Gossamers articles

Writing a synopsis

Like many authors, you may find writing a synopsis of your book harder than writing the book itself. How do you condense those 60,000 or more carefully crafted words into a mere 300 words?

The skills needed to write a synopsis are not always the same skills needed to write a narrative, whether fiction or non-fiction, although they are arguably similar to those needed for certain kinds of non-fiction.

Unfortunately, many publishers and agents will judge the quality of your manuscript or book proposal based on the quality of your synopsis. If your synopsis is not well written or does not convey the information they need to see, they won’t bother reading your manuscript. The argument is that if you, the author, cannot get the story or argument clear enough in your own head to draft an effective synopsis, your manuscript is likely to be just as muddled.

There may be some validity to this argument, but I believe it’s also possible that the problem lies less with your manuscript and more with your closeness to it. Some distance – emotional distance – is needed to write a good synopsis. Distance can be obtained by:

  • having someone else write your synopsis, or at least its first draft
  • taking time out from your work – at least one month, ideally more – and drafting the synopsis when you can look at your manuscript afresh
  • using specific techniques, such as story arcing, to create that emotional distance.

Of course, you may want to use all of these distancing methods in combination to produce an effective synopsis.

Synopsis or blurb?

Don’t confuse a synopsis with a blurb – they have quite different purposes.

A blurb is a summary written for potential readers that appears on the back of a book or on a retailer's website, for example. It contains enough information to entice someone to read the book, but not so much that it gives away the ending or all the conclusions. A blurb teases or poses questions that reader finds interesting enough to want to read the book and find out the answers. A blurb is a marketing tool that highlights the most interesting or sensational aspects of the story.

A synopsis is a summary of your story or argument written for a publisher or agent so that they may assess your manuscript as a whole. Your synopsis should demonstrate that not only can you set up an interesting story or pose insightful questions about a topic, but that you can finish that story or answer those questions. Your synopis should always include the ending to your story or the conclusions to your argument.

Length of a synopsis

Some publishers and agents stipulate a maximum length for the synopsis, such as 300 or 500 words, or a single page, or up to two pages. Always write to the required length. This might mean trimming or extending a synopsis, as required, so it is a good idea to draft several versions of different lengths. If no length is specified, err on the side of brevity and try to keep to less than 500 words.

What to include in a synopsis

Deciding what to include in your 500 or so words depends on what kind of manuscript you’ve written. Synopses for narrative manuscripts – whether fiction, narrative non-fiction or memoir – must tell the story, while other kinds of manuscript synopses provide an outline of the contents. For most non-fiction books, the synopsis is more like an abstract than a story.

Narrative synopses

The narrative synopsis presents an overview of the “shape” of the story. The main things to remember are:

  1. Stick to the main plot, not the sub-plots. There may occasionally be exceptions but keep any coverage of sub-plots to a minimum. Focusing on the main story arc will help with this.
  2. Tell the story chronologically, even if your actual manuscript uses non-sequential devices such as flashback.
  3. Make sure you include the ending of the story.
  4. Write your synopsis in third person, present tense, even if your manuscript uses a different voice and tense. For example, even if your narrative voice is something like this: ‘It was on my fifteenth birthday that my new life began …’ you would still write the synopsis like this: ‘On Linda’s 15th birthday, she begins a new life …’
  5. Use language, tone and pacing appropriate to the story. For example, if it's a thriller, make it sound thrilling.

Non-fiction synopses

A synopsis for a non-fiction manuscript or book proposal should include, in this order:

  1. A brief statement, of only one or two sentences, that introduces the main idea or central thesis of the manuscript. It can be useful to present this as a question – the question you have asked that your book will answer.
  2. A description of the contents, in the order presented in the manuscript. The easiest way to do this is to follow your chapter outline. Remember to present your conclusion.
  3. A closing statement, again in only one or two sentences, about why your book should be published. This should address readership appeal and market needs, such as where your book fills a gap or how it adds to existing books on the topic.

Other uses of a synopsis

Apart from meeting agent and publisher submission guidelines, writing your synopsis can be a useful process in itself.

If you are struggling with the narrative structure of your manuscript, the process of picking out the main storyline for inclusion in the synopsis might help highlight where the issues are.

Similarly, articulating the central question posed by your work of non-fiction, how the contents support your conclusion on the subject, and your purpose in publishing the work, should help you in checking the arrangement of your material. It will also help you focus on identifying any gaps in the content that needs filling, and any superfluous sections that need cutting.

In other words, writing the synopsis might help you realise whether your work is in fact ready to send out into the wider world.

A good synopsis can also form the basis of future marketing blurbs. Obviously you want to remove the endings, so that you don’t give away too much, but the hard work in identifying the essence of your story or thesis is done.