Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Dreaded Synopsis

The past week or so, I have been struggling with the bane of my literary existence: the synopsis. Over the years, I have talked to hundreds of people in the publishing industry and I've reached two conclusions regarding those 5-page pests: all writers hate them and most agents require them.

For those of you who haven't had the anguish of being asked to boil down your 90K word novel into five measly pages, consider yourselves lucky. The rest of us have had to struggle and wrestle and feel the pressure because not only are synopses hard to write, they can make or break a submission packet. The agent or editor may enjoy the first three chapters you sent, but if they're not drawn to the summary of the entire book, they're not going to ask for the full manuscript. These five pages, the ones that no author I know claims to be good at writing, can determine whether or not your manuscript gets read.

You're probably thinking this would be the place where I give you the secret recipe for creating a kick-ass, fail-proof synopsis, but unfortunately, I don't know the secret. I've written two, neither of which landed me a book contract. So I'm turning to the experts. I've researched blogs, articles, forums and have formulated a lists of dos and don'ts for writing synopses:


  • Make it compelling. If you're synopsis isn't gripping why would your book be?
  • Include ending and illustrate a clear narrative arc. Agents and editors want to make sure you can tell a full story without it falling apart at the end.
  • Pinpoint key story elements and elaborate on those, skipping over minor characters and plot points.
  • Illustrate your protagonist's goal, motivation, and conflict. Without those three things, there is no story.
  • Write in present tense, no matter what verb tense your novel is written in.
  • Practice. Like any other craft, you're not going to nail it on the first try. A good exercise is writing a synopsis for a common book or movie.


  • Include cliffhangers or teasers. Give it all away!
  • Include every detail of the book. If you do, you're synopsis will be a hundred pages long.
  • Lose your voice. Let the writing style of the manuscript come through in the synopsis.
  • Write it like a report. It should read more like a short story than a list of plot points.

These are pretty simple tips, and in theory, writing a synopsis is pretty simple. It's the art of creating a gripping, flawless, impossible-to-put-down, synopsis which is tricky. Want to hear it from the horse's mouth? Ask the experts:

Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent

Miss Snark - Anonymous Literary Agent

Jessica Faust - Literary Agent

Gordon Carroll (author) via his agent - Part 1

Gordon Carroll (author) via his agent - Part 2

1 comment:

Quinn said...

I'd love to add my own insightful and helpful input to this list, but my own synopsis hasn't gotten me any contracts either. Ugh, synopses...