A Pocket Guide to Writing a Synopsis

Pocket Guides

Spread the Word runs a great deal of feedback opportunities for writers, many of which ask for a synopsis to be submitted with the writing itself. We often get a lot of questions on how to write a good synopsis and Spread the Word’s Aliya Gulamani has devised this guide to help you to create the best one to showcase your writing.

Let’s start with WHAT a synopsis is. Put simply, a synopsis is a narrative summary of the plot. Its aim is to give the reader an understanding of your novel’s plot and how it will unfold. That’s really all there is it to it!

And so, let’s move on to WHO the synopsis is for. Primarily it’s for agents and editors to see if your novel fits into their market. Additionally, writing a synopsis is a really useful activity for writers to do to break down their novel and the sum of all its parts. So, if you’re experiencing a bit of writer’s block or struggle to describe your motivations to others, writing a synopsis may very well help you.

Now, we’re looking at WHY synopses are so important. The clue is above – it enables agents and editors to make a decision as to whether they want to represent your book. It is also a tool for them to see what happens in the book without reading it. Often synopses are submitted with the first three chapters, which collectively give agents an insight into the overall package of your book: its style, themes, plot and genre.

The biggest question of all though is HOW to write a synopsis. If the agency or opportunity you’re submitting your synopsis to doesn’t specify how it would like documents to be formatted – these are our suggestions. Write the synopsis in a standard format and 12 point font. Use an eye-friendly font such as Times New Roman or Arial – if it’s too difficult to read, there’s a very good chance it won’t be read. The synopsis should include the title, word count, genre and your name at the top of the page. Ideally the synopsis should fit on one page. Stylistically, your synopsis should be written in present tense and told from a (third person) omniscient narrator’s point of view.

Start your synopsis by setting the scene and introducing the main character(s). This is the point where you should hook the reader – often by outlining the character’s motivations and / or key conflicts. You can then move onto the development of your plot in its chronological order: the inciting action, the rising action, the climax and finally the ending, emphasising pivotal developments and their impact on the main character(s). The conclusion of the novel must be in your synopsis. Forget the no-spoilers rule – it is essential that you convey how the novel ends.

The main problem we tend to see is over-complicated synopses that describe every single plot development and all the characters in the book. This – alongside the need to explain the novel – is hugely off-putting for agents and editors, no matter how great the book is. Be mindful of this – get rid of any subordinate clauses, seek out test readers and try our exercises below to get your synopsis as good as it can be.

For YA writers when introducing your characters, do include their ages too. For Narrative Non-Fiction writers, your title is key. Essentially, it acts as the synopsis of the synopsis! Do take care to convey what angle you are coming from, and include any relevant qualifications / credentials. And finally, if you write sci-fi, experimental, historical or dystopian fiction, make it clear in the synopsis if there is magic in your book or anything unusual, but don’t wax lyrical about the rules and environment about the different world your story is in.

If you’re still feeling a bit stuck, then try out these TOP TIPS:

  • If you find it hard summarising your story, then try doing it a different way: go the smallest you can go by summing up your story in one sentence. Then stretch it out to include the main character(s) motivations, conflicts, key plot developments, and you should be onto a good start.

  • On a piece of paper, create 10 lines. In the first line, write a description of the opening of your story and in the bottom line, the same again, but for the ending. In between you have eight sentences to write the novel’s major events…

  • It’s very easy to get synopses confused with covering letters and blurbs – make sure you know the difference by writing these too. The covering letter is essentially the letter to the agent / editor that you want to represent you. Within it, you need to include why you’re reaching out to this agency, the blurb of your book, why you’ve written this book, and what experience you have as a writer / or other experience directly relevant to the book. The blurb conveys the hook of the novel and is very specific. It is active and will often end with a question or a cliff-hanger to entice the reader.

  • Read, read, read! Check out other synopses – reach out to the writing community for examples and how they’ve done it. This is especially useful if you’re writing in different genres from standard fiction. Here are some great examples that we’ve found online:
    Jericho writers:
    https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/
    Scribendi:
    https://www.scribendi.com/advice/synopsis_example.en.html
    Publishing Crawl: http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/04/17/how-to-write-a-1-page-synopsis/

  • And finally, each agency / editing agency will have their own rules for formatting. Make sure you follow these and if you’re not sure – then ask!

Published 16 January 2020