How to Write a Synopsis


Back when I was doing my MA program, I typed up a guide to writing query letters. It’s the post from this blog that I’m most proud of: a thorough step-by-step guide that combines days and weeks of research, and dozens of sources, into a neatly packaged 1,800-word post.

And I have to admit, I didn’t write it for tumblr. I needed to write a query letter myself for a publishing class, and my post was little more than compiled homework notes, saved as a Tumblr post for posterity. 

I’ve actually had pieces of this in my drafts for years, but now I actually have to write a synopsis and I’m piling up the research, so I thought it was finally time for the sister to my query post to be published here.

But first…

What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of the events that transpire in a book, either proposed or already written. It’s used to give people who haven’t read your book a quick overview, so they know the story that’s being told in the book without having to read it.

When is a synopsis necessary?

Some literary agents request synopses along with query letters. More often, they’re used slightly later on in a writer’s career, when they have an agent or an editor and they need to submit a proposal for a new idea or project. A synopsis can also be used later on, in situations that don’t involve the author. For instance, when an editor pitches the book to the marketing and publicity team, who may not have time to read every book they’re working on. Unlike a query letter, the book doesn’t necessarily have to be written when you’re submitting its synopsis.

Basic Style

The job of a synopsis is to lay out the story with little fuss and no frills. They let the person you’re pitching know what they’re going to find in that giant stack of pages on their desk or in that obscenely long Word document (or else in the Word doc they’ll eventually receive).  

Most professional synopses follow these rules:

  • They’re told in third person
  • They’re told in present tense
  • Characters’ names are CAPSLOCKED at first mention.
  • They are double spaced.
  • They tend to avoid descriptions longer than this sentence.
  • They focus on the central conflict and the protagonist’s emotional journey
  • They spoil the ending
  • They should be 500 words or less. (That is 1 page single-spaced, 2 pages double-spaced.)


The plot

Writing your synopsis, you have one goal: to tell a 50,000-100,000 word story in 500 words. It can be a little difficult to do this right. A great way to do this is to identify the key turning points in your protagonist’s story.

Do you remember those little plot roller coasters you’d make in elementary school? They’d usually be pointy witch’s-hat shaped things labeled with the terms: “beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.” 

Those turning points are the events you should be including in your synopsis.This is the structure you want to emphasize to your reader. You want to make abundantly clear that your story works like a story, that the events of your book have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that there’s an intriguing beginning, an exciting climax, a satisfying conclusion. You don’t want to just list out the events of your novel, but highlight the function of those events. X moment is important because it’s the inciting incident, the moment that takes the protagonist from their normal life and throws them into the story.

There are tons of great story roadmaps out there, that go into more specific story elements. The Hero’s Journey is the most famous example of a detailed, and mostly universal, story structure. There’s also the three-act structure that’s famous among screenwriters.

Find a structure that fits your story the best and use that to identify the events of your story that need to make it into your synopsis. I’ll link to different sources at the bottom of this post that will give you variations of story structure.

If you can correlate key scenes in your novel to the descriptions of these plot points, you’ll find an easy roadmap to navigating the many events of outlining your novel.

Your protagonist’s journey

Your protagonist is the heart of your story, and should be the heart of the synopsis, too. The protagonist’s emotional journey may not string all of these plot points together, but it’s going to be what makes them matter to the reader. The human element of your story has to be represented in your synopsis.  

There’s no room for long descriptions, so you’ll have to be smart about finding a few terms that not only tell your reader who the character is, but what their story will be. For instance, if your story is about someone trying to get their critically-panned paintings in the Museum of Modern Art by breaking into the museum and installing the pieces themselves, you may want to introduce them with a sentence that begins like so: “When IGNATIUS, an ambitious and untalented struggling artist, discovers his work is rejected from yet another gallery…”

In addition to these descriptive terms, you should spell out what your protagonist wants (or wants desperately to avoid) and their stake in the events of the story. 

Along the way, tell us how these key aspects of their persons change due to the events of the story, or else how they influence the events of the story. Tell us about how after raving reviews for his DIY MoMA exhibit came in, Iggy realized that though he still liked painting, his talents actually lay in performance art. Untalented to talented, struggling to successful, all because his ambition pushed him to try new and daring things.


As in query letters, you only name the most important characters and locations outright. If you’re writing a synopsis for Harry Potter, you’ll want to use Harry’s name in the query, but most other people and places can be referred to by their function in the novel. Ex: Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon can be “his cruel relatives.” Hermione and Ron can be “his friends.” Even Hogwarts can be a “school for people with magical abilities.” This makes it easier for a reader to understand what’s going on in your story. Too many names in such a small amount of space can be overwhelming.

All telling, no showing. This is one piece of writing where you’ll want to tell, instead of show. You need to get to your point as quickly, as clearly, and concisely as possible; this isn’t the place for creative storytelling.

Oftentimes, synopses are given along with other materials, such as pitch letters and sample pages. While a synopsis should be captivating in-so-far that it’s well told, and it should maybe be a little stylish, being captivating and stylish aren’t its main goals. Additional materials like sample pages and pitches have more room for creative flourishes and can do a better job of selling the story, while the synopsis focuses on telling it.

Your synopsis should show that you know how to tell a story. While a synopsis doesn’t sell a story like a query, it should still illustrate the fact that you have an interesting, unique and well-structured plot. When finished, your reader should be able to think to themselves “that’s a good story. I want to read that.”

Your first draft will be too long. Your first draft of a synopsis will always be at least a page or two longer than it should be. Identify the sentences and paragraphs where you explain why a thing happens and ax them. Identify sentences where you repeat yourself and ax them. Identify descriptors that aren’t vital to understanding of the story and ax them. Once you make your first painful cuts and see that the story still makes sense without those things, you’ll start to get a better understanding of what can and cannot be taken out of your synopsis.


About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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