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Book Proposals: The Fiction Synopsis

Attention all novelists! Every fiction book proposal must include a synopsis. Everyone who teaches on the book proposal says you need one. But why? Those two to three single-spaced pages of agony will never be seen by anyone else but editors and agents, so why? Why, oh why, must a novelist create a synopsis? I understand how difficult it is to write a synopsis. And yet, you need to do the work.

The Purpose of a Synopsis

The synopsis is a quick overview of your whole story. It’s more than a 100 word back-cover-copy blurb. And it is less than the entire manuscript. Since you are sending the first three chapters we must have more than that to properly evaluate the story.

Consider this scenario: I’ve read the first three chapters and you’ve got me hooked. But there isn’t a synopsis. I’m left wondering if the story can be resolved, if you have plot holes, or poor story structure, or no character arc. I know nothing beyond those first pages. Sure, I could request the full manuscript, but that is a major time commitment for something which lacks an overview.

You would be amazed how often we receive three chapters from someone and nothing else. That author has given me a reason to look no further. The writing may be brilliant in the sample chapters, but the author has not completed the picture.

It would be like applying for a job but leaving your work history blank on the application. It is incomplete.

Or like asking someone to buy a car online but only showing them a picture of the front grill and the passenger side door.

We simply need to know “the rest of the story.”


Realize that the synopsis is going to be THE worst story writing you have ever done. It will have little style or craft to it. Don’t worry. We know that. We are not looking for the perfect synopsis. We expect a stark, even sterile, skeleton of your work of art.

I’m not saying it is easy. But I am saying it isn’t a measure of your writing skill or writing style.

At the same time, put some effort into making it have some energy and vitality. Sometimes a simple word choice can bring a flash of brilliance. Don’t skimp or get lazy. As mentioned earlier, don’t give the editor or agent a reason to say “no thanks.”

How Do I Write a Good Synopsis?

Below are four articles from our blog that should help you work on the craft of your synopsis:

From Tamela Hancock Murray:
Keys to a Great Synopsis

The Synopsis Tells the Tale

From Karen Ball:
Synopsis Made Easy – I Promise

Creating a Strong Hook


[This is a slightly revised version of a post originally published in March 2017 on this blog under a different title. I’ve left the comments from the previous posting intact.]

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Synopsis Made Easy – I Promise!

Okay, fellow proposal peeps, it’s time to jump in and work together on crafting a perfect proposal. Many of you echoed what I’ve heard over and over through the years: “I hate writing the synopsis!” This is especially painful because you need a short synopsis/summary that runs around 50-60 words—but …

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The Synopsis Tells the Tale

Because the synopsis is so critical to a proposal, I decided to write this spin-off of last week’s blog, “Keys to a Great Synopsis,”  in hopes of helping authors not only write more effective synopses, but to impart a bit about the fiction market, too.

When I read synopses from authors, much is revealed. For instance, I see:

Cozy mysteries that are meant to be romance.

Gothic plots presented as historical romances.

Women’s fiction that the author intended to be romance.

Mysteries masquerading as romantic suspense.

In the submissions I see, these are almost never flipped, so to my mind, this suggests the romance market in particular is one that many authors seek to understand, but don’t quite get. Hence the near-miss plots. I think this may be because the romance formula is strict and authors seek to offer readers something unique so without realizing it, they can stray into other genres. An eternal truth about romance novels is that editors and readers do want fresh plots. However, they also know that the romance story has set guidelines from which writers must not venture. Plots can hit the edges of the box but not punch holes. In my view, what the author must understand about the Christian romance reader is that she seeks to be assured that even in our coarse culture, a godly woman unwilling to compromise her faith and the accompanying physical and spiritual virtues can find a Christian man to love her forever.

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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.

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