What the heck is a synopsis and why do I need one anyway?

Okay. Brass tacks time. A synopsis is a detailed (but not TOO detailed) summary of your plot – usually between one and three pages long, or 500-800 words. (Unless otherwise specified, it’s best to keep a synopsis under 1,000 words.)

Essentially, it’s there to provide an agent with an overall summary of your plot, from start to finish so they can assess how well you’ve pulled off the story. A synopsis should feature all your major characters, the main events of the story, and give an agent an idea of your novel’s central themes, conflict, tone – oh, and THE RESOLUTION. Yes, you should give away the ending in your synopsis. This ain’t a movie trailer cliff-hanger situation – an agent needs to see that you can finish your book with a satisfying ending, and all the major threads of your story tie up at the finish line.

Now, some agents don’t really care for synopses and only really use them as a reference tool if they’re uncertain about something in your query/opening chapters, while others rely heavily on the synopsis to determine whether it’s even worth reading your sample pages. In either case, it’s important for you to provide them with a concise, snappy, well-written synop for them to peruse at their leisure. Think of it as the third prong in your trident of manuscript submission…

First an agent scans over your query letter and thinks, “hmm, nice idea, let’s see how well it’s executed…” Next, they might turn to your synopsis to get a more detailed idea of the plot, then move onto the sample pages if they like the premise. Alternatively, they might go straight to your opening chapter and refer back to the synopsis if they have questions or concerns.

Here’s real life (and lovely) lit agent Samar Hammam talking about the synopsis as a valuable tool for both writer and agent:

As Samar says, the synopsis is just another tool to help an agent get to grips with your plot. And whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, synopses are an integral part of getting an agent totally sold on your book – hook, line and sinker.

But why is a synopsis such a bastard to write?

Okay, let’s not perpetuate that myth, for one thing. Writing a synopsis needn’t be a total ballache. It CAN be a fairly straightforward process, and contrary to popular belief there ARE ways to make them not suck. The good news is there really are no hard and fast rules for how a synopsis ought to be structured – which means that you can play a bit with form and make it fit your story, instead of the other way around.

So why do writers hate synopses? Well, most people tend to struggle in one of the following three ways:

Problem #1: When you’re not sure what your story is actually about

This is… actually a genuine problem. If your story doesn’t demonstrate obvious plot development (character starts at point A, negotiates through some struggles via points B to Y and emerges victorious/battle-scarred/forever altered at point Z) then your synopsis is not the issue. It’s your book (sorry!). If you genuinely can’t get your synopsis to work, maybe it’s time to take another look at your story to make sure your plot develops the way it should.

The point is, a synopsis should show an agent that you can handle the logistics of plotting a great story from start to finish. If your novel has no discernible ‘shape’ and waffles around the same circular points for 70,000 words then you’re likely looking at a string of rejections. Make your book work. Then make your synopsis work.

[NOTE: If you’re thinking I’m being unnecessarily harsh here, it’s only because I learned from bitter experience that it is damn good advice. Once up on a time, I’d got to what I thought was the submission stage and spent a couple of months agonising over my query and synopsis, impatient to get my manuscript sent out. But I never got to the sending-out point. Instead, I kept getting stumped by the fact that my summaries sounded much more interesting than my actual book. Uhhh yeah. Not such a good feeling. And after much angst and tearing of hair, I finally realised that my plot needed a COMPLETE overhaul and ended up rewriting the whole damn thing. I’m not gonna lie and say I enjoyed the process, but guess what? Next time I sent it out, I landed a publishing contract.]

Problem #2: When you try to cram too much damn story into your synopsis

Take a step back there, dude. Your synopsis needn’t be a blow-by-blow account of every moment in your novel. We don’t need to know what colour your protagonist’s trousers are, or the minute details of every dream sequence and flashback. A synopsis should focus on the major significant plot points of your story and show the overall development of your central character and their journey.

Don’t be afraid to leave out some characters/details/subplots/events if you start getting bogged down – stick to the main plotline and only add extra information if it helps the reader to fully understand the story.

Be succinct. Get to the good stuff and keep the reader engaged. As secret lit agent Miss Snark (now sadly retired from blogging) once said: “Look at each word and see if there is a leaner, more kick ass word, a word with energy and vitality, you can use in its place.”

#3: When your synopsis sounds drier than the arse-end of the Sahara

Sometimes a synopsis ends up sounding more like a list: “So there’s this character, and they do this, and then they do this, and then this happens, and then they go there, and they do this. And then. And then. And ughhhhhhhh staaahp.”

Image of a painting of a woman sitting at a reading desk laying her head wearily on an open book with the caption: uggggggh.

Look, we get it. It can be difficult to jump from writing fiction to writing a synopsis – they’re very different beasts. When you’re forced to strip down your story into a summary, your plot is suddenly exposed in stark relief and it sometimes feels as if you’ve lost all the nuances and details that give it life and depth. It’s all too easy to focus so much on setting down the essential elements of your book that you forget that you’ve actually written something unique and creative and exciting. But adding in a bit of narrative voice, tension and atmosphere can elevate a dull as dirt synopsis into a summary that makes an agent go: “Hot damn, I have to read this story.”

Let’s say you just saw an amazing film or read an amazing book, and you can’t wait to tell your best mate about it in fine detail. You don’t tell them about every single camera angle or each line of dialogue – you zone in on the BIG stuff, the really important moments that make up the overall story, link-by-link. Each point of your synopsis should flow smoothly on to the next, while giving a sense of the tone and style of the book along the way.

In fact, a very good way to practice is to take a book or film that you know inside out and try writing out a one-page synopsis for it. What do you leave out? What do you leave in? How do you get across the atmosphere of the story?

“If you were to write a single-page summary about Gone with the Wind, you wouldn’t begin it with Scarlett entertaining the young men at the picnic at Twelve Oaks—you don’t have time to cover individual actions. Think in terms of meaningful events rather than common actions. Teach yourself how to look at the big picture of your own stories.”

The Editor’s Blog

Okay. Enough problems and naysayers. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty and learn how to do this thing like a PRO…

Want to be a better writer?

Or just to laugh at bum jokes? Either way, you need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.