What Is a Synopsis?

If you have written a novel or a literary piece of some other kind and you're looking for an agent or a company to publish your book, you need to provide them with a synopsis of your masterpiece. The official definition of synopsis describes it as “a brief summary or general survey of something” or “an outline of a plot”. A synopsis for a project and a synopsis of a literary work are not the same. For you as a writer, it’s a brief account on your fiction (or sometimes non-fiction) that shows the prospective publishers what your writing is about and helps them feel its atmosphere without having to read the whole manuscript to decide whether they will work with it or not. The synopsis describes the plot of your story, reveals its genre, and gives the agents a glimpse of your manner of writing. It’s an example of how you write, that is why it’s a mistake to sound overly dry and formal in it. The synopsis must correspond with your fiction in its mood. After all, it's a little mirror that reflects the whole image of your novel. You shouldn't mislead publishers by creating a literary taste that actually differs from what you’ve written. And so, it's best if the style of the synopsis is close to the style of the manuscript. Still, make sure the synopsis retains a good degree of clarity even if your fiction has a mystic aura around it.

How long is a synopsis? Different companies have different guidelines for a synopsis. Usually, its volume is around 300-600 words, which makes it a 1 or 2 page synopsis, if not requested otherwise. Ultimately, though, the size and the style of your synopsis depend on the genre of your writing. Regardless of variations, all synopses should respond to certain criteria. We're about to take a look into that criteria in this article.

How to write a synopsis?

Now the question is, “How to write a synopsis?”. Be aware that it's easy to confuse a synopsis with a condensed mini version of your book: do not attempt to tell your whole story in a synopsis of a couple hundred words. This is not necessary. The plot synopsis should only concentrate on the most important elements of your story, the main twists in the plot, the main characters. If there’s any secondary character or a little turn of events that are not noticeable at first yet play an important role in the unfoldment of the storyline, they're worth mentioning in the synopsis. You also have to describe the setting in which the story takes place, the era, and initial circumstances that lead to the rising action in the narrative. However, those should not take too much space. You don't need to expound on what happens in each chapter of your book one by one. After all, it’s barely manageable at all when you have such a small word count to fit your whole plot into. If the agent needs each chapter synopsis, they will let you know. Last but not the least, write your synopsis in active voice unless you’re particularly urged to do otherwise and it can be justified by an artistic effect of some kind.

The most important component of any story is the characters. They are the core answer to the question of how to write a story synopsis. It is the journey of a character that’s in the heart of any literary work (except for when it’s written in a specific abstract genre and does not incorporate any characters at all - in such a case, it would require a different approach to compose a synopsis). Focus your synopsis chiefly on the characters. Your task is to show briefly but in a fulfilling way how they’re changing and evolving throughout the story.

A synopsis has to be clear and chronologically coherent, without any incomprehensible tangles or time jumps. Do not leave any blanks or gaps in the plot, do not ask rhetorical questions. In a synopsis, you are not trying to intrigue the publisher as much as to present your piece of writing as a good one. Therefore, you shouldn’t look at the synopsis as an advertisement for your reader but rather regard it as a concise description that lets your potential publishers know what they would be working with. The way you compose your synopsis may tell a lot about the way you write your novels. If the synopsis does follow the manner in which your novel is written, and it has substantial flaws in it, then your novel, most likely, has them too. Maybe in the process of writing the synopsis, you realize that something is missing from your story. In both cases, you should perform some manuscript editing before submission. Nevertheless, there are cases when the novel is really interesting and captivating in its language, yet its synopsis is written in a bland, technical way. When writing a synopsis, you need to relax and imagine that you are still in that kingdom and encompassed in that atmosphere that you were in when writing your story. Consider the synopsis to be a part of the book, and then they both will end up written in the same spirit.

But there's one more thing to keep in mind: if your plot has intentional loopholes or a specific structure designed with the purpose of making your reader work intellectually to see hidden connections - again, remember that you need to adjust that to the goal of the synopsis. Which means, you need to take all those confused elements, straighten them up, and arrange them in their logical order in your narrative synopsis to help your publisher effortlessly understand the plot. Still, don’t forget to mention, as a description on the side, that the components of that plot are actually scattered around the novel like pieces of a puzzle. Briefly explain how it all twists around and mixes up in the novel itself. The same refers to the links between characters and the way in which they influence the events that happen along the way.

You must create a system that clearly shows those links for your publisher, even if this system is deliberately broken and wrapped in artistic chaos for the reader (like a nonlinear narrative in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if it were a book). Your publisher or agent should be able to see what the reader can’t (until they reach the climax or the end of your book, of course), because the publisher needs to know both your vision and the reader’s vision of the narrative so they can put these two perspectives alongside each other and understand the trick that you’ve put into your work to entice the audience. That’s the way you show the strong points and the values of your work, which is important to know for the publishing agent. Besides that, you avoid misunderstandings by explaining the idea behind your “unorthodox” structuring. Although, a publisher that knows their business must be skilled enough to notice and properly interpret such things on their own.

Remember, you don't have to reveal the complete background of precursors for every step the characters take and every single reason why they are the way they are. Moreover, taking into account the synopsis meaning, it’s even undesirable. It may seem hard to find that golden middle between brevity and expansiveness to know what to leave out and what to include in the synopsis. But when you loosen the pressure and remind yourself what was driving you to create this exact story in the first place, you’ll clearly see what conflict, what motivation, and what characters take the main stage in your novel. With non-fiction, of course, a synopsis undergoes some alterations. But it’s still the key purpose of your book and the manner of expressing this purpose that constitute the essentials of your piece of writing, and these need to be translated to the synopsis as well.

When it comes to your reading audience, you don’t want to expose the ending of your book in the promotional campaign and put serious spoilers on the cover. It makes no sense to reveal the ending to the reader beforehand and destroy the whole point of reading. With a publishing agent, it's different, because the main characteristics of a synopsis define its purpose as the intention to summarize your novel rather than advertise it. The publisher must know all the main components of the storyline and view your book through its defining aspects so they would have all necessary information to consider. To get the right impression and make a wholesome decision about taking your creation under their wing, they must see the whole picture.

That said, even though the approach to promoting your book among readers differs from the one to “promoting” it in the eyes of a publishing company or an agent, publishers and literary representatives are also readers, concurrently. Like any other reader, they want to get a thrill from the vibes of your book. With this in mind, make your novel synopsis as mind-grabbing as you can, but don't try to jump over your head and confuse this with a blockbuster preview, where they’re using all possible tricks to make people buy the tickets. You are not a marketing specialist (if you really are, let the publishers know that your expertise may come in handy, but remember that your main role here is that of a writer now). It’s not your task to figure out how to sell the book, but if that bothers you because you know this question will pop up, think about one simple truth: any product that was made with passion and integrity and has apparent value will definitely find a consumer and sell itself, figuratively speaking, - even if it’s an intangible product of intellectual work and the genius of creation, enclosed in tangible paper.

Synopsis Outline

Before you actually write your synopsis, make a plan, a synopsis outline, that will help you discern the most important components of the plot from those that can be omitted. Use graphical help if necessary: you can put your main theme into a circle on a piece of paper and then write down those characters and events that relate to this theme in the most apparent or intense way, as close to the circle as tight the connection is between those elements and the theme (or the conflict, or the climax - whichever represents the main point or idea of your story best of all). You don't have to name the theme or topic of your book directly unless they’re hard to identify, which must be quite rare, as it’s reasonably expected that these will be obvious to an attentive reader. If such things ever need special remarks, that’s usually done as a side note to the plot, but this is not compulsory. Analyse the connection of different characters and events to the climax of the story and its ending as well. If you happen to see that the structure of your synopsis collapses or a plot hole comes out when you take away some elements, then these elements are too important to take out of the synopsis.

A useful method for making a quick synopsis draft is to build it from the end to the beginning, because when you see what is crucial for a logical ending, you know what plot lines and characters you need to follow from the start. Another way to help yourself with the synopsis is to start writing it from the very beginning of your work on the manuscript itself. You’ll edit it along the way, but the main thing is that you’ll already have a foundation for the synopsis when it comes to that point. The synopsis may be built on a plan that you make for your novel even prior to writing it. All in all, you must write it sooner or later, because you know that once you’ve finished your masterpiece, you’ll have to pitch it to a publisher, and that involves sending a synopsis.

A common way to structure a synopsis is to start with a brief, one or two sentences long description of the plot, and then proceed to a bit more detailed account that concentrates separately on the setting, the characters, and the main events in the story.

Whichever way you choose to structure it, it’s recommended to spend most of your effort on the very first sentence of your synopsis. This is the opener, like a door, the design of which can intrigue one enough to make them want to open it and enter; or, it can remain invisible, and people will simply pass it by. That's the way it is with the opening lines of synopses and how your potential publishers view them. A desire to enchant your readership from the start may be already familiar to you from the experience of writing the very first sentence of your literary creation. Also in the starting paragraph, present those faces and features without which your novel would not come to being and would not make sense: the hero of your story, the antagonist, and those conditions and driving forces that lead them to the main conflict, question, or goal that is crucial in the plot. Don't forget to mention the setting - the surroundings and the time period in which the events of your narrative take place.

The main chunk of the synopsis is, of course, the one that exhibits the development of the story. You should show this step-by-step evolution of the plot, but as was mentioned before, don’t go into detail. Do not make long, pondering, descriptive pauses between active events, for even when they are essential to the story, they’re rarely needed in the synopsis. A strong emotional context, though, is quite valuable and should be concisely illustrated. If you have got over the word count limit because there are some secondary components in the story that you are very eager to share, and you think the publisher will like those, remember that the synopsis is not an appropriate place to do that in. Here, make sure to include only the most influential elements, as much as the required volume allows. If you succeed in this, the publisher or the agent will read the manuscript and find that beautiful piece that you wanted them to appreciate. In many situations, though, if a little element is really that important, it plays a big role in the story anyway and is most probably used as a plot device - that’s synopsis material, for sure.

When you reach the ending, explain how the conflict was resolved, what has been achieved by the characters through the course of their journey, what treasures they may have found in it; show what has changed and transformed as the result. Basically, you compare and contrast the beginning and the end to emphasize the difference between them. Usually, it’s this difference - or sometimes its absence - that gives the story its meaning.

Leave enough time for editing and proofreading. Even though it will be the job of professional editors and correctors when a publishing house starts to collaborate with you, those editorial skills are still significant for an author and can put your writing proficiency a couple steps higher up the ladder of acknowledgement for many publishers. However, it’s not even necessary that you do the editing work yourself, especially with the manuscript. You can hire a professional editor and mention that in your query letter, which will emphasize how seriously you treat your writing and give you a lot of extra points. A well “groomed”, clean text, whether it’s in the book itself or in a synopsis, is critical to the publishers’ approval of your work. You must know it well by now, but just make sure you don’t underestimate the importance of a well-written book synopsis thinking that a great manuscript is enough. As oddly as it sounds, the two can be viewed as almost equal building blocks in your writing career, because while your literary work represents your talent as an author, your book proposals, which include synopses (mostly for works of fiction), help to share that talent with the public and make a space where your writer’s voice can be heard.

Since different publishing companies may have different requirements for a synopsis format, which includes various word count requirements, it won’t hurt to create a few different versions of the synopsis that have different volumes. When submitting your work to a specific agency, simply make some adjustments a synopsis template you’ve prepared earlier. That is much easier to do than try to squeeze your novel with a five-zeroed word count into a several hundred words summary, time and time again for each of the few dozen submissions you’ll make.

Writing a Query Letter

Somewhat technical details that accompany a synopsis in your query are pieces of general information about your novel, such as word count, genre, and the title. Together with the synopsis, they’re included in a letter to the publisher or the agent that explains what makes your story exciting and valuable, why you believe in it, what enables it to be successful, and what makes you a good author to write on the topic the book is focused on. Additionally, you can point out why you have chosen this specific publisher.

A template for a query letter is the following:

  1. Type your address at the top right. Below on the left, type the address of the publishing agency.
  2. Address the publisher or agent by name. You can mention how you know them or what attracted you to their company, and how your book could be a fit for their niche. You may characterize your novel, possibly compare it to literary works of other authors. Note that this is done not with the purpose of putting yourself high on a writer pedestal but simply to show what style you aim for in your narrative. Concisely explain the value that the story has for you or may have for your readers, what makes you sure that it should be published. For all that, avoid becoming boastful. Whenever you see an instruction indicating that you need to point out the strengths of your book, be mindful of that fact that it’s nothing like a competition where they would judge which author has the sassiest personality and which writer loves their work the most.
  3. Next comes the synopsis of your book. Start with its title, genre, and word count; proceed to the main body and compose your synopsis according to the criteria described above. The desired volumes differ from publisher to publisher, hence, a detailed synopsis is quite a relative term. It all depends on specific requirements of every publishing house or agency which you need to learn before writing your query letter.
  4. In the end of the letter, tell just a little bit about yourself, in a couple of sentences. It must be the information that relates directly to your writing career or the book that you want to publish. Mention any literary awards that you may have, positive reviews of your earlier work, previous publications. If it applies, tell your potential publishers what situations or circumstances in your life make you proficient in the topic on which you have written your book, what experiences and ideas have inspired you to create this particular novel. Mention things that you feel would be of importance for raising the publisher’s interest in collaborating with you.

Keep your letter brief. Some say that a synopsis can take a couple of pages, while others advise that the whole letter doesn't exceed one page, front only. Use a neutral font. Double-check the agency’s standard format for the query letter. Many will need you to send them a self-addressed stamped envelope (you can also recognize it as SASE), in which they would send you their response. Although, this hardly applies to email queries.

You’ll need to put your book into a certain category and tell your potential publishers which genre it’s written in. When having difficulties with this task, find similar works that have been officially published and see how their genre is defined, or do a little research on literary genres of today. If your writing is a bit complex and somewhat experimental and a few agents seem to have shrugged their shoulders in confusion upon learning that fact, do not put your work on the shelf (or more likely, into a closet or under the bed) and don’t give up on it just because you don't know how to classify it. In recent years, more and more new subgenres emerge, or simply unique works that are hard to put any label on. A literary agency that exclusively looks for what is highly familiar to them or a publishing house that works only with those books that promise to be in demand with the pop culture may simply be not suitable for your work - do not think that it’s your work that is not suitable for them. There are numerous companies that are always on the lookout for something new, fresh, and unusual. Yes, it might indeed be a bit harder to find a company that would show interest in a more complex literary piece, and if your fiction is quite trippy, your search may take a while. Nevertheless, do not be discouraged. If you believe in your work, someone else will too.