Of all the things you will write throughout the publishing process, a synopsis may be what you dread the most.
It’s not fun to have to shoehorn an entire novel into a relatively brief one-four page summary. But if you follow just a few relatively simple steps and follow the guidance in this post, it may still be a pain, but it won’t be endlessly hard.
Writing a synopsis: Not as terrible as you might think!
In this post I’ll cover:
- What is a synopsis for a novel?
- What about a nonfiction synopsis?
- How to write a good synopsis
- Why it’s important to summarize through specificity
- Use a consistent voice
- Don’t worry about spoilers
- How to format a synopsis
- A sample synopsis for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
- Why you shouldn’t overthink a synopsis
What is a synopsis for a novel?
A synopsis is a 1.5 to 4 page single-spaced summary of what happens in your novel. That’s it. It’s an end-to-end summary of the plot from start to finish.
Don’t worry about spoilers. And do include how it ends.
Agents and editors typically use synopses as reference documents. They use them to get a sense of the overall plot. They also sometimes use them later on as handy refreshers when their memories fade about character names and plot points. Agents don’t typically rely on them to decide whether to pass on a book project barring significant red flags. The query letter is typically far more important, so I’d devote most of your energy there.
If a publisher is considering a multi-book deal, you may also have to write synopses for future installments of your series to give an editor a sense of where you want to take the narrative.
Authors sometimes feel like they shouldn’t have to be bothered summarizing their work. And sometimes they want to pay someone else to write their synopsis.
“It’s a different skill!” they yelp to me. “I’m a good writer but I’m a bad summarizer!”
But think about how many times you’re going to have to summarize your work during the book publishing process:
- When you friends ask you about your book, you have to summarize your book.
- When you talk with people in the book business, you have to summarize your book.
- When you stand up at a reading, you have to summarize your book.
- When you become massively famous and are on a talk show, you have to summarize your book.
Get used to summarizing your book. Better yet: get good at it. Take responsibility for this part of the process. Make other people want to read your book.
While I’m more than happy to help you edit your synopsis, I refuse to write first drafts for authors out of principle. You need to take ownership over this step and take the first crack at synthesizing the plot.
What about a nonfiction synopsis?
For memoirs, the “rules” of writing a synopsis are typically the same as for a novel. Because memoirs unfold like novels, you can apply the guidance for fiction and just give an end-to-end summary of what happens.
For other types of nonfiction, in book proposals there is usually a chapter-by-chapter summary that essentially functions as a synopsis.
However, there aren’t universal standards for synopses within the industry and an agent may still ask you for a synopsis for nonfiction. If they do, just remember that the goal is to provide an end-to-end summary of what’s in the book (or what’s going to be in the book if you’ve just written a book proposal).
How to write a good synopsis
How do you do that?
Start by writing your query letter. I have a query letter template that is a good place to start, and those same key ingredients (setting, complicating incident, villain, protagonist’s quest) should be present in the synopsis.
Think of a synopsis as a longer query letter that includes how the book ends. You have more room to include more detail and depth about the plot and key subplots, but the synopsis should still cover the arc of the book in a relatively succinct way.
As in a query letter, ditch all discussion of themes and what the novel means. Focus on what happens. You don’t need a meta-summary or log-line at the start of the synopsis. Just start where the novel starts and end where it ends.
Here are some key elements that set snappy synopses apart from dreary ones.
Why it’s important to summarize through specificity
Just as in a query, the more detail and specificity you can infuse into the synopsis, the more it will come to life and the clearer it will be. “Nathan was over-caffeinated” and “Nathan was so amped he scraped the silver off the Red Bull” may describe the same moment, but one has a lot more life to it than the other. (And uh. No. That didn’t happen why do you ask.)
Some summarizing will be necessary, but those little moments where you show what makes your characters, events, and setting unique will make the synopsis sparkle. Don’t devolve into generalities and largely-meaningless abstractions like “A fight ensues.” Be very specific about who is doing what and why, and describe action with precision. Swap out “A fight ensued” with “Nathan swats the mutant bat invader with a tennis racquet and banishes it from the apartment.”
Don’t pre-package the events into abstract psychologizing where you’ve already digested the events for the agent and tell them what it means, like “Nathan’s fear of intimacy rears its head.” Instead, show what that zoomed out summary is actually describing: “Nathan leaves three of his crush’s texts on read.”
Particularly for science fiction and fantasy, make sure you’re pausing to provide crisp, clear context for any concepts a reader would be unfamiliar with. Don’t just drop in a mention of a Silver Thingamabob without telling us what that means in the world of your novel. You must find a way to see what is and isn’t on the page and what the reader has sufficient context to understand.
And above all: Make sure your protagonist’s motivations and the stakes are clear. What happens if the protagonist succeeds or fails? Infuse the synopsis with that information so the agent knows why they should care about the events of the novel.
Use a consistent voice
If you wrote a novel with multiple POVs or if it has a unique or nonlinear structure, it may be difficult to figure out how to organize a synopsis. You don’t want to write a synopsis that constantly zigzags between different plot lines and characters or you’re going to bewilder the reader.
Instead, don’t be beholden to the precise sequence in which events unfold in your novel. You don’t have to follow an alternating-character structure in the synopsis that mimics the novel. Try as much as possible to “get above it” and focus on describing the essential events in a way that’s clear to the reader. Err on the side of being clear rather than constraining yourself to how the novel precisely unfolds.
That could mean sticking to one character per paragraph, or it could mean describing the plot from a gods-eye perspective.
Write your synopsis in third person present tense even if your novel is written in first person or past tense. (First or third person is acceptable for memoirs, but I usually prefer third person for memoirs too).
Whatever you do, optimize for clarity and cohesion rather than being a stickler for mimicking how the novel is structured.
Don’t worry about spoilers
Agents and editors know they’re going to read your book many times over the course of the publication process. They’re not worried about spoilers.
In fact, agents and editors read so many books and are so well-acquainted with the sausage-making of writing that…
- They probably aren’t going to be surprised by even the surprise-iest of endings. Surprises are for mortal readers.
- They are experienced enough to do the mental jujitsu of judging whether an ending will be surprising to someone who has never read the book even though the agent/editor knows exactly how it ends. They can put themselves in another reader’s shoes and judge it that way.
So yeah. Spoil away.
How to format a synopsis
Unlike the way manuscripts are formatted, synopses are single-spaced, and are 1.5 to 4 pages long depending on the length and complexity of the novel. The sweet spot is usually on the shorter side: 1.5 to 2.5 pages.
Sometimes agents will ask for a “short” or “brief” synopsis, and unfortunately there isn’t really a universal standard on what they mean by that. Short synopses are typically less than a page, and some authors decide to write short and long versions of their synopses to accommodate individual agents’ preferences.
Unless otherwise specified, the default is 1.5 to 2.5 pages.
Put your book title and your name at the top and include the word “Synopsis” so an agent can easily see what it is.
As with manuscripts, Times New Roman 12pt font is standard. Use 0.5″ indents and, again, single-space the rest. Don’t include any extra spacing before or after paragraphs, and it’s not necessary to break up the synopsis into chapters or parts.
Make sure you have a footer with your name and the page number in case the agent prints the synopsis out.
Sometimes authors capitalize character names the first time they’re mentioned, but in my experience that’s optional.
A sample synopsis for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
Fun fact: I never actually wrote a synopsis for my middle grade novel Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, which went on to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers at Penguin. Like many authors, I dreaded writing a synopsis. So I decided I would write one only if an agent asked for one. No one did!
But in order to give you a sense of how I would approach writing a synopsis, I wrote one anyway. You’re welcome haha.
Here it is: My synopsis for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
To download it to use as a template, go through the File menu within the doc and download it as a .docx file. Please do not ask me for Edit permissions on the Google Doc.
Why you shouldn’t overthink a synopsis
At the end of the day, it is highly unlikely that an your book is going to be made or broken by how well you write a synopsis. It’s not something that will likely see the light of day beyond your agent or editor. Compared to a query letter or, ya know, the actual manuscript, it’s not likely to factor highly into whether you book sinks or swims.
So don’t spend months on it.
Still: have fun with your synopsis and use it as valuable practice for summarizing your book in a most-awesome way.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: A Vanitas by Evert Collier
This is wonderful! I am in the camp of “it is as terrible as you might think” though, I find it super painful and never feel like I have it just right. Up there with writing cover letters. But this helps.
JOHN T. SHEA says
“Agents and editors will use synopses to get a sense of the overall plot of the novel (and also as a handy refresher when memories start to fade through time on certain character names and plot points).”
Handy for us authors too! Forgetting one’s characters’ names might seem a terrible faux pas, but Stan Lee, for example, gave his comic book characters alliterative names like ‘Peter Parker’ so he could remember them more easily.
And thinking of the synopsis as an expended query more than a shrunken novel sounds like a good approach.
Surprises are for mortal readers? So agents and editors are immortal, like vampires? How very seasonal!
Thanks for this, Nathan, and Happy Halloween!
Donna Volkenannt says
Thanks for this post. I’ve been struggling with writing a synopsis to use as a guideline for finishing my manuscript.
Bryan Fagan says
Nathan – Three words, ‘Dread the Most’. Yes I do.
Nathan – Four words, ‘Get Good at it’. Yes I will.
Nathan Bransford says
[Thumbs up emoji]
Bryan Fagan says
I hardly ever comment on the same article twice but this is the exception. I have a question: It looks like you have a forum. Would my synopsis be a good place to take it to? I think I have a good one but I’ve been wrong on these gut feelings before. I’m kind of on the fence with this.
Nanette J. Purcigliotti says
I am grateful for what you do for writers seeking publication. I’d started checking out agents, and discovered agents want more than 10 pages and a query. A synopsis, and it all goes into an online form, OMG.
Thank you for your guidance on how to…
I have subscribed to your newsletter.
For backstory, I found your post on Facebook.
Nancy Thompson says
You mention that we don’t “need” a log line at the beginning of a query, but should we avoid it? I always come up with one and wonder if it’s a good or bad idea to start a query with it between the salutation and body of the query. Since I’m querying 2 novels at the moment, I’d really be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.
Pete Springer says
Part of my confusion with a synopsis is some publishers/agents are specific about length while others make no mention of it. Sometimes it’s one page, and at other times it’s five. Many publishers/agents make no mention of length which leaves me wondering what to do.
Nathan Bransford says
1.5-2.5 single-spaced pages is the “default,” if other agents ask for a different length you may need to adapt accordingly.
Yma Soby says
This was written a while ago, but I was hoping you might be able to answer a question.
I keep getting confused about the synopsis, because some people say it’s basically what you’d read on the book jacket, and others say it’s literally a full length synopsis. Which is it really? How can I know which one the agent is asking for?
My book follows three protagonists who, though largely connected, spend time apart, obviously, so I feel like it would be difficult summarizing the overlap, and the word count would extend significantly.
Nathan Bransford says
Have you read the post?