How to Write a Novel Synopsis

how to write a novel synopsis

Photo by reamyde / Flickr

Note from Jane: The following post is an old favorite that I regularly update. 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 required 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.

Don’t confuse the synopsis with sales copy—the kind of material that might appear on your back cover or in an Amazon description. You’re not writing a punchy marketing piece for readers that builds excitement. It’s not an editorial about your book.

Unfortunately, there is no single “right” way to write a synopsis. You’ll find conflicting advice about the appropriate length, which makes it rather confusing territory for new writers especially. However, I recommend keeping it short, or at least starting short. Write a one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—and use that as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer. 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 novel 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., the whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of god, a genre romance ending in divorce. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, 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 usually aren’t expecting a work of art. You can impress with lean, clean, powerful language (Miss Snark recommends “energy and vitality”).

Synopses should usually be written in active voice, third person, present tense (even if your novel is written in first person).

What the novel synopsis must accomplish

First, you need to tell the story of what characters we’ll care about, which includes the protagonist. Generally you’ll write the synopsis with your protagonist as the focus, and show what’s at stake for her.

Second, we need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.

Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.

If you cover those three things, that won’t leave you much time for detail. You won’t be able to mention all the characters or events. You’ll probably leave out some subplots, and some of the minor plot twists and turns. You can’t summarize each scene or even every chapter, and some aspects of your story will have to be broadly generalized so as to avoid detailing a series of events or interactions that don’t materially affect the story’s outcome.

To decide what characters deserve space in the synopsis, you need to look at their role in generating conflict for the protagonist, or otherwise assisting the protagonist. We need to see how they enter the story, the quality of their relationship to the protagonist, and how they might change, too. 

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. If the character or plot point comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and increases the tension or complication each time, then it definitely belongs.

The most common novel synopsis mistake

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture; it will read like a story without any emotion.

Think 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 novel synopsis

A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.

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

Common novel synopsis pitfalls

  • Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of character names. Stick to the basics. Use the name of your main characters, but if a waitress enters the story only briefly, call her “the waitress.” Don’t say “Bonnie, the boisterous waitress who calls everyone hon and works seven days a week.” That’s a huge and unnecessary tangent. When you do mention specific character names, it’s common to put the name in caps in the first instance, so it’s easy for agents or editors to see at a glance who the key figures are.

  • Don’t spend any time in the synopsis explicitly explaining or deconstructing the themes the story may address. This synopsis tells the story; it doesn’t try to interpret what it means. (But it does tell us the characters’ feelings or reactions.)

  • Avoid character backstory. A phrase or two is plenty to indicate a character’s background; you should only reference it when it effects how events unfold. This may mean, if you’ve written a story with flashbacks, you probably won’t include much, if any, of that in the synopsis. However, if the flashbacks are really about what happens in the book rather than why something happens, then they may belong in your synopsis.

  • Avoid including dialogue, and if you do, be sparing. Make sure the dialogue you include is absolutely iconic of the character or represents a linchpin moment in the book.

  • Don’t ask rhetorical or unanswered questions. Remember, your goal here isn’t to entice a reader.

  • Don’t split your synopsis into sections, or label the different plot points. In rare cases, there might be a reason to have subheads in the synopsis, due to a unique narrative structure, but try to avoid sectioning out the story in any way, or listing a cast of characters upfront, as if you were writing a play.

  • While your synopsis will reflect your ability to write, it’s not the place to get pretty with your prose. That means you should leave out any lyrical descriptions or attempts to impress through poetic description. You really can’t take the time to show things in your synopsis. You really have to tell, and sometimes this is confusing to writers who’ve been told for years to “show don’t tell.” For example, it’s OK to just come out and say your main character is a “hopeless romantic” rather than trying to show it.

How to avoid novel synopsis wordiness

Synopsis language has to be very stripped down. 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.

How to start your novel synopsis

Identify your protagonist, the protagonist’s conflict, and the setting by the end of the first paragraph. Then you’ll have to decide which major plot turns/conflicts must be conveyed for everything to make sense, and which characters must be mentioned. (You should not mention all of them.) Think about your genre’s “formula,” if there is one, and be sure to include all major turning points associated with that formula. The ending paragraph must show how major conflicts are resolved—yes, you have to reveal the ending! No exceptions.

Additional resources

Also: I offer a synopsis critique service

I can help you improve your query, synopsis, and first five pages.

 

Posted in Getting Published and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

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

Join the conversation

200 Comments on "How to Write a Novel Synopsis"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Nilufar

Jane, thank you very much. Very useful. What about a short story collection? Some publishers ask synopsis for short stories as well. I would appreciate your tips. Thank you

trackback

[…] also highly recommend visiting Jane Friedman’s blog posting on the subject of synopses. I found it extremely helpful and insightful: It was nice to know where and how I had went very […]

trackback

[…] expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph […]

Zechariah T. Silkwood
Zechariah T. Silkwood
Just watched your masterclass on Jerry’s writers guild and took a look at your blog. Very helpful but i do have one question: If you have a character that is so involved in the story he/she could almost be a main character as well, how do you write a synopsis? For example, the character attributes a subplot in the novel but at the same time the subplot becomes part of the main character’s motivation? Do you try and put both characters into it or focus on the main character and add just enough tid-bits to accomplish the other character’s role?… Read more »
Kristopher Grows

For a story covering multiple interrelated historical eras, and thus multiple casts, how would you suggest handling the resulting multiple protagonists in the synopsis? Linearity seems a mistake.

F. Stege

Learned a lot. Thank you

trackback

[…] Need help to write a synopsis? The WOW Workbook has some great techniques and the brilliant Jane Friedman has a great how-to-write-a-novel synposis here […]

trackback

[…] be almost as taxing as writing the novel. For a detailed how-to, see Jane Friedman’s excellent website. There’s plenty of other online sources […]

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis […]

trackback

[…] Now the length of the synopsis varies from one paragraph to two pages double-spaced. If the agent or editor doesn’t let you know ahead of time which they would prefer or on their companies website it does not specifically state which length is preferred, I would suggest doing both! Great practice in the future and shows that you are able to summarize your novel in 30 seconds, one paragraph and two pages. For more on writing the synopsis and what it should cover I would suggest Jane Friedman’s blog post entitled Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis. […]

trackback

[…] you need to have a polished query letter (YAY! more writing!). And a tightly written synopsis; Jane Friedman has a plethora of great articles to help in that department and much more besides. The query letter […]

Brianna Zamborsky

Thank you for this amazing post! Been struggling with my synopsis for a chapter book after writing only picture books. I have one question: seems like all this information for adult novels will apply to a children’s chapter book as well, but the one thing I wonder about is the length. Will a synopsis for a 10,000 book still be 500-600 words long, or should I aim for less? Thank you for any input you can share!

trackback

[…] 5. Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis […]

trackback

[…] Jane Friedman explains it, “…an agent or publisher wants to see, from beginning to end, what happens in your […]

trackback

[…] Only if requested in the submission guidelines. Click here for instructions on how to write a synopsis. […]

trackback

[…] by the whole business of writing a synopsis, so I spent a lot of this week researching guidelines. Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis by industry expert Jane Friedman covers what you should include and what to avoid. She’s […]

trackback

[…] “Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis” by publishing maven Jane Friedman […]

trackback

[…] synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than 1-2 pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. […]

trackback

[…] synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than 1-2 pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. […]

trackback
[…] In my new role as Editor-at-Large at Pushkin Press I am delighted to be working on an initiative to encourage authors to send me their unpublished works of fiction.  I will consider the first 20 pages and a synopsis and there is a twenty four hour period from 00.01am  in the early hours to 23.59pm on the 20th June 2016.   I am looking for originality, strong characters, emotional impact and compellingly readable books for young readers 8+.  Please see the Press Release that went out this week.  If you are looking for tips on how to write a… Read more »
trackback

[…] There is some great advice online, some very useful information and guidance can be found on https://janefriedman.com/novel-synopsis/ […]

trackback

[…] 8+.  Please see the Press Release that went out this week.  If you are looking for tips on how to write a great synopsis this is a good place to start [Note from Chazda: The Great Synopsis link is to none other than Jane Friedman, so read it].” […]

Elsie Hulsizer

What is the difference between a synopsis and an outline if you are submitting a novel to a publisher? I get the idea of a synopsis and have written one but some publishers ask for an outline.

trackback

[…] I got home I decided to rewrite my synopsis. And thanks to Jane Friedman I found a wonderful resource: How to Write a 1-page Synopsis by Sooz. The outline was easy to […]

Writer Si

I’ve just finished my first novel and I’m daring to dream of trying to get it published. Oddly, I’ve started writing the synopsis already and so far it’s much easier to write than any of the book! But we’ll see. I’ll read through these tips again and make sure I haven’t made any rookie mistakes

Kris Mielke
I’m not an author. Just an avid reader and reviewer. I’ve noticed recently that some authors aren’t mentioning possible trigger points in the synopsis to their book. Meaning if there is mention of rape or abuse in any form to adults or children, there is no mention of this in the synopsis. My question to you is, are there guidelines all authors must follow when writing a synopsis? Should Indie authors follow the same guidelines as authors going through a publisher? It is not my intention to bash any one author, or any one particular style of writing. I am… Read more »
trackback

[…] that goes over all the important stuff in your story (think an IMDB movie synopsis; for help, check here, here or […]

Pinkie Paranya

Most synopsis have one main or central character. I’ve written a ‘literary’ novel with 3 siblings and a mother. All carry nearly the same importance to the story. Is that a problem juggling all their plot points in a 1 or 2 page synopsis?

trackback

[…] Jane Friedman on the Novel Synopsis […]

trackback

[…] useful synopsis advice, I’d check out Jane Friedman’s post on her […]

trackback

[…] what I’d love to share with you today is Jane Friedman’s Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis. Why? Because I’m about to start writing my […]

Wanda

I have written my first inspirational book which is an account of an accident that nearly killed me. In by book I tell about God’s advice that He had planned for me, the nature of the crisis, its impact on me, His dramatic interventions and amazing rescue and restoration of my life. I am the major human character. A reader can easily imagine the incidences, their effects and the various experiences vividly shared.

Should my summary / synopsis be written in the first or third person? Please give me some tips on how write one for my type of book.

Wanda

I am interested in listening to others writing concerns, experiences and discoveries.

trackback
[…] 2.  Provide inspiration and originality when writing your synopsis; an entirely different approach than your competition, publishers will have more trust in your synopsis if they feel that you have experience and originality on the topic. What is a Synopsis? A synopsis is a succinct account of a manuscript grouped with the cover letter and the chapter sample; it is a vital piece of the querying puzzle. The synopsis demonstrates your writing talent, shows your ability to craft a good story and, should get the publisher clamouring to read your full manuscript. It’s probably the single most despised documents you might… Read more »
David Randall McKay

I’ve spent the last seven years of my life writing and editing a single story. Finally, it has depth I am looking for. Just now it has begun to spring arms and legs and carry its own weight. Writing a synopsis is easy, because it’s already written.

Very Well Read

For those looking for some inspiration, take a look at some of the excellent synopsis’s of 1984 over at Well Read; http://www.wellread.eu/?ASIN=014118776X

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis – I found this article by Jane Friedman quite helpful. You can skip the introductory paragraphs as they’re not relevant for NaNoWriMo. Check out the bottom of the article for additional resources. […]

trackback

[…] Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis […]

trackback

[…] top of queries there’s a one-page synopsis that some agents require. Or a three-page synopsis. When condensing your own novel, it’s […]

trackback

[…] Writing a Novel Synopsis Once you understand what a synopsis should accomplish, yours will be easier to write. […]

trackback

[…] 2. Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis | Jane Friedman […]

trackback

[…] Jane Friedman’s article on novel synopses: Short, succinct, and easy to follow, I found myself repeatedly returning to this article over others. Something about it just clicked for me, with Friedman’s straightforward guidance offering clarity and direction. She also lists additional synopsis-writing resources at the end of her essay, which is where I found this next gem…. […]

Cate Hogan

A very helpful article, thanks. I tend to write from the seat of my pants, but have learned –the hard way– that following a loose outline and plot structure can save my editing budget down the line. I recently featured a post on my blog with 5 key plotting techniques, which you might find interesting. http://catehogan.com/how-to-write-a-novel-plot-structures/

trackback

[…] industry makes this her number one ‘don’t’ in her very detailed blog post on how to write a novel synopsis. Says Jane, ‘A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it […]

trackback

[…] my novel down to 3,000 words or less…I wonder if people self-publish to avoid writing a synopsis? I’ve read my book many times but when I come to write the synopsis, my mind completely […]

Brian

Hi Jane,

Thank you so much for all the helpful information. I have followed and read everything that you said. I’ve now finished my one page synopsis and I have some questions.

1) Is it mandatory that you have to capitalize the main characters the first time you mention them? I know that you already said that you could but wasn’t sure if you had too.

2) Should you indent each paragraph?

3) How do you format the title in a one-page synopsis and what should be included?

Thanks!

Mary Powers

Through all of my searching, I am very thankful to happened upon your blog. Thank you for the insightful information. I am now even more excited to continue my writing. Will be in touch.

trackback

[…] to write a synopsis: https://janefriedman.com/novel-synopsis/ or […]

wpDiscuz