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How to Write a Compelling Novel Synopsis


Summarizing your novel is tough work, but it’s often the first hurdle on the long road to submission. A simple way to ease the process is to think of a synopsis as an expression of your book’s narrative arc in a succinct format that tells the reader what happens, explains how the characters develop, and describes how the story ends.

Illustration of author

‘You only have one chance to make a first impression…’ Illustration by Josh Quick

With that said, a synopsis serves a different purpose than sales copy or back cover blurbs. Those two items are marketing tools created for public use in conjunction with publication as tools to entice readers. A synopsis, however, is a personal pre-publishing summary authors use to pitch agents and editors, demonstrating that their manuscript contains a cohesive structure with motivations, conflicts, and resolutions that make narrative sense.

A synopsis, by its very nature, lays out the manuscript’s roadmap and may help the novice author discover plot holes, gaps in logic, and weaknesses in characterization.

There is no standard method for writing a synopsis and lengths may vary based on submission calls. Some people write their synopsis before writing the full manuscript and tweak that summary upon the novel’s completion. Others write the synopsis at the end of the work.

How you approach this task should rest with your preferences. Here are some tips for writing a one- or two-page synopsis with minimum effort. Before you begin, consider the following:

  • Identify the main characters, but keep the focus on the protagonist. Show what’s at stake for that lead character.
  • Define what elements drive the main conflict for the protagonist and outline how that character fails or succeeds while coping with those issues.
  • Decide how the conflict resolves and how the protagonist has changed (inside and out) because of the resolution.

This is the meat of your synopsis. No need to cover every subplot or summarize every chapter of the story. Broad strokes are acceptable as long as the synopsis covers the key moments that affect the tale’s conclusion. This is not to suggest that a synopsis is simply a dry retelling of the plot—emotion should still play a role to give the reader a sense of the impact events have as they unfold. To ensure concise but expressive prose, a synopsis should utilize the active voice in the third person, present tense viewpoint.

While the synopsis should convey some emotion, avoid waxing poetic. This is the one time writers should simply tell the reader their protagonist is a miserly curmudgeon rather than spend the extra paragraph it takes to show that same behavior. A synopsis is not the place to be coy or build unnecessary suspense.

Deliver on the promise of the opener by providing an accurate depiction of how the tale ends. That means if you’re writing a mystery, reveal the killer. Remember, any industry professional who asks for a synopsis will want to make an informed decision on whether your project has money-making potential. In order to do that, they will need the whole picture, plot twists and all.

A short two-page synopsis should fall around eight or nine paragraphs. The transitions between these breaks should clarify how events connect without using dialogue or editorializing the action. In those rare instances when the use of dialogue is unavoidable, stick to words and phrases that epitomize character or encapsulate the heart of the book.

After you’ve written a draft of the synopsis, ask yourself:

  • Does the lead character draw reader interest?
  • Does the narrative arc convey rising action and tension?
  • Is it clear how the protagonist has grown over the course of the story?
  • Does the voice, tone, and style of the synopsis match the novel?

Since you only have one chance to make a first impression, the synopsis must fully address each one of these issues while using vivid but concise language. If you find your summary doesn’t deliver because your original manuscript fails to answer these questions, consider a redraft of your book before returning to the task of synopsis writing.

Remember, a synopsis is vital to your own marketing for industry professionals, so go the extra mile to portray your novel in the best light.

Andrea Johnson (Guest Blogger)

Andrea J. Johnson is a writer and editor who specializes in commercial fiction. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Seton Hill University and a copyediting certification from UC San Diego. Her craft essays have appeared on several websites, including LitReactor and Funds for Writers, and she’s recently completed a new cozy courtroom mystery novel. To learn more about Andrea’s work, follow @ajthenovelist on Twitter.