A synopsis is a summary of the major events of a novel. It retells the story in a condensed form so that a reader can get the gist of the book without having to read the whole thing.
If you plan to query your novel you’d best prepare a synopsis along with your query letter and manuscript. Some agents ask for synopses in the initial email, some want it later, some will only use it when submitting to editors. An editor may use it to bring others on their team up to speed with the content of the book. You may even be able to use a synopsis to sell an unwritten book (assuming you’ve already proven you can write a novel). But at some stage, someone’s going to want that synopsis.
As you work on your synopsis you may learn some things about your book itself. Some people like to write the synopsis before the manuscript. Some people learn that their manuscript is missing something after working through the needs of a synopsis. Think of the synopsis as a diagnostic tool for the writer, and a selling tool for agents and editors.
A synopsis should be fairly short—the point is not to retell your entire novel. Lengths can range from one page, single-spaced, to five or more pages, double-spaced. There is no formal upper limit, but if you hit 10 you need to do some serious paring down. Most agents will ask for a shorter document, but some won’t mind a long one. You have to read their submission guidelines carefully to be sure. (If you’re submitting for a Monster Worksheet Critique I ask for a two-page synopsis.) When preparing to query, I like to write a one page, single-spaced synopsis.
Write in third-person, present tense (“Nguyen walks to the store”) no matter what POV or tense you wrote the book in. This is standard when discussing literary works, because the book can be picked up and read by anyone at any time, and the story is currently happening for that reader.
Name as few characters as you can, no more than five. Your protagonist(s) should be named, and the antagonist and love interest are good candidates for naming as well. For clarity, uppercase the first mention of each named character (“RAUL walks to the store with TODD and Mom”). Everyone else should be described by their relationship to the protagonist or their role. The protagonist’s brother, the burly firefighter, the old woman with the important silver necklace.
You should also designate who the POV character(s) are, by naming them and including “(POV)” after their name on the first mention: “ABBY (POV) runs toward Arjun.”
Unlike a query letter, a synopsis always includes the end of the novel. It’s Spoiler City in a synopsis. Why? Because it’s a document agents and editors use to get a sense for how well you’ve structured the story. They want to know that you have a strong resolution in place.
- 1 single-spaced page, up to 5 double-spaced pages. (Less is more!)
- Third person, present tense.
- Name up to five characters.
- Uppercase named characters on first mention.
- Indicate POV Character.
- Include the ending.
The Tough Part
The tough part is deciding what to include and what to cut. You cannot fit everything, so you have to prioritize the main storyline. Subplots that don’t have a clear impact on the main plot (like intersecting at a crucial moment) should probably be left out.
If you haven’t yet, now is a good time to make a list of all the major points that happen in the book (the Monster Worksheet is a good tool for this). Go chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene and list every important change in the story.
Next to each list item, make notes: is this the main plot or a subplot? Ask yourself, if this point were cut from the book would a reader still be able to understand the gist of the story?
Cross out anything that isn’t crucial to the main plot.
Keep your list close and open a fresh document for your synopsis. Rewrite your list as paragraphs.
The First Paragraph
Your first paragraph has extra work to do, because it also has to set the scene and provide some context—basically, if it’s important enough for your first chapter, it probably has a home in the first paragraph of your synopsis. This doesn’t mean going overboard or getting really descriptive. It means writing concisely, communicating the concepts in as few words as possible.
This is not the place for backstory. Backstory should be as minimal as you can get away with. The synopsis is concerned with the story of your novel, not the history that came before it.
HARRY POTTER (POV) is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs by his cruel aunt and uncle. They never acknowledge Harry’s birthday, so they don’t understand why a letter arrives for him when he turns eleven, and they throw it away. But another arrives, and another. Each time Harry tries to keep them from throwing the letters away, and each time more arrive in their place. The family tries fleeing, only to be tracked own by a large gamekeeper bearing a letter. It says that Harry is a wizard.
This example covers the events through chapter 4 (they’re pretty short chapters and it’s a short book). The paragraph gives us just enough information about Harry’s circumstances—he lives with his mean relatives.
Note that Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon and Hagrid aren’t named, and Harry’s cousin Dudley is never mentioned. The incident with the snake isn’t mentioned in this example because, although it’s significant, it’s not a major plot point in the first book. It has implications for later in the series, but we’re dealing with Book 1. We simply don’t have time in a short synopsis to include everything.
Make sure your beginning lays out what your protagonist wants, and what’s at stake. The above example doesn’t really do that. It implies that what Harry wants is his letter, but what Harry really wants is familial love and/or to escape the Dursleys.
HARRY POTTER (POV) is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs by his cruel aunt and uncle, keeping him isolated and unloved. They never acknowledge Harry’s birthday, so they don’t understand why a letter arrives for him when he turns eleven, and they throw it away. But another arrives, and another. Each time Harry tries to keep them from throwing the letters away, hopeful that someone cares about him, and each time more arrive in their place. The family tries fleeing, only to be tracked own by a large gamekeeper bearing a letter. It says that Harry is a wizard.
From there you want to briefly but succinctly tell your story. Keep asking yourself if a given element is needed to have a satisfying conclusion.
Subplots make your manuscript richer, but they probably aren’t needed in your synopsis. You can include a portion of a subplot where it impacts the main plot.
In the first Harry Potter book the students get lessons from a centaur on Divination. Firenze, their teacher, rescues Harry from an encounter with Quirrell in the woods where they see a figure drinking the blood of a unicorn, and Harry’s scar itches. These are clues about who and what is causing trouble at Hogwarts, but they’re not vital to solving the mystery. If you’re writing a short synopsis you could safely leave out something like this. If you have space, you could include only the facts that Harry witnesses someone drinking unicorn blood in the woods and his scar itches, without mentioning Firenze’s teaching or rescue.
Your last paragraph should give away the ending. Yes, all of it. The synopsis’ goal is to prove to an agent or editor that you know how to tell a satisfying story. Keyword: satisfying. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but your reader must feel like they have resolution.
Take a moment to think about the ending of your story. What message or moral does it imply? What’s the argument the book makes? Something like, “Found family can be more valuable than blood relations” or “love conquers all” or “everyone has a secret you can’t see”. Look over your middle for all the pieces that make that argument.
We can rewrite the synopsis ending for HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S/PHILOSOPHER’S STONE depending on the argument we believe the book makes. Family is a major theme, as is courage.
Family: Harry finds Professor Quirrell searching for the stone. Quirrell reveals the face of Voldemort is embedded in the back of his skull. Voldemort taunts Harry about the death of his parents. Harry is furious, the image of his parents fresh in his mind, and calls Voldemort a liar. When they touch pain lances through Harry and Quirrell, and Harry passes out.
Courage: Harry finds Professor Quirrell searching for the stone. Quirrell reveals the face of Voldemort is embedded in the back of his skull. Voldemort taunts Harry about the death of his parents. Harry is terrified but finds the courage to call Voldemort a liar. When they touch pain lances through Harry and Quirrell, and Harry passes out.
Note that these examples have the same facts, but tell them slightly differently to emphasize different themes.
Tips & Tricks
If you’re trying to get your synopsis to fit within a certain space, say two pages, look at where your paragraphs end. If a paragraph’s last line extends all the way across the page to the right margin you’re going to have to find a way to remove all those words to eliminate a line. If the last line is short, you only have to take out a few words to get that line to disappear.
A synopsis is all about making decisions of what to keep and what to leave out. Try multiple versions if you need to. Ask a friend who hasn’t read your manuscript to read the synopsis and tell the story back to you. If what they say matches your intentions for the book, you’re on the right track.
Here are some more links with great info about writing your synopsis. Some parameters may conflict, and that’s because the synopsis is an art, not a science. Take your best shot and have beta readers.
Novel going nowhere?Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there's a scaffolding for how your novel should be built--that's what makes it a novel.
The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.