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How to write a great book synopsis

what is a synopsis for a novel

1. What is a book synopsis?

2. What is the purpose of a synopsis?

3. What’s the difference between a plot summary and a synopsis?

4. How long should a book synopsis be?

5. What should a book synopsis include?

6. What tense should a book synopsis be written in?

7. What is the format of a synopsis?

8. How to write a book synopsis

9. Submitting your synopsis

10. Advice from a published writer

➡️  A synopsis is important even if you’re self-publishing. Your synopsis allows you to see problems with your plot and characters - so you can fix them in your novel before it hits the market.

➡️  A book synopsis should be between 500 and 800 words. This works out at approximately 1 single-spaced page in a standard 12pt font.

➡️  Your synopsis should include 5 key elements. This includes the premise, a main plot and subplot overview, your main characters, and an implicit outline of the appeal of your book.

Writing a book synopsis is notoriously tricky for authors. Synopsis writing is generally much drier and less creative than novel writing - and it’s never going to be easy to condense a 90,000 word novel into 500 words. That’s why it’s important to understand how to write a book synopsis that’s concise, compelling, and follows convention.

Nearly all editors, agents, and publishers request a synopsis for your book when you submit your work to them. Self-published authors can also benefit from writing a novel synopsis - it helps you spot plot holes, structural issues, and undeveloped characters, and will also help you identify the key selling points of your book for your marketing campaign.

Use this guide to writing a book synopsis to help you plan, structure, and write a great book summary.

What is a book synopsis?

A book synopsis is essentially a summary of your novel from start to finish. It includes an outline of the main plot, your primary characters, any subplots and plot twists, and what happens at the end.

Many new authors balk at giving away their carefully crafted ending, but there’s no need to worry - your book synopsis isn’t going to be published. After all, it’s not exactly in agents’ or publishers’ interests to spoil the ending of a book for readers. Instead, they’ll read your synopsis to help decide whether they think your book will sell - and whether to represent you as an author.

What is the purpose of a synopsis?

For authors pursuing traditional publishing, the purpose of your book synopsis is to sell your novel to an agent or publisher. Before they request your full manuscript, they want to know exactly what happens in your book - which is where your novel synopsis comes in.

If you’re planning on self-publishing your book , your synopsis is a tool for laying out the saleability and structure of your novel. By writing a synopsis, you can see which plot points are unwieldy, and which characters are underdeveloped - meaning you can fix these things in your novel before it hits the market. Attending writer's conferences could also be another way to improve your skills and learn how to write a compelling synopsis.

What’s the difference between a plot summary and a synopsis?

There’s a lot of literary jargon around book summaries, which can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what you need to write in your synopsis. Here’s a rundown of the different types of book summary, and what each one should include:

Each of these is a different type of plot summary, with a different function in the publication of your book.

How long should a book synopsis be?

It’s generally agreed that a book synopsis should be between 500 and 800 words. This works out at approximately 1 single-spaced page in a standard 12pt font.

Many agents will have specific guidelines that you need to follow in terms of synopsis word count, so make sure you tailor your submission for each agent. This could mean you need a synopsis that’s 500 words, and one that’s 700 words. The extra work will pay off - you’re way more likely to get a response from an agent if you’ve read and met their submission requirements.

What should a book synopsis include?

There are 5 key elements that every book synopsis should include:

1. The premise of your book

Your book’s premise often comprises your overarching theme, setting, and conflict, forming a great hook that’s sure to keep readers engaged.

2. A direct overview of the main plot

Go back to basics here. Ensure you’ve shown that your plot has all the key story elements in your novel synopsis, including an inciting incident, a climax, and a satisfying ending.

3. An introduction to your main characters

Make the reader care about the characters they’ll follow through your book by offering compelling character motivations.

4. An outline of your major subplots

Your subplots probably converge with the main plot at some point, so it makes sense to include them in your book synopsis.

5. An implicit understanding of the appeal of your book

Synopses are notoriously dry - but if you care about your story, this should shine through in your book summary. Show the reader why others will care about your book, too.

What tense should a book synopsis be written in?

Your book synopsis should be written in the present tense and the third person - even if your book isn’t. This automatically helps you write your synopsis in an appropriate, professional tone, without hyperbole or bias.

What is the format of a synopsis?

As well as using a standard tense and perspective, most synopses follow a similar format. Here’s how you should structure your novel synopsis.

1. The premise

The premise is similar to your elevator pitch - the key piece of intrigue that makes the reader want to find out more. This opening line from the synopsis of Michelle Zink’s Prophecy Of The Sisters includes a fascinating hook: ‍

Sixteen-year-old Lia Milthorpe’s life is in danger from the person she loves most – her twin sister. ‍

Zink manages to introduce the main characters, a sense of peril, and a key area of conflict in a single line. It’s a great way to open the synopsis.

2. The plot

Don’t dilly-dally - when you’ve set the premise, follow it up by diving straight into the plot of your book. This will form the bulk of your word count. You can find out how to write an expert plot summary below. In the meantime, take a look at this extract from J.K. Rowling’s synopsis for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone .

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash - or so he has always been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).
The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. ‍

Rowling splits her paragraphs into plot points. The first paragraph outlines the status quo - Harry’s unhappy home life - while the second goes on to state the inciting incident: Harry’s invitation to attend Hogwarts. Structuring your synopsis in this way is a great tactic for ensuring you don’t stray too far from the main arc of your story.

3. The ending

Spell out exactly what happens at the end of your book - your synopsis is no place for a cliffhanger. If you’ve chosen to leave your book open-ended, make sure this is reflected in your synopsis.

Here’s an example of a synopsis ending for Cinderella , written by literary agent Janet Reid. ‍

The heartbroken prince travels the kingdom to determine which lady fits the glass slipper. Her stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic but her mouse friends help her escape. The glass slipper fits her, and Cinderella and the prince live happily ever after. ‍

Reid largely removes the sense of anguish, fear, and ultimate relief that comes with the climax and resolution of Cinderella . Synopses are often deadpan and unemotive, so don’t be afraid to be forthright about the ending of your story.

How to write a book synopsis

It’s time to get writing. Follow these steps on how to write a book synopsis to write a succinct, professional summary of your novel.

1. Write a single sentence for each major plot point

If you started your book with an outline, this will come in handy here. Using the following prompts, write one sentence for each of these points in your book:

Some writers swear by marking the timeline of the story or mapping out the events to help them stay on track. Try to keep your word count below 300 words. This gives you leeway to fill in any extra detail later.

2. Check on your characters

You’ve probably introduced all the characters you need to include in your synopsis in the 5 sentences you just wrote. That said, you may not have given enough detail about their motives or personalities to make your story sing.

Note down any crucial character points you need to include in your synopsis, but be frugal with the detail. Extraneous backstories are a waste of words in your synopsis, so be careful not to let your personal connection with your characters get the better of you here. You should only include information that’s relevant to the plot.

3. Join the dots

Now you have a strong idea of the key plot points and character motivations you need to include, it’s time to craft the synopsis.

Build up your outline into a synopsis by filling in the gaps that will help the reader make the leap from one plot point to the next. If your story is solid, it will more or less tell itself at this stage - your job is to make it sound compelling. Don’t worry if your first draft is too long or a little messy.

4. Come back to it later

You wouldn’t submit your first draft of your novel to an agent - so you shouldn’t submit your synopsis first draft, either. Let it sit for a few days so you can get some distance from your work. When you come back to it, read it with a critical eye. Check it explores each of the elements in the section on what to include in your synopsis above. Perhaps most importantly, check it meets the word count and formatting requirements set by the agent.

Submitting your synopsis

Now you know how to write a book synopsis, you can start submitting your synopsis and query letter to agents. Before you hit send, double check the requirements from each agent to check you’re sending them what they want to see. You’re sure to increase your response rates - and maybe even receive a couple of manuscript requests. While you're at it, you should also start thinking about your author bio too!

Alternatively, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, check out our advice for self-published authors . You’ll find tons of useful guides for writing and marketing your new novel.

Advice from a published writer

Alex Fisher , "Seadogs and Criminals"

Like the author bio, keep it short and sweet. It’s basically an invitation into your book. Describe the essential points and direction of the story without giving too much away. Introduce the main character, the plot, the motive/goal and finish with a question (if that works) and that’s all you need.

Dangle the story in front of the potential reader with enough information to grip them and ignite their curiosity, hook them in and make them want to know what this is all about, make them want to read on, without waffling. Too much information and you’ve lost them; the reader is smart and wants to discover the story for themselves in their own way. Keep it snappy, between 100 to 200 words. Be lethal.

Drop us a message, we'll be happy to help.

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How To Write A Novel Synopsis (With An Example)

Publishing industry ,

How to write a novel synopsis (with an example).

Harry Bingham

By Harry Bingham

Including a template for you to follow and a working example

When you approach literary agents, you will need to present them with a submission package that includes a query letter, a sample of your manuscript and, of course, a synopsis. If you’re asking yourself how to write the synopsis, you should know it will need to look professional – that is, it wants to follow a proper synopsis format – and it needs to do its job, of convincing a literary agent that your story sounds exciting.

That’s not actually hard to achieve, and this post will tell you exactly how to write a novel synopsis. We’ll reveal the two huge tricks that make your life easy as a synopsis writer…and give you an example of a novel synopsis too, so you can understand exactly how to put the rules into practice.

Sounds good? Let’s jump right in.

How To Write A Novel Synopsis

What is the synopsis? A synopsis is a 500-800 word summary of your book that forms part of your agent submission pack. It should outline your plot in neutral non-salesy language and demonstrate a clear narrative arc. Every character, any big turning point or climactic scene, and all plot twists should get a mention. But lets go into the definition in more detail.

Definition: What Is A Synopsis?

A synopsis is:

From this definition, it also follows that:

In fact, a book synopsis is what you think it is. A 500-word long spoiler for your entire novel. Every major plot twist. Every major character. Any big turning point. Your big climactic scenes. They’re all there, briefly, succinctly and (yes) a little drily narrated.

Oh yes: and some good news –

If you can write a novel, then you can definitely write a synopsis. Writing a synopsis is a lot, lot easier than writing a whole damn novel, so don’t stress. You should be able to put together your synopsis in a morning – and still have time for a stroll before lunch.


Purpose: What Is A Synopsis for?

I just said that a book synopsis is kinda dry – and it is. In fact, I doubt if anyone has ever enjoyed reading one. It’s just not that entertaining.

So if it’s not for fun – why have it? What is the synopsis of a book for, and why do almost all literary agents ask for one?

OK, so this is how it works:

Most literary agents will look at your covering letter first, then turn to the manuscript. If they like the first three chapters, they’ll be thinking, “This looks great, but is it going to hold interest? Is it worth making that investment of time to read it all?”

That’s where the synopsis comes in.

Your synopsis is there to outline your plot and to demonstrate a clear story arc, a satisfying ending.  It’s your tool to make someone read on .

That’s why your synopsis needs to:

If your synopsis achieves all that – and your  query letter  and manuscript sample is up to scratch – the agent will ask you for the full manuscript. They can’t not. You’ve got them hooked.

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Synopsis: Length, Tone, Format

The format of a wonderful synopsis has the following ingredients:

Your synopsis should be about 500 words (but check agency requirements – they can be quite variable). There’s a lot of advice around suggesting that your synopsis should run to no more than one page. We think that’s on the low side. Most good synopses we see run to two nicely formatted pages (ie: reasonable line spacing, normal margins and a sensible font.)

Be business-like; clear, to the point, neutral. In particular, it’s fine to  tell  not  show : this is a business document, not the novel itself.


Be well-presented with no typos or spelling mistakes. Use normal fonts, normal margins, and line spacing no narrower than 1.5. It’s fine if your synopsis runs to two pages, but (unless an agent specifically asks for more), don’t run to more than that.

Character Names

Put the names of main characters in  bold  or CAPS when you first introduce them. That makes the synopsis easier to navigate.

Character Thumbnails

As well as highlighting your characters names, you should give a swift resume of who they are, on first introduction. So for example: “ James Bond , (38), a British agent – handsome, cruel, seductive, and high-living – …”. Note that you can insert age in brackets without having to say your protagonist “is thirty-eight years old.” Save that word count!

Extra Points

If you have a compelling way to ‘sell’ your story in 2-3 lines maximum, you could insert that little snippet up at the top of your synopsis.

Third Person Presentation

Even if your novel is narrated in the first person, your synopsis should be written in the third person. So (to pick one of my own first person detective novels for example), I wouldn’t write “I am a police constable in South Wales …”, but rather, “Fiona Griffiths is a police constable, based in South Wales…” You can instantly see how much more professional the third person sounds to the reader, right?

Please don’t call your file  synopsis.doc . That works fine for you on your computer – but the agent probably has 100 files from writers with that exact filename. So help the agent out. Your file should be in the format title-synopsis. So:  farewell-to-arms-synopsis.doc , for example.

And once again: tell the story. Your job is not to sell the book, write the blurb, or anything else, just say what happens in the story.


How To Write A Synopsis For Your Novel

There are two big tricks in getting your synopsis right.

Trick The First

Don’t take your massive 100,000 word manuscript and try to figure out how to cram all its rich complexity into a 500 word precis.

It can’t be done. You’ll go crazy. Your synopsis will be terrible.

Instead of going from your manuscript and boiling it down,  you need to go from your structure and build up .

That’s the trick. It works every time and it’s awesome. What’s your structure? It’s this:

Without looking at your manuscript, sketch out your plot using those headings in about 300 words. The ‘developments’ section obviously represents the largest portion of your novel, but it may not amount to more than 40-50% of your total word count here.

That’s fine . Missing out excessive detail is exactly the point.  It’s precisely what you’re trying to do. So do it, and don’t fret.

Equally: don’t get into too much detail about character or settings or anything like that. Just focus on the exact plot mechanics for now.

Second only to your novel, these are the most important documents you’ll ever write – so get them sorted fast, easily, and with excellence. You’ll be glad you did.

Trick The Second

The second trick is equally simple and equally effective. It’s this:

Layer in information about who your characters are and how the events of the story impact them.

Synopses can feel like rather cold and baffling documents. When they do (and assuming they’re decently written), it’s always because the writer has focused entirely on plot machinery and hasn’t said enough about why it matters to the characters.

But we read books for the characters, so your synopsis has to engage with those emotional aspects too. Remember I gave you only 300 words for the actual plot machinery? The remaining 200 words are where you can express yourself with protagonists, emotions and character arcs.

Example ( Without Character/Emotion Language):

“ As BELLA walks into the class, a fan blows her scent towards a boy, named EDWARD CULLEN. Bella sits next to Edward in biology class on her first day of school. He disappears for a few days, but sees more of Bella upon his return. Bella is then nearly struck by a van in the school parking lot. Edward saves Bella, stopping the van with only his hand. ” (Adapted from the  Wikipedia synopsis  of Twilight)

Example ( With Character/Emotion Language)

“ As BELLA walks into the class, a fan blows her scent towards a mysterious boy named EDWARD CULLEN. Bella sits next to Edward in biology class on her first day of school, but he seems repulsed by her, affecting her feelings in the process. He disappears for a few days, but warms up to Bella upon his return; their newfound relationship is interrupted after Bella is nearly struck by a van in the school parking lot. Edward saves Bella, stopping the van with only his hand. ” (Source: as above)

Do you see how much more engaging the second version is to the reader? Although the text remains quite dry, by including emotional/character-type language in its summary, we have some sense of the real, developing relationship.

Short message: don’t focus so hard on plot mechanics that you forget to layer in emotion.


Writing A Synopsis: Common Mistakes

Here’s what  not  to do.

If you’re not making those errors, you should be good to go.

If you need help on getting your plot structure right in the first place, then check out these links:  how to plot , more on using  plot outlines , and how to apply the  snowflake method  to your story construction process.


Synopsis: An Example

This is a synopsis example penned by one of our own clients, Tracy Gilpin. The synopsis (and the book) went on to wow a literary agent and secure a book deal.

Synopsis Of Double Cross By Tracy Gilpin

Dunai Marks  discovers the strangled corpse of  Siobhan Craig , an activist who is not only her employer but also a mother figure; Dunai had been abandoned at an orphanage as a baby.

Siobhan was about to present to government the results of a controversial population control model for possible implementation at national level. Dunai believes this is the reason she was murdered.

The investigating officer on the case is instructed by an agent of the National Intelligence Agency to treat the murder as a botched burglary. Although some evidence points in this direction, Dunai believes Siobhan’s murder was work-related, which means she and  Bryan , an American statistician, could be in danger.

She strikes a deal with  Carl , a private investigator. If she is able to find a motive for the murder he will show her how to go about catching the killer.

Dunai discovers Siobhan was blackmailing five people who stood in the way of her pilot project, and was involved with a subversive group of radical feminists called  Cerchio Del Gaia  whose insignia is a double cross.

Dunai and Carl investigate the individuals blackmailed by Siobhan. They include: an anti-abortion activist, the head of an all-male religious fundamentalist group, an Anglican bishop, a member of local government, and a USAID official. One of these suspects was the last person to see Siobhan alive, another is known to have approached a contract killer a month before her murder.

Cerchio Del Gaia  becomes increasingly entangled in both Dunai’s life and the investigation, and she is told that if she joins the group she will have access to information about her birth. The National Intelligence Agency is on a similar tack; if Dunai infiltrates  Cerchio Del Gaia , which they believe is an international terrorist organisation, they will provide her with information about her origins. Dunai turns down both offers and the mystery of her birth and abandonment is eventually revealed by a woman claiming to be Siobhan’s sister, Dunai’s birth mother and the head of the South African chapter of  Cerchio Del Gaia .

Throughout the investigation Dunai has searched for  Mr Bojangles , a schizophrenic vagrant who may have seen the murderer. When she eventually finds him he seems to be of little help, yet it is his ramblings along with another clue that leads to her close friend and colleague, Bryan, who has been wanted by the FBI for twenty years for terrorist activities in the US. Bryan murdered Siobhan after discovering she intended betraying him to the National Intelligence Agency to deflect attention from  Cerchio Del Gaia  and as proof that she abided by the law even when it meant personal sacrifice.

Carl, who is now romantically involved with Dunai, offers to continue her training as an investigator and she agrees to divide her time between this and Siobhan’s NGO.

We suggest using Tracy’s synopsis as a great example for your own synopsis format.

If you need more help writing your synopsis and query letter, we offer an agent submission pack review , which is one of the many  manuscript editing services we provide.

Happy writing – and have fun.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you write a good novel synopsis.

To write a good synopsis, you need to write in the third person; use correct grammar; examine the structure of your novel and include all the main plot points; write in neutral language; include your hook; ensure you stick to the word count; layer in information about your characters; include all spoilers and plot twists; and include your novel’s title.

What Should Be Included In A Novel Synopsis?

A novel synopsis should include: your premise/hook, the overall plot (each important plot point), an introduction to your main characters, plot twists and spoilers, and character development arcs.

How Many Words Should A Novel Synopsis Be?

Synopsis lengths can vary- check to see the length the literary agent you’re querying has suggested- but they tend to be around 500 words long.

Jericho Writers is a  global membership group for writers , providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by  signing up to our newsletter . For more writing articles, take a look at our  blog page .

About the author

Harry has written a variety of books over the years, notching up multiple six-figure deals and relationships with each of the world’s three largest trade publishers. His work has been critically acclaimed across the globe, has been adapted for TV, and is currently the subject of a major new screen deal. He’s also written non-fiction, short stories, and has worked as ghost/editor on a number of exciting projects. Harry also self-publishes some of his work, and loves doing so. His Fiona Griffiths series in particular has done really well in the US, where it’s been self-published since 2015. View his website , his Amazon profile , his Twitter . He's been reviewed in Kirkus, the Boston Globe , USA Today , The Seattle Times , The Washington Post , Library Journal , Publishers Weekly , CulturMag (Germany), Frankfurter Allgemeine , The Daily Mail , The Sunday Times , The Daily Telegraph , The Guardian , and many other places besides. His work has appeared on TV, via Bonafide . And go take a look at what he thinks about Blick Rothenberg . You might also want to watch our " Blick Rothenberg - The Truth " video, if you want to know how badly an accountancy firm can behave.

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How to Write a Novel Synopsis

how to write a novel synopsis

Note from Jane: The following post was published years ago, but I regularly revisit, revise, and expand it. I’ve also written a comprehensive post on writing query letters.

It’s probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare: the synopsis . 

The synopsis is sometimes necessary because an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your story. Thus, the synopsis must convey a book’s entire narrative arc. It shows what happens and who changes, and it has to reveal the ending. Synopses may be required when you first query your work, or you may be asked for it later.

Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy, or the kind of marketing description that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book . Instead, it’s an industry document that helps an agent or editor quickly assess your story’s appeal and if it’s worth them reading the entire manuscript.

How long should a synopsis be?

You’ll find conflicting advice on this. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a one- or two-page synopsis—about 500-1000 words, single spaced—and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. If your synopsis runs longer, anything up to two pages (again, single spaced) is usually acceptable. Most agents/editors will not be interested in a synopsis longer than a few pages.

While this post is geared toward writers of fiction, the same principles can be applied to memoir and other narrative nonfiction works.

Why the synopsis is important to agents and editors

The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., “it was just a dream” endings, ridiculous acts of god, a category romance ending in divorce. It can reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. Or it can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or the plot is hackneyed, your manuscript may not get read.

The good news: Some agents hate synopses and never read them; this is more typical for agents who represent literary work. Either way, agents aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language. An agent I admire, Janet Reid, has said that energy and vitality are key.

Synopses should usually be written in third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person). For memoirists, I recommend first person, but first or third is acceptable.

What the synopsis must accomplish

In most cases, you’ll start the synopsis with your protagonist. You’ll describe her mindset and motivations at the opening of the story, then explain what happens to change her situation (often known as the inciting incident ). Motivation is fairly critical here: we need to understand what drives this character to act.

Once the protagonist is established, each paragraph ideally moves the story forward (with events unfolding in exactly the same order as in the manuscript), with strong cause-effect storytelling, including the key scenes of your novel. We need to see how the story conflict plays out, who or what is driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with it.

By the end, we should understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed. Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula. 

If you cover all these things, that won’t leave you much time for detail if you keep the synopsis to a single page. You won’t be able to mention every character or event or include every scene—only those that materially affect the protagonist’s decisions or our understanding of the story’s events. You may have to exclude some subplots, and you definitely have to stay out of the plotting weeds. If there’s a shootout at the story’s climax, for instance, or a big fight scene, it’s fairly useless to get into the details of the choreography and how many punches are thrown. Instead, you say there’s a big fight and make it clear who wins and who loses.

To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in influencing the protagonist or changing the direction of the story. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how their story resolves.  Any character that merits placement in a synopsis should have at least two to three mentions. If you can get away with only mentioning them once, they probably don’t belong at all.

A good rule of thumb for determining what stays and what goes: If the ending wouldn’t make sense without the character or plot point being mentioned, then it belongs in the synopsis.

A synopsis should get to the point—fast

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Very Wordy : At work, Elizabeth searches for Peter all over the office and finally finds him in the supply room, where she tells him she resents the remarks he made about her in the staff meeting.

Tight : At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter about his remarks at the staff meeting.

The most common synopsis mistake

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a mechanical account of your story (or the dreaded “synopsis speak”), without depth or texture.

Consider what it would sound like if you summarized a football game by saying. “Well, the Patriots scored. And then the Giants scored. Then the Patriots scored twice in a row.” That’s sterile and doesn’t give us the meaning behind how events are unfolding.

Instead, you would say something like, “The Patriots scored a touchdown after more than one hour of a no-score game, and the underdog of the team led the play. The crowd went wild.”

The secret to a great synopsis

A synopsis includes the characters’  emotions and reactions to what’s happening. That will help you avoid something that reads like a mechanic’s manual. Include both story advancement (plot stuff) and color (character stuff).

Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement)

For stories with considerable world building or extensive historical settings

Some writers may need to open their synopsis with a paragraph or so that helps establish the world we’re entering and the rules of that world. This helps us better understand the characters and their motivations once introduced. For example, a synopsis of Harry Potter might clarify upfront that the world is divided into Muggles and wizards, and that the Muggles have no idea that a magical world exists. Or, this fact could be relayed in the synopsis once Harry Potter learns about it himself.

In a historical novel, a writer might have to establish cultural attitudes or facts that might not be known to contemporary readers, so that the characters’ actions make sense and the weight of the conflict is clear.

In science fiction and fantasy, try to avoid proper terms or nouns that have to be defined or explained unless such terms are central to your story (like “Muggles” above). Instead, try to get the point across in language that anyone can understand but still gets the point across. The goal here is to focus on telling the story rather than increasing the mental workload of the agent/editor, who has to decipher and remember the unfamiliar vocabulary.

Avoid splitting the synopsis into sections

In most cases, the synopsis should start and end without any breaks, sections, or other subheadings. However, on occasion, there might be a reason to add “sign posts” to the synopsis, due to your book’s unique narrative structure. For example, if your novel has intertwining timelines, or if it jumps around in time and place, you may want to begin each paragraph with a bold lead-in (“Paris, 1893”), to establish where we are. Other than that, avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play. Characters should be introduced at the moment they enter the story or when they specifically contribute to the story moving forward.

Common novel synopsis pitfalls

Additional resources

If you’re looking for in-depth guidance, I offer a query letter master class that includes a 90-minute lecture on synopsis writing.

Jane Friedman 2020

Jane Friedman ( @JaneFriedman ) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet , the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses ( How to Publish Your Book ), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.


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How to write a synopsis for your novel

How to write short stories, how to create chemistry between your romantic leads, by anna davis, 22nd jun 2018.

If you spend time online reading tips on how to write a synopsis for a novel, you'll find masses of different and contradictory ideas - but I reckon I can safely assert one universal truth: Nobody - but nobody - finds them easy to write!

The synopsis is a short, lively overview of your novel. It sits alongside the opening of your novel and your agent pitch letter in your pitch package, and it lays out the complete narrative arc of your plot. It’s not the same thing as a ‘blurb’ (which is the short teaser paragraph that you find on the back of published books).

Some agents will read the synopsis all through before even looking at the writing sample. Others will read all of the material you've sent and then look at the synopsis to see where it's headed. And there are agents who don't give it so much as a cursory glance. Nevertheless you should write one, when you're ready to send your novel out - and you should make it as good as you can.

When applying to one of Curtis Brown Creative's selective novel-writing courses or submitting to the agents at Curtis Brown and C&W , we like to see a good one-page synopsis of your novel as part of your pitch package. One page should be enough for you to cover all the information that’s needed, and it makes the synopsis easily readable and digestible. No literary agent worth their salt is going to object to a really good one-pager. And even aside from the fact that agents expect to see a synopsis, it's actually a great way to see if your plot is working properly. If you can't summarise your story in a page, then there's quite probably something wrong with it ...

Here are my tips on how to write a really good one-page synopsis of your novel:

1.  Put your title at the top , even if it’s still just a working title.

2. State what genre you’re writing in:  eg, romance, science fiction, fantasy, crime thriller, psychological suspense … If you’re not writing in a clear genre or you’re not sure what your genre is, just skip this. If you’re writing for children, you should indicate the age group you’re writing for. (You can find a lot more information about age groups in children's fiction in this blog post ).

3. What you  definitely  need at or near the top of the synopsis is your pitch line . This is usually the key question, dilemma or driving force of the novel – or the heart of the novel, to put it another way. And if you know you have a great hook or a high concept, that should be your pitch line. Writers understandably get very worked up trying to get their pitch lines right – but remember that you’re in any case going on to say more about your story all the way down the page - it’s not all about this one line.

4. Some people like to include a quote from the novel:  quotes can offer a glimpse of the tone of your novel as well as teasing and enticing the reader. It can be a good way to go if you’re struggling to come up with a pitch line – but go one way or the other here – you don’t need both.

5. The synopsis of your novel should then go on to cover your plot in its broad strokes:  Set out your story in the simplest terms. Don’t try to include everything: we don’t need all of the intricate twists, turns and subplots – just the major plot points so an agent can see what your novel is and where its headed

6. Get  your protagonist’s name  in early on (if you have one clear protagonist) and the main character's motivations. It’s good to show whose story this is.

7. But don’t put in  too  many character names . We don’t need your full cast list – in fact we don’t need many names at all or your page will be cluttered with them. This can make your synopsis confusing and difficult to understand.

8. Give us the when and the where:  we need to know the primary setting for the novel and the time period in which it takes place (particularly if it’s historical fiction. We tend to assume a default of ‘now’). Again, though, don’t include  lots  of place names and dates – keep it simple.

9. I’m often asked  whether to include the ending of the novel  in the synopsis. The honest (though annoying) answer is, it’s up to you. Some agents would say they need to see the ending because it’s such an important part of the story – they’re annoyed if it’s not there. But others say they don’t like any big twist in the tale to be given away because they still feel they like to approach the novel as a reader. You can’t rewrite your synopsis for each and every agent (that would be too much), so you’ll just have to decide what feels right for you and your novel.

10. The best synopses convey the tone of the novel as well as the plot:  If you can find a way to bring the feel, atmosphere or voice of the novel into the synopsis, it will really bring it to life. It’s not essential and not worth fretting over if you can’t see a way to do it, but it just adds that little extra zing.

11. Don’t heap praise on your own novel:  The synopsis is not the place to say you’re going to be a huge international bestseller, or even to comment that the novel is gripping or funny or moving, etc. Leave it to others to make judgments about its top-ten-bestselling or award-winning potential.

12. Don’t cram as much as possible on to the page : One page is a good, readable, concise length. Aim to be succinct – and don’t attempt to wedge in more words than really fit onto a page by making your font, spacing or margins tiny. That just makes the synopsis difficult-to-read, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.

13. Don’t include chapter breakdowns  or mini-summaries of the content of individual bits of your book. This isn’t your working plan – the agent or publisher doesn’t need to see all that stuff.

14. Go for story rather than ‘themes’:  Tell us what drives your novel but don’t give a list of themes or imagery with the idea that this will make it seem more deep and meaningful. It’s only worth mentioning themes if your book explores a big issue or if it’s  majorly  concerned with – for instance – grief, as the driving force of the story.

15. Don’t talk about unreliable narrators:  People often make an issue of their first-person narrators being unreliable. I think this is a hangover from university English degrees. Essentially  any  and  every  first-person narrator is unreliable, so it’s not worth highlighting.

16. Unusual narrative structures:  It’s possible that your novel really is impossible to summarise in the way I’m advising here – because it’s so experimental, its cast of characters is enormous and without any sort of centrality; its plot is so unconventional as barely to exist. If your novel is really  so  extraordinary and unconventional, then you actually won’t be able to produce a ‘normal’ synopsis for it. If that’s the case, see if you can write a page that gives an idea of what you’re trying to do in the novel, and which talks passionately about your novelistic endeavour. Or perhaps try a page from the perspective of a specific character to entice the agent and draw them in - even if it's not actually an overview of the story in a conventional sense. However, if you read back over it and discover it sounds like an academic exercise or just very pretentious and unreadable, don’t send it out with your work – just send your pitch letter and the opening of the novel itself. I should say though - most novels can be synopsised, so don't leap on this final point!

Good luck with taming the tricky beast that is the synopsis!

If you'd like more advice, our  Edit & Pitch Your Novel online course has loads on how to write a synopsis, as well as covering the elevator pitch, the agent-letter - and really everything you need to know to polish up your work and pitch it to agents (plus videos from the agents themselves).

Nathan Bransford | Writing, Book Editing, Publishing

Helping authors achieve their dreams

How to write a synopsis for a novel

August 8, 2022 by Nathan Bransford 10 Comments

Of all the things you will write throughout the publishing process, a synopsis may be what you dread the most.

It’s not fun to have to shoehorn an entire novel into a relatively brief one-four page summary. But if you follow just a few relatively simple steps and follow the guidance in this post, it may still be a pain, but it won’t be endlessly hard.

Writing a synopsis: Not as terrible as you might think!

In this post I’ll cover:

What is a synopsis for a novel?

What about a nonfiction synopsis, how to write a good synopsis, why it’s important to summarize through specificity, use a consistent voice, don’t worry about spoilers, how to format a synopsis, a sample synopsis for jacob wonderbar and the cosmic space kapow, why you shouldn’t overthink a synopsis.

A synopsis is a 1.5 to 4 page single-spaced summary of what happens in your novel. That’s it. It’s an end-to-end summary of the plot from start to finish.

Don’t worry about spoilers. And do include how it ends.

Agents and editors typically use synopses as reference documents. They use them to get a sense of the overall plot. They also sometimes use them later on as handy refreshers when their memories fade about character names and plot points. Agents don’t typically rely on them to decide whether to pass on a book project barring significant red flags. The query letter is typically far more important, so I’d devote most of your energy there.

If a publisher is considering a multi-book deal, you may also have to write synopses for future installments of your series to give an editor a sense of where you want to take the narrative.

Authors sometimes feel like they shouldn’t have to be bothered summarizing their work. And sometimes they want to pay someone else to write their synopsis.

“It’s a different skill!” they yelp to me. “I’m a good writer but I’m a bad summarizer!”

But think about how many times you’re going to have to summarize your work during the book publishing process:

Get used to summarizing your book. Better yet: get good at it . Take responsibility for this part of the process. Make other people want to read your book.

While I’m more than happy to help you edit your synopsis , I refuse to write first drafts for authors out of principle. You need to take ownership over this step and take the first crack at synthesizing the plot.

For memoirs, the “rules” of writing a synopsis are typically the same as for a novel. Because memoirs unfold like novels, you can apply the guidance for fiction and just give an end-to-end summary of what happens.

For other types of nonfiction, in book proposals there is usually a chapter-by-chapter summary that essentially functions as a synopsis.

However, there aren’t universal standards for synopses within the industry and an agent may still ask you for a synopsis for nonfiction. If they do, just remember that the goal is to provide an end-to-end summary of what’s in the book (or what’s going to be in the book if you’ve just written a book proposal).

How do you do that?

Start by writing your query letter. I have a query letter template that is a good place to start, and those same key ingredients (setting, complicating incident, villain, protagonist’s quest) should be present in the synopsis.

Think of a synopsis as a longer query letter that includes how the book ends. You have more room to include more detail and depth about the plot and key subplots, but the synopsis should still cover the arc of the book in a relatively succinct way.

As in a query letter, ditch all discussion of themes and what the novel  means . Focus on what  happens . You don’t need a meta-summary or log-line at the start of the synopsis. Just start where the novel starts and end where it ends.

Here are some key elements that set snappy synopses apart from dreary ones.

Just as in a query , the more detail and specificity you can infuse into the synopsis, the more it will come to life and the clearer it will be. “Nathan was over-caffeinated” and “Nathan was so amped he scraped the silver off the Red Bull” may describe the same moment, but one has a lot more life to it than the other. (And uh. No. That didn’t happen why do you ask.)

Some summarizing will be necessary, but those little moments where you show what makes your characters, events, and setting unique will make the synopsis sparkle. Don’t devolve into generalities and largely-meaningless abstractions like “A fight ensues.” Be very specific about who is doing what and why, and describe action with precision. Swap out “A fight ensued” with “Nathan swats the mutant bat invader with a tennis racquet and banishes it from the apartment.”

Don’t pre-package the events into abstract psychologizing where you’ve already digested the events for the agent and tell them what it means, like “Nathan’s fear of intimacy rears its head.” Instead, show what that zoomed out summary is actually describing: “Nathan leaves three of his crush’s texts on read.”

Particularly for science fiction and fantasy, make sure you’re pausing to provide crisp, clear context for any concepts a reader would be unfamiliar with. Don’t just drop in a mention of a Silver Thingamabob without telling us what that means in the world of your novel. You must find a way to see what is and isn’t on the page and what the reader has sufficient context to understand.

And above all: Make sure your protagonist’s motivations and the stakes are clear. What happens if the protagonist succeeds or fails? Infuse the synopsis with that information so the agent knows why they should care about the events of the novel.

If you wrote a novel with multiple POVs or if it has a unique or nonlinear structure , it may be difficult to figure out how to organize a synopsis. You don’t want to write a synopsis that constantly zigzags between different plot lines and characters or you’re going to bewilder the reader.

Instead, don’t be beholden to the precise sequence in which events unfold in your novel . You don’t have to follow an alternating-character structure in the synopsis that mimics the novel. Try as much as possible to “get above it” and focus on describing the essential events in a way that’s clear to the reader. Err on the side of being clear rather than constraining yourself to how the novel precisely unfolds.

That could mean sticking to one character per paragraph, or it could mean describing the plot from a gods-eye perspective.

Write your synopsis in third person present tense even if your novel is written in first person or past tense. (First or third person is acceptable for memoirs, but I usually prefer third person for memoirs too).

Whatever you do, optimize for clarity and cohesion rather than being a stickler for mimicking how the novel is structured.

Agents and editors know they’re going to read your book many times over the course of the publication process. They’re not worried about spoilers.

In fact, agents and editors read so many books and are so well-acquainted with the sausage-making of writing that…

So yeah. Spoil away.

Unlike the way manuscripts are formatted , synopses are single-spaced, and are 1.5 to 4 pages long depending on the length and complexity of the novel. The sweet spot is usually on the shorter side: 1.5 to 2.5 pages.

Sometimes agents will ask for a “short” or “brief” synopsis, and unfortunately there isn’t really a universal standard on what they mean by that. Short synopses are typically less than a page, and some authors decide to write short and long versions of their synopses to accommodate individual agents’ preferences.

Unless otherwise specified, the default is 1.5 to 2.5 pages.

Put your book title and your name at the top and include the word “Synopsis” so an agent can easily see what it is.

As with manuscripts , Times New Roman 12pt font is standard. Use 0.5″ indents and, again, single -space the rest. Don’t include any extra spacing before or after paragraphs, and it’s not necessary to break up the synopsis into chapters or parts.

Make sure you have a footer with your name and the page number in case the agent prints the synopsis out.

Sometimes authors capitalize character names the first time they’re mentioned, but in my experience that’s optional.

Fun fact: I never actually wrote a synopsis for my middle grade novel Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow , which went on to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers at Penguin. Like many authors, I dreaded writing a synopsis. So I decided I would write one only if an agent asked for one. No one did!

But in order to give you a sense of how I would approach writing a synopsis, I wrote one anyway. You’re welcome haha.

Here it is: My synopsis for Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

To download it to use as a template, go through the File menu within the doc and download it as a .docx file. Please do not ask me for Edit permissions on the Google Doc.

At the end of the day, it is highly unlikely that an your book is going to be made or broken by how well you write a synopsis. It’s not something that will likely see the light of day beyond your agent or editor. Compared to a query letter or, ya know, the actual manuscript, it’s not likely to factor highly into whether you book sinks or swims.

So don’t spend months on it.

Still: have fun with your synopsis and use it as valuable practice for summarizing your book in a most-awesome way.

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching ! For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book . And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter !

Art: A Vanitas by Evert Collier

Reader Interactions

October 31, 2017 at 1:12 pm

This is wonderful! I am in the camp of “it is as terrible as you might think” though, I find it super painful and never feel like I have it just right. Up there with writing cover letters. But this helps.

October 31, 2017 at 3:39 pm

“Agents and editors will use synopses to get a sense of the overall plot of the novel (and also as a handy refresher when memories start to fade through time on certain character names and plot points).” Handy for us authors too! Forgetting one’s characters’ names might seem a terrible faux pas, but Stan Lee, for example, gave his comic book characters alliterative names like ‘Peter Parker’ so he could remember them more easily.

And thinking of the synopsis as an expended query more than a shrunken novel sounds like a good approach.

Surprises are for mortal readers? So agents and editors are immortal, like vampires? How very seasonal!

Thanks for this, Nathan, and Happy Halloween!

November 1, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Thanks for this post. I’ve been struggling with writing a synopsis to use as a guideline for finishing my manuscript.

November 7, 2017 at 9:43 am

Nathan – Three words, ‘Dread the Most’. Yes I do. Nathan – Four words, ‘Get Good at it’. Yes I will.

November 7, 2017 at 9:45 am

[Thumbs up emoji]

November 29, 2017 at 9:16 am

I hardly ever comment on the same article twice but this is the exception. I have a question: It looks like you have a forum. Would my synopsis be a good place to take it to? I think I have a good one but I’ve been wrong on these gut feelings before. I’m kind of on the fence with this.

February 2, 2022 at 10:23 pm

I am grateful for what you do for writers seeking publication. I’d started checking out agents, and discovered agents want more than 10 pages and a query. A synopsis, and it all goes into an online form, OMG.

Thank you for your guidance on how to…

I have subscribed to your newsletter. For backstory, I found your post on Facebook. Thank you.

June 14, 2022 at 2:37 pm

You mention that we don’t “need” a log line at the beginning of a query, but should we avoid it? I always come up with one and wonder if it’s a good or bad idea to start a query with it between the salutation and body of the query. Since I’m querying 2 novels at the moment, I’d really be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.

June 29, 2022 at 11:20 pm

Part of my confusion with a synopsis is some publishers/agents are specific about length while others make no mention of it. Sometimes it’s one page, and at other times it’s five. Many publishers/agents make no mention of length which leaves me wondering what to do.

June 30, 2022 at 12:58 pm

1.5-2.5 single-spaced pages is the “default,” if other agents ask for a different length you may need to adapt accordingly.

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Posted on Sep 12, 2018

How to Write an Incredible Synopsis in 4 Simple Steps

Your novel is fully written, edited, and polished to perfection — you’re ready to pitch it to agents! But you’re missing a critical piece of persuasion: the synopsis. Even after putting together your entire book, you may have no idea how to write one, or even how to approach it.

Luckily, we’ve got answers for you. Read on for our best tips on writing a synopsis that’s clear, concise, captivating… and may even lead to an all-out agent battle over your novel!

What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is a summary of a book that familiarizes the reader with the plot and how it unfolds. Although these kinds of summaries also appear on the pages of school book reports and Wikipedia, this guide will focus on constructing one that you can send out to agents (and eventually publishers).

Your novel synopsis should achieve two things: firstly, it should convey the contents of your book, and secondly, it should be intriguing!

While you don’t need to pull out all the marketing stops at this stage, you should have a brief hook at the beginning and a sense of urgency underlying the text that will keep your reader going. It should make potential agents want to devour your whole manuscript — even though they’ll already know what happens.

While writing your synopsis, make sure that it includes:

As for the ideal length for this piece, it varies from project to project. Some authors recommend keeping it to 500 words, while others might write thousands. However, the standard range is about one to two single-spaced pages (or two to five double-spaced pages). And if you're interested in knowing how to format the whole of your manuscript for submission, we recommend downloading this manuscript format template. 

what is a synopsis for a novel


Manuscript Format Template

Get your manuscript ready for submission to agents and publishers.

You may also want to have an additional “brief” summary prepared for agents who specifically request a single page or less. Remember: as hard as it will be to distill all your hard work into that minimal space, it’s crucial to keep your synopsis digestible and agent-friendly.

How to write a novel synopsis in 4 steps

2rGBR99WtV8 Video Thumb

1. Get the basics down first

When it comes to writing a synopsis, substance is the name of the game. No matter how nicely you dress it up, an agent will disregard any piece that doesn’t demonstrate a fully fleshed out plot and strong narrative arc. So it stands to reason that as you begin writing, you should focus on the fundamentals.

Start with major plot points

Naturally, you want agents to be aware of your story's  major plot points . So the best way to start summarizing your story is to create a list of those plot points, including:

Listing these points effectively maps out the action and arc of your story, which will enable the reader to easily follow it from beginning to end.

Include character motivations

The key here is not to get too deep into characterization, since you don’t have much room to elaborate. Instead, simply emphasize character motivations at the beginning and end of your synopsis — first as justification for the inciting incident, then again to bring home the resolution. For example:

Beginning: “Sally has spent the past twenty years wondering who her birth parents are [motivation]. When a mysterious man offers her the chance to find them, she spontaneously buys a ticket to Florence to begin her journey [inciting action].”

Ending: “She returns to the US with the man who was her father all along [resolution], safe in the knowledge that she’ll never have to wonder about him again [restated motivation].”

Also note how the text here is written in third person, present tense, as it should be regardless of the tense or POV of your actual book. Writing a synopsis in first or second person doesn’t really work because it’s not meant to be narrated — just summarized. Basically, the present tense works to engage the reader while the third person allows the story to be told smoothly.

what is a synopsis for a novel

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2. Highlight what’s unique

Now it’s time to spice up your synopsis by highlighting the elements that make it unique. Agents need to know what’s so special about your book in particular — and moreover, is it special enough to get readers to pick it up? Below are some features you might employ to grab an agent’s attention and assure them of your book’s appeal.

Your writing voice is an essential tool here: it conveys your novel’s tone and is one of the most important factors in making your work stand out. However, it’s also one of the most difficult elements to evoke in such a small amount of space.

The best way to capture voice in a synopsis is through extremely deliberate word choice and sentence structure. So if you were Jane Austen, you’d use clever words to magnify your wit: “When Darcy proposes to her apropos of nothing, Elizabeth has the quite understandable reaction of rejecting him.” You may not be able to use all the elaborate prose of your novel, but your synopsis should still reflect its overall feeling.

Plot twists

Even though they’re one of the oldest tricks in the book, readers will never tire of juicy plot twists. If your novel contains one or more of these twists, especially at the climax, make sure your synopsis accentuates it. But don’t hint too much at the twist, as this will make it seem more dramatic when it comes; a couple of words in the intro will suffice as foreshadowing.

For instance, if you were writing a summary of Gone Girl , you might open with “Nick Dunne wakes up one morning to find that his wife, Amy, has apparently disappeared. ” This implies that she may not be as “gone” as we think she is, setting the stage for the later reveal.

how to write a synopsis

Point of view

Another aspect that might set your book apart is a distinctive point of view . Since you’ll be giving your synopsis in third person, you can limit this inclusion to an introductory sentence: “This book is narrated from the point of view of a mouse.”

Although this strategy works best for books with a highly unusual point of view (such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, in which the story is told by Death), it can also be very helpful to remember for seemingly bog-standard narrators. If one of your characters narrates in first person, make sure to address their individual narrative quirks as well as any biases or limitations; highlighting an unreliable narrator can really add to your novel’s intrigue!

3. Edit for clarity and excess

Don’t shroud your synopsis in mystery; this is very frustrating to agents who just want to know what happens in your book! With that in mind, after you’ve written the bulk of your summary, it’s time to edit for clarity. You also may have to delete some text, so you can get it right in that couple-page sweet spot.

Editing for clarity

The paramount rule of synopses is a real doozy: tell, don’t show. It’s the opposite of that classic adage that writers have heard their whole lives, and it’s exactly what you need to write a successful synopsis. 

As you return to what you’ve written, scan for sentences that are vague or unclear, especially toward the beginning. Many writers fall into the trap of trying to hook agents by opening with a sentence akin to the first murky line of a literary novel. Again, though you do want your intro to be intriguing, it has to cut to the chase pretty quickly.

When it comes to opening a synopsis, you need to think like Tolkien, not Tolstoy. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Crisp, clear, and to the point: one of the very few times you should tell, rather than show .

Editing excess words

If your synopsis is longer than a couple of pages at this point, you need make some serious cutbacks. Read through what you have, scrutinizing every sentence and word, even if you think you’ve chosen them carefully. Reduce any run-on sentences or subordinate clauses that unnecessarily lengthen your piece.

Finally, eliminate irrelevant details — anything that doesn’t lead to the next plot point or directly contribute to your voice or other distinctive elements. It’s unlikely you’ll have included any of these in the first place, but just in case they’ve slipped through, cut them. Save the frills for your book; remember, your synopsis is all about substance .

4. Make sure it flows

By the time it’s finished, your synopsis should read like a summary from an excellent book review — or at the very least SparkNotes or Shmoop. This means not only clearly and concisely hitting every important point, but also reading in a smooth manner, placing just the right amount of emphasis on the critical moments and unique aspects we’ve discussed.

Get test readers

A great way to ensure that your synopsis is paced precisely and flows well is to give it to test readers, either someone you know or a professional editor . You’ve spent way too much time with these words to be objective about them, so pay attention to what other people suggest: possible word substitutions, transitions, and which details to emphasize versus delete.

Use professional synopses as models

You don’t want to look at examples of other synopses too soon, otherwise yours will come out sounding formulaic and stale. That said, professional synopses can be a very valuable tool for refining toward the end of the process! Compare and contrast them to the synopsis you’ve written, and adapt any techniques or turns of phrase you feel would enhance it.

Here’s an example of a strong (albeit brief) synopsis of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens , courtesy of the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

Phillip Pirrip, more commonly known as “Pip,” has been brought up by his tyrannical sister, wife of the gentle Joe Gargery. He is introduced to the house of Miss Havisham who, half-crazed by the desertion of her lover on her bridal night, has brought up the girl Estella to use her beauty as a means of torturing men. Pip falls in love with Estella and aspires to become a gentleman.

Money and expectations of more wealth come to him from a mysterious source, which he believes to be Miss Havisham. He goes to London, and in his new mode of life meanly abandons the devoted Joe Gargery, a humble connection of whom he is now ashamed.

Misfortunes come upon him. His benefactor proves to be an escaped convict, Abel Magwich, whom he as a boy had helped. Pip’s great expectations fade away and he is penniless. Estella meanwhile marries his sulky enemy Bentley Drummle, by whom she is cruelly ill treated.

In the end, taught by adversity, Pip returns to Joe Gargery and honest labor. He and Estella, who has also learnt her lesson, are finally reunited.

how to write a synopsis

This synopsis works well because it includes:

Your synopsis is one of the biggest deciding factors in whether an agent wants to see more from you or not. No matter how chipper your query letter , the bottom line is that this summary tells agents (and later publishers) what they really need to know: what your book is about, what makes it unique, and most importantly, if they can sell it. 

what is a synopsis for a novel


How to Write a Query Letter

Learn to grab agents’ attention with 10 five-minute lessons.

That’s why it’s vital that you make your synopsis airtight. Fortunately, if you’ve followed these steps, yours will be chock full of plot details with a touch of your own special writing sauce: a synopsis that any agent (hopefully) won’t be able to resist. 

Many thanks to Reedsy editors (and former agents) Sam Brody and Rachel Stout  for consulting on this piece!

Do you have any tips for writing an irresistible synopsis? Leave them in the comments below!

2 responses

Elizabeth Westra says:

12/09/2018 – 22:10

This looks interesting, and I will read every word, but this would be different for a picture book. You only get one page to query for many children's books.

Dorothy Potter Snyder says:

14/10/2018 – 20:11

I am curious if anyone has ideas on how translators can write a synopsis for agents / publishers of works in translation? Might there be something about why this author is important in his/her country of origin and literary tradition? Which authors more known to English language readers might relate to this author (they've never heard of before)?

Comments are currently closed.

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How To Write a Synopsis for a Novel

how to write a synopsis for a novel

If you want a literary agent to represent your book, you’re going to have to write a damned good novel synopsis. That’s right – it’s not enough to spend months of your life crafting tens of thousands of words of brilliant, original storytelling. You’ve got to be able to summarise it too.

Most agencies ask for a synopsis as part of any submission package, to be sent along with the opening of your novel and your query letter. But what is it, and how do you make it work effectively? Our editor, Lily Lindon , formerly of Penguin Random House , explains all of this and shares her tips to write a cracking novel synopsis.

A novel synopsis is your story in miniature

How to write a one page book synopsis as a short summary of your book proposal to nail a book deal

Essentially, your synopsis is your novel in miniature. It is a concise, dynamic overview of your novel. It gives a stranger the essentials of your story – who, what, where and why – and outlines the main characters. What changes and challenges do they go through? It needs to convey the essence of each of your novel’s unique parts. Give us an idea of the characters, the overall narrative arc, the major plot points.

I can also tell you what a synopsis is not . It is not the same thing as a ‘blurb’ (the teaser paragraph on the back of published books). It is also not the same as your plan, which you as a writer use to understand the workings of your plot. And it is also not the same as an essay: this is not the place to be arguing about the thematic complexities of your novel. This is simply your story , in 500 words.


Have no fear! No one knows your story better than you. All you need to do now is prove it... 

Aside from the fact that agents expect to see a novel synopsis, it’s actually a great way to see if your plot is working properly.

If you can’t summarise your story in a page, then that might be a sign something is wrong.

This is simply your  story , in 500 words.

10 things to keep in mind when writing a synopsis

So here’s our list of ten key things to keep in mind:

How long should a novel synopsis be? (How short?)

Where to begin

What’s the tone?

Who are the characters?

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away

Spoiler alert?

Be even more concise

How should it look?

Think like a literary agent

1. How long should it be? ( How short?)

The thing many writers are most worried about with their book synopsis is that it is too long.

Your synopsis should be between one and two pages (and no cheating with making the font ridiculously small!). In fact, at The Novelry, we recommend a 500-word maximum word count on your synopsis.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because we’re evil. It’s because, on a practical level, 500 words will always be within an agent’s specified limits for synopsis length in their submission guidelines.

When you write a novel synopsis, it forces you to be strict with yourself. Cut to the heart of your novel. 

But perhaps even more importantly, when you write a novel synopsis, it forces you to be strict with yourself. Cut to the heart of your novel. Tell the reader what happens, just the big plot points; that’s it. (You’ll be amazed at how writing a good book synopsis will help you to edit your novel effectively too!) 

2. Where to begin?

Well, as Julie Andrews would tell us, the beginning is a very good place to start. 

Open with the opening of your novel . In fact, your synopsis should follow the chronology of your plot points – tell us what happens, in the order it happens.

If it’s good enough to open your novel, it should be good enough to open your synopsis. If you’re going to indulge in one, stylish, luxurious sentence anywhere in your synopsis writing, it’s best to have it as an irresistible opening line, or pithy ending. Bonus points for some dramatic irony, or revealing insight.

If you have a brilliant hook line that really sells the conflict at the heart of your story, then by all means include this at the beginning of your synopsis. ( She wasn’t the only one living a lie, but she was the only one who saw the truth. ) But remember that you will also have your query letter, where you’ll want to use your hook line as a short sharp lure. 

If you’re going to indulge in one, stylish, luxurious sentence anywhere in your synopsis writing, it’s best to have it as an irresistible opening line, or pithy ending. Bonus points for some dramatic irony, or revealing insight.

If in doubt, don’t faff around. Begin your synopsis in-scene, at its most interesting point. Present the initial dilemma/moment of change as soon as possible. ( Bumbling editor LILY is taking out the bins when aggressive aliens kidnap her .)

3. What’s the tone?

To some extent, there is space for personal preference in a synopsis: some agents will prefer a synopsis that gives a taster of the novel’s tone, as well as its plot. Others prefer their synopsis to be a ‘factual’ tool, devoid of voice quirks.

In general, be professional, clear and to the point . It’s good to demonstrate your creativity and flair – if it adds to the effectiveness of the synopsis.

Write in the third person (even if the novel is written in the first person). This will help you to give a precise overview of the plot points. Skip the dull parts. Include the complications and climaxes. (A good tip for writing your novel too, to be honest!)

If your novel is funny, probably don’t include jokes in your synopsis, as the humour is unlikely to land out of context – but don’t hide descriptions of your set-pieces or brilliant ironies. Use the synopsis to tell your comic story with a complete deadpan.

4. Who are the characters?

A synopsis needs to tell the reader who the characters are, what’s at stake for them, and the challenges they face.

As you (presumably) do in your novel, start with the main character , who should almost always appear in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. In most stories, you’ll want the synopsis to revolve closely around what happens to the hero (i.e. the inciting incident that triggers the main plot), and a brief summary of what they do next.

But unless you’re writing a dystopia (or a lockdown novel), there’s probably more than one character in your book. You don’t need to mention all of your other characters (in fact, please don’t), but you should include any of the key players. A general rule is to introduce them in the order we meet them (Cast In Order of Appearance.).

When introducing characters, it’s helpful to add a very short description of them. This can be as simple as one adjective ( LILY, a well-intentioned editor ). Add their ages if relevant to the story – doesn’t have to be their exact birthday and star sign; ‘late 70s’ will suffice. (If it’s a children’s novel, it’s particularly helpful to give the protagonist’s age, as this is often an important indicator of the intended reading age.)

When introducing characters, it’s helpful to add a very short description of them. This can be as simple as one adjective ( LILY, a well-intentioned editor ).
Adjectives can sometimes be distracting or clunky in an actual novel, but in a synopsis, they can be useful for quickly transmitting character types and immediately drawing your reader into conflicts.

Check the adjectives you use are deft and specific. The adjectives should typically describe their personality or character motivations (rather than appearance), because these are what impact their actions, and allow the agent to understand the mood of their scenes. Upgrade bland or generic words: try having a play with an online thesaurus! 

5. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away

Are we in the present, past or future? This must be made clear immediately. You don’t want the agent to realise it’s historical fiction only when you mention the Titanic sinking. Similarly, your novel’s main setting should be evident early in the synopsis.

You don’t need to go into too much detail here, and can even often combine these in a simple opening few words: in modern-day Manhattan/a near-future Lagos/Elizabethan London , for example. That allows you to get to the heart of your character and story as soon as possible. Those are, after all, the most compelling parts of any book summary.

If you are writing science fiction, fantasy or otherwise otherworldly fiction, ensure that you give the reader enough information to understand that this is not our familiar Earth.

However, it’s a mistake to use the whole word count of your synopsis to describe your Brave New World, without actually telling the reader what your specific character’s narrative arc is. A good synopsis format in this kind of genre is to introduce the reader to the setting and time period upfront ( Mars, 2099 ). Spread out any further information about your world so that it’s not too front-loaded.

As with the rest of your synopsis, only tell the reader the essentials . Leave us wanting more detail. Save the beautiful descriptions of your beach hotel, haunted house or distant planet for the actual novel.

whether or not you writer literary fiction you should write your synopsis in the third person not from the point of view of the main characters and you can use present tense or past

6. Spoiler alert?

As they begin writing a synopsis, writers often worry about spoiling plot twists.

Now, there is some differing opinion here: some argue that the synopsis’s job is to intrigue an agent to request the full manuscript, and therefore not giving away every plot twist   is a good thing. 

Tell us all the juicy bits: indeed, tell us nothing  but  the juicy bits. 

However, we’d caution against this. As explained at the top of this article, these are not book blurbs. The book synopsis is not a marketing tool. It is a professional outline, used by an agent to check that your novel is in good working shape, and that it fulfils the demands of its readership.

A good synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler. Tell us all the juicy bits: indeed, tell us nothing  but  the juicy bits. After all, you’re not going to be able to give a useful description of your twisty thriller if you hide all the turns. Let them know they can expect a satisfying ending. If your story is compelling, spoilers of your plot twists won’t stop an agent from reading on – they’ll encourage them.

If your story is compelling, spoilers won’t stop an agent from reading on – they’ll encourage them.

7. Be concise

Cut all unnecessary words.

8. Be even more concise

Okay, number 7 was a little bit cheeky of me, but you see what I mean!

Delete any information that is not essential for understanding the story. Always have the word count front of mind when you write a synopsis.

On the other hand, the perfect synopsis includes any information or plot details that are essential for understanding the story. If a character makes a cup of tea because they’re thirsty, don’t include it; if a character makes a cup of tea to poison someone, do include it.

Therefore, avoid including too much backstory – only give us the details we need to understand the synopsis itself. Do not include full character names, every visited location, explanations of every magical device, details of subplots or quotes from dialogue. When in doubt, save it for the book.

9. How should it look?

There’s no one uniform template for a synopsis. However, as with all the materials in your submission pack, it should be immaculately well presented.

No typos. No spelling mistakes. No odd fonts. No pictures of your cat.

Structure in paragraphs, not bullet points. Put the names of the main characters in CAPITALS when you first introduce them. Use font size 10–12 with double-spacing (unless the agent specifically requests otherwise).

A further note on this: if you’re at the stage of submitting to agents or publishing houses, do be careful to follow the different guidelines on each specific website . If you haven’t taken the time to format in the way they’re asking for, they may be less likely to take the time for your submission in return. (And this isn’t just spite, sometimes agents get so many submissions that they are filtered through a computer system: don’t let your submission get stuck in the process just because you attached it as a Word document rather than a PDF!) 

If you submit your novel to agents via The Novelry’s editorial team, we will sort this for you.

10. Think like an agent

Like anything creative, I’m afraid there is no one right answer for how to write a novel synopsis.

Some industry professionals will have preferences about what you should or shouldn’t do, but at the end of the day, synopses will be almost as varied as the novels themselves. The thing to remember is that the synopsis is there to fulfil a purpose: to give an agent an immediate overview of your novel and its main plot.

Therefore, if in doubt, think, ‘If I was an agent, what would I find helpful? Would I need to know this before reading the novel? What would make me confident that it’s worth my time to read the chapters? What could be off-putting?’

And remember, if your idea and novel are utterly brilliant, one dodgy comma in your synopsis isn’t going to stop you. It’s there to help your application, not hinder it. Juliet Mushens, one of The Novelry’s star partner agents , says:

I will always read the cover letter and pages first [...] I tend to only look at the synopsis if I’m potentially on the fence about something. So I might think that the writing is good but I can’t see where the plot is going, or that I am intrigued by the set-up but am not sure how the plot will unfold. —Juliet Mushens, literary agent

Give the agent a perceptive bird’s eye view of your book, and they’ll be desperate to read more. Let them see the inciting incident and rising action, give them a sense of the main arc, the main conflict and the overall plot – ideally on about one page – and they’ll be desperate to read your full book.

Still got problems?

The answer to solving a synopsis problem is almost always to simplify. Return to your plan with the fundamental beats of your story. Try telling your story to yourself, maybe on a voice recorder or voice note. Listening back to your speech will help show you what’s unnecessary and ensure you have enough detail without making your synopsis longer than it needs to be.

Try telling your story to yourself, maybe on a voice recorder or voice note. Listening back to your speech will help show you what’s unnecessary and ensure you have enough detail without making your synopsis longer than it needs to be.

Your synopsis needs to be understood by a complete stranger, so ensure you’re not assuming any knowledge about your story that an outsider couldn’t know. If you’re unsure, try sharing your synopsis with a trusted reader – your friends at The Novelry will oblige! See what they remember if you ask them to tell your story back to you. See what’s lost in translation.

But there’s a caution to this sharing: don’t send it to agents until it’s ready. In the same way that you wouldn’t rush over words when you’re writing your key opening chapters, spend time crafting your synopsis until it gleams. Don’t do your novel an injustice by summarising it poorly.

Perfect your submission to literary agents with The Novelry’s expert editorial team . Members of The Novelry gain access to brilliant resources to improve their book synopsis. The Novelry’s Community offers live online workshops and dedicated space to get feedback on your work from fellow writers plus exciting live sessions with famous bestselling authors.

image of Lily Lindon who knows all about the stages of publishing

Lily Lindon

Editor at The Novelry

Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. Lily is also the author of debut novel Double Booked . Edit your novel with Lily at The Novelry.

what is a synopsis for a novel

Krystle Appiah

Editor at The Novelry

Before joining us, Krystle was an editor at Macmillan Children's Books, a division of Pan Macmillan and home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.

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Book Marketing for Self-Publishing Authors

Home / Book Publishing / How to Write A Synopsis Agents and Publishers Will Love

How to Write A Synopsis Agents and Publishers Will Love

Book marketing isn't just for self-publishers. Traditionally published authors will have to go through their own forms of marketing as well. For instance, do you know how to write a synopsis and when to use one?

A great synopsis can actually be the driving factor in your book being picked up by a traditional publishing house.

In this article, you will learn:

Table of contents

And with that, let's learn how to write a synopsis for your manuscript!

What is a synopsis?

Synopsis, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is :

A condensed statement or outline (as of a narrative or treatise).

Basically, a synopsis is  broad overview of your work. Literary agents and publishers can use these as a quick go/no-go test on whether your book fits what they're looking to publish. A synopsis should include major plot points, unique story elements, and even your book's ending!

Sounds like a summary or book report right? Many people mistakenly think synopses and summaries are one in the same. But while they're similar, there are some distinct differences.

A great synopsis has a strong opening hook. A “hook” is used to grab hold of the reader and make them want to read the whole text. When done properly, a great hook can make an agent want to read your entire book after reading your synopsis. A summary doesn't necessarily need a solid hook.

A great example of this can be found within JK Rowling's synopsis for The Philosopher's Stone . Her first paragraph is exactly what a synopsis hook should read like.

I'm not saying you need to pull out all the stops when it comes to marketing in your synopsis, but… You shouldn't forget marketing all together. You should write your synopsis with language that will entice whoever is reading it. After all, it is like a mini-pitch for your book. A summary doesn't require that particular motivation.

Summaries are often written in the past tense as you are recapping what has happened. However, synopses should be written in third person present tense. The present tense helps to create a sense of urgency–something every good synopsis should have. Here's an example.

Bob pushed the button that started the whole chain of events.

All of a sudden, Bob smashes the button that leads to their impending doom.

How to Write a Great Synopsis

Writing a great synopsis isn't as difficult as it may seem. By following these simple guidelines, you'll be crafting master synopses in no time.

Let's look at the synopsis for Gladiator as an example of good structure.

Notice the 5 key plot points covered:

Now that we've looked at the big picture, let's dive deeper into how to outline and draft your synopsis.

You should treat your synopsis as you would any important piece of writing–by following a clear-cut plan for its construction. In James Patterson's MasterClass , he stresses that creating his outline is one of the most important steps he takes in writing a book. And you should do the same with your synopsis.

However, a synopsis outline is different than one for a whole book. A synopsis, when complete, is only 1-5 pages long–even for the most intricate of stories. So, it's really important that you pinpoint exactly what you're going to write about. Being picky is crucial when it comes to writing a great synopsis.

You need to identify who the major players in your story are. For example, if I were writing a synopsis on The Hobbit , Bilbo and Smaug would need to be mentioned. But Bofur doesn't really need to be addressed by name. (Sorry Bofur.)

Every good story has a few overlapping story arcs. But you need to decide which ones are actually driving the story along. To continue with The Hobbit , Bilbo finding the One Ring is absolutely critical to the story. However, the tale of his great great-grand uncle Bullroarer Took–although quite interesting–is not.

Don't be a Charlie. Your story should be condensed and easy to follow.

This is a problem area that many–particularly newer writers–have trouble with. It's not that the setting isn't defined well..but that it's defined too well. And while this can be somewhat overlooked in a full-length novel, this is an absolute no-no for your synopsis.

What not to say: 

Bilbo stares up at the Lonely Mountain, counting its seemingly endless crags as if the Earth itself were flashing a jagged toothy grin. Here would begin the final battle against the dragon Smaug whose visage was as terrifying as the mountain itself.

Try this instead:

Bilbo and his entourage arrive at the Lonely Mountain ready to face the dragon Smaug.

Just remember to KISS your way through. Keep It Short and Simple.

Like everything stated above, your synopsis is not the best place to try and show all the themes you have in your story. If they naturally showcase within the synopsis, that's great! If not, don't try to force them. They will become apparent to your agent/publisher after they've decided to accept your book and read it.

Outlining your synopsis makes it easier to see what's really important, and what you should actually include. Another thing to list out would be modifiers unique to your writing. Is your story told from an interesting point of view? That's definitely worth a mention. Or do you have a particularly clever plot twist? Be sure to add it into your synopsis.

Formatting Has Never Been Easier

Write and format professional books with ease.  Never before has creating formatted books been easier.

Actually writing your synopsis should be easy as long as you've planned out what you're going to say. But you want to the finished product to be as powerful as possible. So here are some things you need to keep in mind when drafting.

Introduce your main character early into your synopsis.

Be sure to introduce your main characters as early as possible into your synopsis. JK Rowling's example, that I mentioned earlier, demonstrates how to perfectly pull this off. She includes Harry's relevant quirky traits, behaviors, and attributes all the while keeping things interesting and brief.

Add some character development, when appropriate. 

Showing how your character develops over the course of your story through your synopsis is a great idea. The characters are what readers fall in love with, more than the plot.

Always write in the third person.

This is not a personal narration, even if the synopsis is for your own autobiography. Avoid using “I” or “me” as pronouns. Instead, use “he”, “she”, “it”, “they”, and “them”.

Keep your unique voice.

Literary Agents and publishers aren't just looking to see if you can write a good story. They're looking to see if you can tell one too. Your voice needs to remain a crucial part of your synopsis.

Editing Your Synopsis to Perfection

Once you written your synopsis, it's time to edit. Thankfully, editing a synopsis isn't anywhere near the feat of editing your book. But there are a few things you should keep in mind.

You're often writing these synopses for a specific audience. And these agents and publishing houses tend to each have different standards. That's why it's especially important to pay close attention to submission guidelines. Don't give them a reason to discard your synopsis without even reading it first.

For example, Penguin Random House has very specific requirements for submitting your work and synopsis. Below are just some of the guidelines for getting a children's book published :

As you can see, with Penguin Random House, your synopsis can be no longer than 400 words.

Now, it's time for you to go through your synopsis with a fine-toothed comb and eliminate all the spelling and grammar errors you can find. This could be your first impression to an agent or publisher. So, don't send them sloppy work. Instead, invest in a top-notch program such as ProWritingAid to put your best foot forward.

Often, we as authors look at our own creations through a set of rose colored glasses. That's why it can be best to have another person edit your synopsis. Consider hiring a professional editor or giving your work to a trusted peer. Many times they'll find things you never would have thought of.

Your synopsis is often one of the biggest reasons publishers accept or reject your book. That's why it's so critical that you pay close attention to how you're writing it.

If you've got a great story to tell, do your best to let it be heard. Take the time to craft the best synopsis you can think of, and you'll be well on your way.

Dave Chesson

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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