Writing a Synopsis

Almost every publisher and literary agent requires a synopsis of your novel in a submission package. The reason is obvious – they need to know whether your book is marketable, but it is physically impossible to read the full manuscript of every single unsolicited submission. A synopsis provides a comprehensive summary of the book and gives enough information for the agent/publisher to make a decision on whether to request the full manuscript.

A synopsis should be written in the present tense and outline exactly what happens in the story in the same order in which the events occur in your book. Always cover the full story in your synopsis, including the major plot twists and the ending. You must “spoil” the story, and not attempt to tease the publisher into wanting more – they don’t have time for that.

When to Start Compiling the Synopsis

Many writers detest the synopsis as a lifeless rendering of their book. If it takes 400 pages to build a plot and paint the development of the characters, how is it possible to crunch all that life down into one page, or even ten? One answer is to distance the synopsis from the book – think of the synopsis as not simply a short version of the book, but a completely different medium, with a different audience.

I find the best time to write the synopsis is before beginning to write the book, or within having written the first few chapters. Because I am usually still working on another novel when I get an idea for the next book, I have found that writing a detailed synopsis of my idea helps me to recall it better many months or years later when I finally get a chance to start working on it. When I then complete the book, my original synopsis is an excellent starting point for updating anything that has changed and generating a short one- or two-page synopsis. The level of plot detail that kept the story idea alive for me, is ideal for passing on that same information to an agent or publisher.

Synopsis Length

Guidelines on the length of the synopsis required by publishers and agents vary greatly. Some only want one page, others prefer ten pages. In a ten-page synopsis, it is advisable to describe each chapter in a paragraph, or two if the chapter contains vital plot progress. A one-page synopsis, however, requires that some of the subplots and minor characters be omitted. It is far more difficult to prune a long synopsis down to a single page than it is to summarise each chapter and create a detailed synopsis. It is for this reason that I highly recommend summarising what you know of your story before you start writing it. Once you generate the details, it becomes very difficult to decide which are important and which can be cut.

It’s a good idea to create both a one-page synopsis and a fully detailed version. Most of your submissions will require the short synopsis. But when an agent eventually requests a partial or full manuscript, including a more detailed synopsis will be useful to both the agent and a publisher’s acquisitions editor and marketing department.


As with the rest of your submission, the synopsis should be printed in a clear 12 point standard font, such as Arial, Times, or Courier. Allow a one inch margin on all sides. Single-spacing is usually acceptable if the synopsis is only one page, but should be double-spaced if it goes onto two or more pages. Number your pages and print on only one side of the sheet. Don’t forget to include your name and title of your manuscript on every page.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in December 2006. © Elsa Neal

For more help with writing a synopsis, try

The First Five Pages : A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman

The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters