How to write a synopsis for your novel

Writing a synopsis for your novel can be tough. Here's what to do, what not to do, plus ways to get started.

How to write a synopsis for your novel

We’re writers, so why does writing a synopsis – a brief summary of our story's main plot – get us in such a tangle?

Usually when querying, writers are asked to send a cover letter, the first three chapters of their novel and a synopsis – and that’s usually the order they’re read in. The synopsis is the bit that publishers and agents get to when they’ve been hooked in by what they’ve read so far. Now they need to know that the whole story has been fleshed out – that there is a story, that you’ve got this.

Even if your novel is nowhere (or somewhere) near the finish line, it’s a great idea to start a working synopsis early on in the writing process to refer to and tweak as you go along. This has helped me massively in terms of getting to grips with my own novel’s story arc / plot.

Tips from the experts

I recently finished a two-year creative writing course, which culminated in a ‘publishing day’. Basically a day spent on Zoom with agents, publishers and writers, getting the intel on the business end of writing and routes to publication.

We had a session on how to write a synopsis. I’ll also write up some of the other sessions to share my takeaways about those, which include how to write a query/cover letter and more general advice on publishing.

OK, it’s business time. (Flight of the Conchords ref for those who know it. Tune will be in your head all day. Sorry-not-sorry.)

How to write a synopsis for your novel:

  1. Describe what happens in third-person, present tense and in chronological order.
  2. Describe who it happens to: introduce your protagonist and other main characters.
  3. Weave in why anyone should care.

That’s it.

Just kidding. Of course that’s not it…

Writing a synopsis - dos and don’ts

I can’t stress enough (how much other people more in the know than me have stressed) that there are always variations with a synopsis – agents and publishers differ, so do your research by reading guidelines on their websites, plus the blurb on the inside of their already published books.

Having said that, although I hate to ‘should’ you, there are a few things the synopsis of your novel should and shouldn’t do.

Your novel synopsis should:

  • strictly follow the guidelines set out on the publisher or agent’s website (can't be said enough)
  • reveal structure, key characters and story arc from start to finish
  • reassure the agent / publisher that the rest of the book is in safe hands - that you do have a story
  • be written in present tense, third person
  • cover the whole story of your novel chronologically
  • preferably have the title, word count (of the synopsis) and genre at the top
  • note at the end what point of view the story is written in (rather than squeezing this in elsewhere)
  • include all spoilers and twists (unless the publisher / agent has specifically asked you not to)
  • be brief – synopses are usually no more than one page using 12pt. font size
  • tell not show (I know, right? – the opposite to how we’re told to write creatively)
  • be treated with the same care and attention as your creative writing: get feedback, let it sit, edit and hone etc.

Your novel synopsis should not:

  • mention all characters – just the main ones
  • include lots of adverbs and adjectives – keep it informative in style
  • mention all your sub-plots, unless absolutely necessary

Where to start and ways in

You’ll need one for your cover letter anyway, but writing an elevator pitch can be a really useful starting point or ‘way in’ to writing your synopsis. The elevator pitch is a very brief summary of your novel (we’re talking circa 25 words) that reveals what writerly peeps call ‘the hook’.

This is a good exercise: Start a fresh page and try to fill in the gaps below with details of your novel.

When A [inciting incident] happens to B [main character] then C [result / difficulty / conflict] happens. How can B avoid D [unwanted outcome] happening?

The trick with the elevator pitch is to get you to distil the novel you’ve spent years of your life writing, thinking about, editing (and editing again), down to a mere few sentences. It’s a tough gig but one that will get you thinking about your full synopsis in a succinct way.

Keep this elevator pitch. You’ll refer back to it and need it for your cover letter as part of your querying package.

Another good way to get started with a synopsis is to write bullet points for each chapter for your entire novel. Then go back and flesh it out, adding in your linking words. As I said at the beginning, this, afterall, is all a synopsis really is –  a brief summary of your story's main plot.

Good luck.

Hat tip to Jacq Molloy and New Writing South's Creative Writing Programme for the advice and ideas that informed this post.