V. Denman May 25, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Great post. I’ll be referring back to it (and the comments) in a few months when I work on my synopsis. And I agree with Patrick. The book is much easier to write.

  13. Avatar
    JennyM May 28, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    This has been most helpful, thank you Tamela!

  14. Avatar
    MichelePat January 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Thank you so much. This is so helpful. Since reading through your advice, I am preparing plot synopses for all three of my novels-in-the-process.

  15. Avatar
    Donevy L. Westphal March 14, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    So, a synopsis on a fiction should be more of an overview? Not a chapter by chapter? (I’m confessing here that I kind of write panster style) Does a fiction writer that writes in that manner, who doesn’t usually know before hand, go in and make an outline afterwards? This has been a daunting task, but has the impact of fine tuning. I’m still confused.

  16. Avatar
    Debb Hackett August 10, 2018 at 8:09 am #

    This was so helpful, thank you Tamela. I think the hardest part is being so close to the tory and not knowing which parts to include the synopsis. A lot of editors tell you if it isn’t moving the plot along, cut it out of the novel, but you can’t put everything into the synopsis or you’d have the whole novel. It’s also hard to see the writing style have no, well, style. I”m hoping if I polish hard enough, it’ll eventually shine to some degree.

  17. Avatar
    Maco Stewart April 9, 2019 at 3:11 pm #

    Working on my synopsis today. Great advice, and many thanks.


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