A Synopsis

A What?

If you’re looking for an agent and/or publisher and you’ve written a novel, especially a plot-driven one, you may be asked to submit a synopsis, a play-by-play account of what happens in your manuscript.

Play-by-play for over 300 pages of plot twists and turns?!!?


Doesn’t that make for very tedious writing… not to mention very tedious reading?

Sadly, it often does… but it doesn’t have to!

A synopsis is important to agents and editors because of what it reveals: (ideally) interesting characters and surprising twists and turns in a tightly plotted page-turner.

Unfortunately, agents and editors also request synopses because of the negatives these documents may reveal – plot flaws, trite characters, poor structure, boring storylines – which enable them to turn down your manuscript without investing the time necessary to read it in its entirety.

In short, a good synopsis may get you in the door, and a bad one may get the door slammed in your face.  So let’s write a good one.

Start off with a grounding sentence or two, similar, perhaps, to the short overview you offered in your query letter, indicating what the story is about, its setting and its protagonist.

When you begin, omit the tedium of “and then what happens” and instead imbue the telling with a breathy energy by writing in the present tense and using an active voice rather than a passive one. (DONALD SILVER sees the letter and immediately…) Putting your main characters names in caps makes them easier to follow.

Be mindful as you write of your overall goals. You want to present a clear picture of your main characters (heroes and villains and in between), what is at stake – the novel’s core conflict – and how it gets resolved. Think ahead about key plot turns and be sure to include them. Even though a synopsis is an outline of sorts, it should include color (like your main characters’ feelings) where important.

What you leave out of a synopsis can be as important as what you put in, however. Skip the little stuff (Jane gets to the office wearing the very outfit James had admired at the party the night before, grabs a cup of very strong coffee and a doughnut, goes over the agenda with her assistant, and enters the conference room with her mind made up..) and get right to the details that matter (At the office the next day Jane enters the conference room with her mind made up..)

Avoid character clutter by mentioning by name only the ones that matter. And above all, adhere to the “show, don’t tell” golden rule: No editorializing.  No announcing that your story is exciting.  Demonstrate that it is by the way you portray it in your synopsis.