Summarizing Your Story: How to Write a Captivating Synopsis
If you plan on traditionally publishing, you will likely need to send a synopsis with your query letter and manuscript to an agent or publisher. This is not the same thing as a pitch. That goes in your query letter. The synopsis is a separate document and can be difficult to craft. Here are some tips to clarify what a synopsis is and how you can write a captivating one.
What Is a Synopsis?
A synopsis is a summary of your book. Usually an agent or publisher asks for a synopsis to see if you can write a satisfying ending as well as a beginning that hooks, so don’t withhold information. If you’re thinking something like “I’m not going to reveal who the real villain is because I don’t want to spoil the book,” then you don’t understand a synopsis. An agent or publisher isn’t going to read your book if you haven’t disclosed the key plot points. Plenty of writers are great at starting stories. They start them over and over perfecting the beginning, but rarely make it all the way to the end. Your synopsis shows you have a plot, character arcs, and ending.
In the past, authors were given ten or more pages to summarize their stories, but now most agents or publishers only want 1-5. This is because they get so many queries, they don’t have time to read ten page synopses from everyone. Their lack of time also means you better follow their guidelines to the letter if you want to actually have your submission packet read.
Formatting a Synopsis
Standard synopsis format is very similar to standard manuscript format. You should use one inch margins, double space, indent your paragraphs, number your pages, use 12 pt Times New Roman or another easy to read font, and include the title. The one exception to this is one page synopses. Most agents I know who request a one page summary want the document single spaced, but all the other formatting rules are the same. You’ll want to include your title, name, and the word “synopsis” as well.
There are two important, unique formatting differences between your synopsis and your manuscript. First, you must write your synopsis in third person present tense. It doesn’t matter what tense or point of view your actual manuscript is written in, your synopsis should be in third person present. Second, each time you mention a new character, put their name in all caps.
Some agents or publishers might want a slightly different format, so be sure you check their guidelines before submitting. If they don’t specify, go with this standard format.
Synopsis Best Practices
Like your pitch, your synopsis should reveal your protagonist’s motivations and the stakes of your story. It should also reveal whether those stakes were won or lost and if your protagonist achieved their goals or not.
Because you don’t get a lot of space to write your synopsis, you should focus on the main plot. Think about the overall themes of your story or your elevator pitch. That should help you zero in on the main plot. If you struggle with this, ask a couple of people who’ve read your book to tell you what it’s about. Sometimes others are better at summarizing an author’s story because they don’t have the same attachment to each character, word, and event.
You should also focus on the main characters. Generally, you should only use 3-5 character names in the whole synopsis. Mentioning other characters is fine; you just shouldn’t bombard agents and publishers with a bunch of characters and their names. If you focus on the main plot, this should happen naturally.
Most agents and publishers want to at least see the first five pages of your manuscript; many want the first ten pages or three chapters. That means you shouldn’t spend a bunch of words describing the beginning of your story in your synopsis. They will read your actual beginning, so keep that first paragraph short and sweet and spend more words on the other sections.
Because this is a summary, your synopsis shouldn’t have full scenes or a bunch of dialogue. It’s highly unlikely you can include these things and summarize your full book. I rarely see any dialogue in synopses that work. When I do, it’s a line or two, not a full conversation.
While a synopsis is kind of like a report because it lists the events of your story, it shouldn’t be boring. You are a writer. This is a writing sample. Use the creative writing techniques you mastered while writing your novel to give your synopsis a good flow and interest.
Don’t refer to yourself or other books in the series or other books you’ve written here. Your synopsis should only be about the book you’re querying.
Don’t forget to include a bit of setting. It should be clear if the story takes place in present day or some other time, whether the characters are in the everglades or space, and what your main character’s station is in their society.
These are tips, not do or die guidelines. However, if you apply them to the best of your ability, you’ll have a better chance at crafting a successful synopsis.
An Editor’s Advice on Writing Your Synopsis
Synopses are difficult. You’ve written an entire novel and you’re proud of every word and now someone wants you to distill all of that beautiful prose into a couple of pages. You’re really going to have to let go of your darlings now. Know that most writers struggle to craft a compelling synopsis. You are not alone, and if you find summarizing your story easy, don’t take that skill for granted.
Like the other parts of your submission packet, have someone else review and critique your synopsis before you send it. You know what happens, so ask someone who doesn’t know anything about your book to read it and see if it makes sense. Then ask someone who has read your book if you’ve covered the key points. Take their thoughts into consideration and adjust your summary accordingly. Make sure your synopsis is as clear and polished as possible to land an agent or publisher and Ignite Your Ink.
How do you approach writing a synopsis? Share your process in the comments below. For more tips on querying agents and publishers and a free Timeline of a Book, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.