How to write a synopsis

Proficient students understand that summarizing, identifying what is most important and restating the text (or other media) in your own words, is an important tool for college success.

After all, if you really know a subject, you will be able to summarize it. If you cannot summarize a subject, even if you have memorized all the facts about it, you can be absolutely sure that you have not learned it. And, if you truly learn the subject, you will still be able to summarize it months or years from now.

Proficient students may monitor their understanding of a text by summarizing as they read. They understand that if they can write a one- or two-sentence summary of each paragraph after reading it, then that is a good sign that they have correctly understood it. If they can not summarize the main idea of the paragraph, they know that comprehension has broken down and they need to use fix-up strategies to repair understanding.

Summary Writing Format

  • When writing a summary, remember that it should be in the form of a paragraph.
  • A summary begins with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main point of the text as you see it.
  • A summary is written in your own words.
  • A summary contains only the ideas of the original text. Do not insert any of your own opinions, interpretations, deductions or comments into a summary.
  • Identify in order the significant sub-claims the author uses to defend the main point.
  • Copy word-for-word three separate passages from the essay that you think support and/or defend the main point of the essay as you see it.
  • Cite each passage by first signaling the work and the author, put “quotation marks” around the passage you chose, and put the number of the paragraph where the passages can be found immediately after the passage.
  • Using source material from the essay is important. Why? Because defending claims with source material is what you will be asked to do when writing papers for your college professors.
  • Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.

Example Summary Writing Format

In the essay Santa Ana, author Joan Didion’s main point is (state main point). According to Didion “…passage 1…” (para.3). Didion also writes “…passage 2…” (para.8). Finally, she states “…passage 3…” (para. 12) Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.

Once you have finished writing your novel or book, it’s time to prepare your work for the submission process. While each literary agent has their own specific guidelines, it’s useful to know how to write a synopsis.

Here are 5 tips on how to write a synopsis like a pro.

5 Tips on How to Write a Synopsis

Before sending your book proposal out to potential literary agents, here are some suggested elements you should include while writing a synopsis:

How to write a synopsis

  • Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
  • Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
  • Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
  • Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
  • Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.

What to Avoid When Writing a Synopsis

While there is no universal standard for the length of a book or novel synopsis, agents usually favor one to two pages, single-spaced. Sometimes an agent might ask for a chapter outline instead, which is a synopsis of each chapter. Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:

  • Mentioning too many characters or events.
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
  • Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “. in a flashback,” or “. in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
  • Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.

The Synopsis Format

Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it.

Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.

Once you have finished writing your novel or book, it’s time to prepare your work for the submission process. While each literary agent has their own specific guidelines, it’s useful to know how to write a synopsis.

Here are 5 tips on how to write a synopsis like a pro.

5 Tips on How to Write a Synopsis

Before sending your book proposal out to potential literary agents, here are some suggested elements you should include while writing a synopsis:

How to write a synopsis

  • Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
  • Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
  • Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
  • Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
  • Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.

What to Avoid When Writing a Synopsis

While there is no universal standard for the length of a book or novel synopsis, agents usually favor one to two pages, single-spaced. Sometimes an agent might ask for a chapter outline instead, which is a synopsis of each chapter. Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:

  • Mentioning too many characters or events.
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
  • Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “. in a flashback,” or “. in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
  • Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.

The Synopsis Format

Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it.

Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.

What is a synopsis, anyway? A synopsis is a complete summary of your novel. The synopsis includes vital information about your main character(s) and all the main plot points, including how the story ends. So many writers dread writing a novel synopsis. It’s not an easy task, but I’ve broken it down into five steps to help you stay organized and focused on the correct material.

Step 1: Get into the right mindset

When you take the time to think about it, writing a synopsis is really just succinct storytelling. You’ve already done the hard work of writing a full-length novel. Now, your synopsis is going to tell the exact same story, but in a “let’s sit around the camp fire and tell ghost stories” kind of way. Synopses do not need to be boring. They shouldn’t be as full of description as your manuscript, but explaining the core events of your novel should be exciting.

Step 2: Gather the most important plot points of your novel

This task will require a complete read-through of your manuscript (and while you’re at it, you might as well do another line edit—it never hurts). As you read through the manuscript, pause after each chapter and write down two or three sentences to summarize what happens in each chapter. That’s it. You’re not allowed to write more than three sentences (and the shorter the sentences, the better). Focus on main events, not character development or subplots that don’t have to do with what’s at stake for your protagonist.

Step 3: String those events into a cohesive narrative

Now you get to show off your writing skills. You have all the main plot points written down, so you can put your manuscript away and focus on the story highlights you’ve documented. Your synopsis should be written in third person using the active voice (regardless of which point of view you’ve used for your manuscript).

The first paragraph of your synopsis should explain where and when the story takes place, who the protagonist is, and what the initial problem is for this character. After the first paragraph, start stringing events together chapter by chapter. Start by merging Chapter 1 events with Chapter 2 events, then merge Chapter 3 events with whatever you’ve written previously.

Once you’ve made your way through all your plot notes, you should have a much smaller narrative that tells the same story as your full-length novel. It doesn’t matter how long the synopsis is at this point because you can edit it down even more later on.

Step 4: Remember that characters have feelings too

Focusing on the plot is great, but you also need to introduce the main character(s). Read through your synopsis narrative and highlight every event that has a tremendous effect on your protagonist. This is where you’ll want to include a line or two to explain the protagonist’s emotions and reactions—let the reader know how the character develops throughout the manuscript. You don’t want to do this for every plot point, so only choose the most important ones to expand upon with your character’s development.

You only need to include the development of your protagonist. You can name other main characters by name in the synopsis, but any minor characters should be mentioned by title or whatever way works best for your short narrative (for example, refer to a minor character as a “barista” rather than using the character’s name). You don’t want to clutter the synopsis.

Step 5: Don’t stop revising

Now that you have the plot points explained and you’ve considered your protagonist’s emotional journey, it’s time to revise the synopsis to perfection. I recommend re-reading your synopsis at least four times:

1st read: Delete any unnecessary details you come across. Remember that a literary agent or editor will read the entire manuscript if they’re interested in the story. Your synopsis cannot explain everything—it simply needs to tell the main story.

2nd read: Read the synopsis out loud (either to yourself or to someone else). The pacing in your synopsis should be super quick. Since you’re focusing on just the most important parts of the story, the synopsis should hold your attention until the very end. Reading out loud will help you spot any sentences that make you stumble.

3rd read: Focus on the synopsis sentence by sentence. Make sure each sentence makes sense and is as concise as possible.

4th read: Do a thorough copy edit of the synopsis by reading it very, very slowly. Check for typos or grammatical errors.

How do you format a synopsis? There’s no official desired length for a novel synopsis. Agents and editors will prefer synopses of varying lengths, so it’s always best to have a couple on hand. I recommend writing a three-page synopsis and then whittling a version down to two pages… and then a very short synopsis that only fills one page. Obviously you’ll have to make even more cuts, and this time from the main plot points, but agents requesting a one-page synopsis understand the limitations. Use a normal font size (12 is standard; you can get away with 11 for a synopsis) and a normal font style (there’s no point veering away from Times New Roman). Use normal margins and try your best to put some sort of spacing between lines (if double spacing is impossible and makes your synopsis six pages long, then adjust the settings accordingly). Include your name and the title of the manuscript at the top of the document, especially if you’re submitting your synopsis as a separate document.

Things to remember while writing and revising your synopsis:

Ignore most, if not all, subplots. You have to make cuts. Always focus on the main story arc and maybe add in one or two subplots if you have the room (you probably won’t).

Avoid adding description. Don’t over-analyze what’s going on in the story. Simply state the action as it happens. Leave the descriptive passages in the manuscript. Your synopsis is not the place to explain the themes of your novel.

Don’t ask questions. Your synopsis is not meant to hook the reader or involve the reader in the story. Stick to telling the story—don’t leave threads hanging.

What to Put In and What to Leave Out

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How to write a synopsis

  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

In the 19th century, a synopsis was a classroom exercise used for teaching traditional grammar but today, the accepted definition of a synopsis is a general overview of an article, essay, story, book, or other written work. In the field of publishing, a synopsis may serve as a proposal for an article or book. In feature writing and other forms of nonfiction, a synopsis may also refer to a concise summary of a polemic argument or event. You might also find a synopsis included in a review or report.

Fast Facts: Synopsis

Pronunciation: si-NOP-sis

Etymology From the Greek, “general view”

Plural: synopses

Adjective: synoptic

Synopsis vs. Outline

Some people use the terms outline and synopsis synonymously and they really are very similar. When it comes to fiction, however, the distinction is more clearcut. While each may contain similar information, a synopsis is an overview that summarizes the main plot points of the work, whereas an outline functions as a structural tool that breaks the plot down into its component parts.

If you think of it in terms of a novel, the synopsis would be similar to the book jacket copy that tells you who the characters are and what happens to them. It usually also gives readers a feeling for the tone, genre, and theme of the work. An outline would be more akin to a page of chapter listings (provided the author has titled the chapters rather than just numbering them) which functions as a map that leads the reader from the beginning of a literary journey to its final destination or denouement.

In addition to crucial information, a synopsis often includes a thematic statement. Again, thinking in terms of fiction, it would identify the genre and even subgenre, for example, a romance Western, a murder mystery, or a dystopic fantasy and would also reveal something of the tone of the work—whether dark or humorous, erotic or terrifying.

What to Include and What to Leave Out

Since a synopsis is a condensation of the original material, a writer must be sure to include the most important details so that the reader will be able to fully comprehend what the work is about. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to put in and what to leave out. Writing a summary requires critical thinking. You’re going to have to analyze the original material and decide what the most important information is.

A synopsis isn’t about style or details, it’s about supplying enough information for your audience to easily understand and categorize the work. A few brief examples might be permissible, but numerous examples, dialogues, or extensive quotations have no place in a synopsis. Do, however, keep your synopsis true to the plot and timeline of the original story.

Synopses for Non-Fiction Stories

The purpose of a synopsis for a work of nonfiction is to serve as a condensed version of an event, a controversy, a point of view, or background report. Your job as a writer is to include enough basic information so that a reader can easily identify what the story is about and understand its tone. While detailed information is important when telling the larger story, only the information crucial to comprehending the “who, what, when, where, and why” of an event, proposal, or argument is necessary for the synopsis.

Again, as with fiction, the tone and the eventual outcome of your story will also likely come into play in your summary. Choose your phrasing judiciously. Your goal is to use as a few words as possible to achieve maximum impact without leaving out so much information that your reader ends up confused.

How to write a synopsis

If you plan to publish a work of fiction or non-fiction, writing a synopsis that summarizes the scope of your manuscript is inevitable.

Consider the typical submission process : First you write a query letter to agents or editors, and hopefully someone requests sample chapters along with a synopsis. Usually only after this step will authors be asked to submit the full manuscript.

What is a synopsis?

Before we dive deep, let’s first define synopsis.

Simply put, a synopsis is a summary of your fiction or nonfiction project.

A synopsis will

  • have a beginning, middle and end
  • leave no plot questions unanswered
  • reflect the manuscript genre and tone
  • demonstrate your voice

That may seem like a lot to accomplish within a few pages, but you’re not reinventing the wheel, here.

What’s the purpose of a synopsis?

Agents and editors have certain expectations of what they’ll find in your project overview, so it’s best to stick with the tried and true elements that make up this standard document. Standard, yes, but never boring.

After all, the purpose of the synopsis is to wow your reader (aka: an agent or editor) and compel them to want to read more.

While you’re aiming for a certain wow factor to demonstrate the saleable nature of your must-read book, you really can’t leave anyone on the edge of their seats with unanswered questions and unresolved endings.

Instead, the synopsis should fully frame your story, include major turning points, and—yes— share the story conclusion . Agents need to see the full story in a nutshell, from beginning to end, and see there’s a satisfying and appropriate resolution for readers .

Agents and editors also use the synopsis to determine how well a writer tells a story, inclusive of voice and style .

In some ways, you may do well to approach writing the synopsis as though this were a mini story in its own right.

In a synopsis, you won’t have space to reveal every action or emotion, or the entire cast of characters. Instead, focus on your main characters, what motivates them throughout the storyline and what conflicts they face along the way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.

Is there a difference between writing a synopsis for fiction and nonfiction?

Writing a synopsis for fiction and nonfiction is fairly similar.

A novel synopsis is generally submitted along with the first few sample chapters, while a nonfiction synopsis is a necessary component of the overall nonfiction book proposal .

A nonfiction synopsis, or project overview, may be as short as a paragraph or may elaborate over a few pages.

Synopses for novels commonly range between one to three pages, though some genre editors may request a more detailed 10-15 page synopsis.

3 tips for writing an effective synopsis

Ready to write your synopsis? Follow these tips.

1. Know your market

In an interview with Writer’s Digest , Michael Larsen—literary agent and author of “ How to Write a Book Proposal ”—urges writers to be “an expert of the kind of book you’re writing.”

This advice not only applies to recognizing the length of a synopsis, but also the content scope.

Most writers find writing the synopsis that much easier once the manuscript is fully drafted. Only then can you fully know the story inside and out and be able to present your cast of characters and the story arc in a succinct, compelling manner.

2. Brevity is your friend

Renowned publishing consultant Jane Friedman suggests crafting one single-spaced page “as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer.”

If you can focus your story down to one page, you’ll be able to adapt to alternative requests and add detail as necessary.

You’ll also be that much closer to understanding the key ingredients for an elevator pitch , a brief paragraph synopsis used when querying agents , pitching at conference one-on-ones, and in general conversation with industry pros .

If you can frame your book into a few clear engaging sentences, you’re demonstrating you have a hook, know your audience, and are prepared to market to readers.

3. The synopsis is about craft

So what do you include in a synopsis and what should you leave out?

  • Keep it simple and keep it focused.
  • Introduce your main characters and their role in the story.
  • Bring their world to life and share critical turning points.
  • Include how your characters evolve, for better or worse, throughout the story.
  • Reveal how the story ends, always.

Essentially, you’ll address the who, what, why, and how of your story. Those ingredients should provide a basic story arc to frame your synopsis.

Your overall goal is to make the agent or editor care about your story, and to compel them to want to read the manuscript start to finish.

A strong synopsis will help you get published

As you finetune the synopsis, you’ll likely learn a few things about your own project: You’ll more clearly define pivotal points for your characters. You’ll strengthen your ability to succinctly talk about your project in person . And you’ll perhaps see themes and connections within your story you hadn’t fully appreciated until you zeroed in on the story arc in this way.

While the synopsis is truly about craft, and presenting your story to an agent or editor, keep in mind your future editor will have to go to bat for you at editorial meetings.

Your synopsis is often part of the presentation materials, used to convince an editorial board of your story’s merit. For that reason, it’s in your best interest to take your time, but give it all you’ve got.

About the Author: Lori A. May

Lori A. May is the author of “The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life” (Bloomsbury). She teaches in the MFA program at the University of King’s College-Halifax.

What to Put In and What to Leave Out

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How to write a synopsis

  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

In the 19th century, a synopsis was a classroom exercise used for teaching traditional grammar but today, the accepted definition of a synopsis is a general overview of an article, essay, story, book, or other written work. In the field of publishing, a synopsis may serve as a proposal for an article or book. In feature writing and other forms of nonfiction, a synopsis may also refer to a concise summary of a polemic argument or event. You might also find a synopsis included in a review or report.

Fast Facts: Synopsis

Pronunciation: si-NOP-sis

Etymology From the Greek, “general view”

Plural: synopses

Adjective: synoptic

Synopsis vs. Outline

Some people use the terms outline and synopsis synonymously and they really are very similar. When it comes to fiction, however, the distinction is more clearcut. While each may contain similar information, a synopsis is an overview that summarizes the main plot points of the work, whereas an outline functions as a structural tool that breaks the plot down into its component parts.

If you think of it in terms of a novel, the synopsis would be similar to the book jacket copy that tells you who the characters are and what happens to them. It usually also gives readers a feeling for the tone, genre, and theme of the work. An outline would be more akin to a page of chapter listings (provided the author has titled the chapters rather than just numbering them) which functions as a map that leads the reader from the beginning of a literary journey to its final destination or denouement.

In addition to crucial information, a synopsis often includes a thematic statement. Again, thinking in terms of fiction, it would identify the genre and even subgenre, for example, a romance Western, a murder mystery, or a dystopic fantasy and would also reveal something of the tone of the work—whether dark or humorous, erotic or terrifying.

What to Include and What to Leave Out

Since a synopsis is a condensation of the original material, a writer must be sure to include the most important details so that the reader will be able to fully comprehend what the work is about. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to put in and what to leave out. Writing a summary requires critical thinking. You’re going to have to analyze the original material and decide what the most important information is.

A synopsis isn’t about style or details, it’s about supplying enough information for your audience to easily understand and categorize the work. A few brief examples might be permissible, but numerous examples, dialogues, or extensive quotations have no place in a synopsis. Do, however, keep your synopsis true to the plot and timeline of the original story.

Synopses for Non-Fiction Stories

The purpose of a synopsis for a work of nonfiction is to serve as a condensed version of an event, a controversy, a point of view, or background report. Your job as a writer is to include enough basic information so that a reader can easily identify what the story is about and understand its tone. While detailed information is important when telling the larger story, only the information crucial to comprehending the “who, what, when, where, and why” of an event, proposal, or argument is necessary for the synopsis.

Again, as with fiction, the tone and the eventual outcome of your story will also likely come into play in your summary. Choose your phrasing judiciously. Your goal is to use as a few words as possible to achieve maximum impact without leaving out so much information that your reader ends up confused.

In my last post, I mentioned that I gave my query letter, the first pages of my manuscript and a synopsis to an agent as part of a Writer’s Digest Boot Camp. Of the three, my synopsis was the most successful. The agent had zero comments and she said it was the best she read in the Boot Camp!

How did I do it? By getting tips from blogs like The Write Practice (it’s true!).

How to write a synopsis

What is a Synopsis?*

A synopsis is a summary of your manuscript. That’s it. You get a chance to answer the question “what’s your novel about?” in one single-spaced page in an omniscient narrative voice. Usually it is required in the query process (along with a query letter and sample pages).

One tip that took off a lot of pressure for me is that the function of a synopsis is primarily practical. The synopsis is not about voice and beautifully-crafted prose—its purpose is to let the agent know what happens.

Use the Snowflake Method to Write Your Synopsis

Of all the steps in the writing/query process, I felt the most prepared to write a synopsis. Why?

There are many ways to organize your novel, but I used the Snowflake Method, where you start by describing your novel in one sentence, then expand it to a paragraph, then to a page. The final step before sitting down and writing is creating a scene list.

This approach gave me a clear view of the big picture throughout the entire writing and editing process. I first wrote those sentences and paragraphs years ago and they still sum up my novel. While the page/synopsis isn’t quite as accurate, the major plot points are certainly there.

If you’re still in the writing phase of your novel, I definitely suggest taking a break to write a draft synopsis—I think it’ll make the writing and pitching process a lot easier down the line.

Tell Your Story (Out Loud)

Tell your story and record it. Imagine you’re explaining it to a friend who’s willing to listen for more than two minutes.

My guess is that you’re going to do the following: 1) focus on what’s most important 2) omit flowery language and 3) share the plot with enthusiasm.

This is all you have to do to write a good synopsis! Just make sure you remember to reveal the end.

*Synopses are relevant to many different writing projects, but this post is focused on fiction.
Have you written a synopsis? What tips helped you? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

What’s your novel (or other writing project) about? Take fifteen minutes to tell us in one paragraph (i.e. write a synopsis!).

When your synopsis is complete, share it in the comments section for feedback.