Toolbox 21: Synopsis The Hell Out of It

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


I’ve read several different methods on writing a synopsis.

Some suggest reading through the project, taking notes chapter-by-chapter, and going from there. This can work but I’ve always landed up with several pages.

Then I’m struggling all over again.

Others suggest only using plot points. This certainly shortens the summary, the number of characters included and cuts away sub plots.

I do a campfire story—my kind of outline—and tell the story as if I’ve got a captured audience. It comes out as third person present tense and I get the extra bonus of finding where the tension lags and plot holes hide.

It’s all done before the heavy lifting, my method may not be what an agent or editor wants and the why is covered farther down.

A Synopsis is a brief summary of the completed project and can range from one page to ten.

It should include the time and place, the goal, the obstacle, the main character’s motivations, plot twists and the ending. Don’t forget to show the main character’s arc.

That’s quite a bit, no need cluttering it up with the supporting cast (and their problems) or the subplots unless it takes direct action upon the outcome. Even then, keep it basic.

Read the agents/publisher guidelines for guidance. Some want the style of your project reflected (like my outline); therefore, it becomes a mini-version of the story with the same feel, word choices and emotional impact.

Others prefer a summarized report of what happens. Why and how the story is resolved. Clean, direct and sometimes dry. This one is more about the events than about writing style.

It’s a good idea to write one of each. There will be enough to worry about without adding unnecessary stress when submitting. Be kind to yourself.

Remember that a synopsis is not a book blurb (and you might as well write one of them as well). But the blurb is another beast, it is designed to prompt your reader once the cover has caught their eye.

Addition: If you use The Query Shark method, then the blurb is your query letter. Here’s the link for more on that.

To stay on track while summarizing, many write a logline. A single sentence description of the work. This is good too and could be punched up for later—twitter pitches, etc.

Formats demands vary so always check the submission guidelines. If none are available, it is safe to use what is suggested below.

One page or less general format: Single spaced with line space between paragraphs. Otherwise same as below.

Two pages or more general format: Third Person. Present tense. Double spaced. Align left. All margins 1.25 inches. Indent 0.5 inches. No spaces between paragraphs. Times New Roman, black, 12-point font. Use all caps for the first appearance of major characters. Header should include: left side only, author’s last name, title (or key words) synopsis, and page number if there is more than one.

Brenda Drake also says to include a hook as the first paragraph. Answer the question: What makes your story unique? She suggests finding and including that special something that sets a story apart from the rest. If you don’t use this in your synopsis, consider including it within the query letter.

Just a thought.

Do you have any tips that may help? I’m all ears.

Gleaned from:

50 responses to “Toolbox 21: Synopsis The Hell Out of It

  1. As a publisher, in the short blurb in the query letter, I want the main character identified in the first line and the blurb should cover the who-what-where-when-why-how.

  2. Great tips 🙂 When I did work experience at a publisher the agent often sent along the author synopsis with the manuscript. One had a chapter by chapter guide, which I thought was quite interesting!

  3. Oh man!!! I never had to do one of these until I started querying last year and I tell ya it’s worse than writing the dang story. LOL Thanks for the tips. I’m really hoping to avoid writing any more, but I know that is highly unlikely if I’m going to continue to query.

  4. I’ve tried writing a synopsis once and it sent me into anxiety mode. Blurbs I can do. Synopsis? AAAAAHHHHH!!!!

  5. Thanks for sharing these tips. writing a synopsis is soooooo hard. And it seems like everyone wants something slightly different!

  6. I always heard the synopsis should give the feel for the writing, so similar voice and POV. Great post today 🙂

  7. Argh, synopsis. I’m fine writing blurbs, I actually quite enjoy those, but I usually pretend that if I don’t think about the synopsis it won’t remember me and I won’t have to write it. Thank you for this nice, condensed guide to them, it almost makes me feel like I can write mine without grumping!

  8. I feel like part of the challenge is keeping it all straight.
    In theory there’s what you say to an agent, editor, or publisher, and then there’s what you might say to an audience.

    Audiences need the tagline and back cover blurb, which hook them without giving away anything they won’t learn early on anyway.

    In contrast, agents and the like are all about a complete statement of what the story is about, ranging from the 1 sentence logline, to the multi-page synopsis.

    Usually I try to work by scene or chapter, condensing said units into either a paragraph or a sentence, and then smoothing over the rough edges between them. I find that a good measure is how much text within the story is devoted to a given character or event, as that’s often how audiences determine importance when reading.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Good info, Anna. That’s pretty much how I’ve done it. As the author, it includes what I want agents to know.

  10. Good tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Thank for sharing. I have been wondering about them.

  12. I’ve only written one and it was agonizing. Hopefully, it will get easier over time…? 🙂 Great tips and thanks for the link.

  13. What a cool way to think of a synopsis: campfire story. I like it. I wish I had advice. Truth is, writing synopses is pure torture, no matter how many I write, no matter how many drafts I write of each one. It’s so awful!

  14. I get so frustrated with the many different lengths asked for by different agents and publishers. It varies so widely. Good ideas of what to do. I always start with a log line and expand out from there.

  15. Thanks for sharing these. It’s good to know these things.

    I haven’t reached the point on which I’d have to go writing up a synopsis, but I know how important these things are to selling your books.

    I didn’t know it was this difficult!

  16. Great post! I thought I knew everything about synopses at this point, but I was mistaken. No spaces between paragraphs in a 2+ paged synopsis?? I had no idea. I’m with Brenda regarding the hook in your synopsis – every time I write one, I always imagine the editor/agent reading is a potential reader I’m trying to entice to keep going. Thanks for sharing these details and links!

  17. Synopsis are hard. It’s hard to summarize a whole book and to be interested in just a page or two. Thanks for your tips.

  18. Great post! Very informative. I took lots of notes. 🙂

  19. So far I haven’t had to subject myself to this process, although I probably should. Thank you for the guidance, especially since I probably would have left out the ending…

  20. I’ve been trying to write a synopsis of a project I’ve been working on of late. Condensing my story seems more complicated that writing the story itself. Probably I should focus better–distractions abound.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  21. I’ve judged a few contests which require entrants to include a one-page synopsis. I’ve found that a messy synopsis that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t make the key plot or character arc clear is probably indicative of a messy manuscript that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t make the key plot point or character arc clear. So once you’ve nailed your synopsis, use it to make sure you’re delivering a great story.

  22. The synopsis is the true test of a writer–compacting all those 300 pages into a few paragraphs is a challenge. We want the publisher to see how grand our story is and try to include everything. I was told to concentrate only on the main character’s story and not on sub-stories within the novel. Diane has a good suggestion to make the backbone of the synopsis based on the Five W’s and How. Thanks for compiling so much info on how to write a synopsis.
    JQ Rose

  23. Victoria Marie Lees

    This is great, Anna! I can’t wait until I can be at this stage. Here’s hoping I make it with my college memoir. All best to you, my dear.

  24. Hi,
    I have to admit all of my characters are multicultural from different nationalities, speak different languages and come out of different cultures. Living in Europe has reinforced my views on not classifying people by race.
    I love Captain Kirk too but my most favourite was Mr. Spock. He was a cutie.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

    • I admit living in my vanilla world–small town with the minority consisting of a couple of extended families–doesn’t help me at all. I know I’m missing out, but home is home. 🙂

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