Hey friends! A lot of people were interested in how to write a book synopsis. I’m not surprised, really—synopsis writing can feel overwhelming.
I’m writing this post from the standpoint of someone who reads a lot of synopses in my day job in publishing. I’m going to give you one example of how to write a synopsis, but it’s not the only way to do it.
But first, let’s talk about the function of the synopsis! For me, a good synopsis does three things.
A good synopsis convinces me it’s a good story.
It tells me there are engaging characters who have clear motivations for their actions, a well-laid-out plot, enough conflict to keep things interesting, and a satisfying ending.
A word about motivation: the bigger the action, the clearer the motivation needs to be. “On a whim” often doesn’t cut it for big actions, like adopting a tiger for a pet or selling your house and driving an RV across the country.
I should also point out here that I pass on good stories all the time—and I’m not the only one. Our publishing house has a pretty specific vibe. Additionally, editors pass all the time on projects because they just acquired one or two in the same vein. That’s why you should never take a rejection as a sign that you’re a bad writer. There’s an element of luck to this business, and sometimes a rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your writing.
A good synopsis convinces me it’ll be an easy book to sell.
If I think it’s going to be easy to present the book to the salespeople, easy for the salespeople to pitch to retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, and Books a Million, and easy to pitch to consumers through a compelling description on the back cover, then naturally, I’m a lot more interested.
A good synopsis is a useful tool for discussing the story with others.
I need approval to acquire a book, and sometimes I’m talking to producers about the possibility of making the book into a movie. All these people can’t read every book (though the producers do read the whole book if they’re interested), so we use the synopsis.
So as you can see, the dreaded synopsis is, unfortunately, vital.
Here’s what a good synopsis is not: an overview of every single thing that happens in the book.
If the agent or editor asks for a synopsis of 2 to 4 pages, don’t send them a synopsis of 10 pages or more. And yes, it’s annoying that different people ask for different lengths. Try to give them what they want, as much as you can, and if you’re going to err, err on the side of brevity.
My top synopsis writing advice is:
If possible, write the synopsis before you write the book.
In my book Blank Page to Final Draft, I explain how getting upfront feedback on a synopsis helps you identify and fix plot holes and weaknesses before you even write the book. Yes, you’ll still have to revise your synopsis later, because writing will lead you to unexpected twists and turns. But you’ll likely avoid a brutal rewrite of your entire manuscript.
If you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “Well, that’s great and everything, Bryn, but I already wrote the book and I’m trying to figure out how to write a synopsis now,” no worries! Here’s my advice.
1. Start with a one- or two-sentence logline.
That’s right—this is basically a synopsis of the synopsis, haha. But it’s really effective. Here are a few made-up examples:
•A history teacher in Massachusetts is transported back to the Revolutionary War era, where she attempts to shorten the war and save thousands of lives by changing the course of a battle.
•A CIA agent is falsely accused of mishandling information and fired. His personal quest to find out who framed him leads to the discovery of a terrorist plot.
•Zoe, a teenager in the Chicago suburbs, is forced to spend the summer with her grandmother on a farm with spotty WiFi. As she gets involved with her grandma’s quirky quilting circle, a romance with a farmhand, and a state fair scandal, it turns out to be her most exciting summer yet.
2. Introduce each main character and their character arc.
A main character is usually a point-of-view character. A “character arc” means the way a character grows and changes throughout the story. (For a better understanding of this, you can check out my post on “What Is a Character Arc,” which includes examples.)
It can feel corny and overly simplistic to write out a character arc, but doing this will help people understand your story. I’ve written a few treatments for books and movies, and I’ve learned to always do this upfront.
Here are examples of how to do this.
•ELIZA MCBRAYER, a thirty-two-year-old history teacher who struggles with shyness in the classroom, discovers new depths of courage and daring within herself as she becomes involved in Revolutionary War-era tactics and espionage.
•MARCUS STONE, a CIA agent, always followed orders. After being wrongfully fired and discovering a terrorist plot, he learns that he has a real talent for making the strategic decisions himself.
•ZOE BURROWS, a suburban teenager, loves art and Instagram, and is quick to dismiss people and places as “boring.” She learns that all people—and all places—are interesting in their own way.
3. Identify the inciting incident, three or four scenes that are major turning points, and the ending.
Your “inciting incident” is the event that kicks everything into motion.
Your “turning points” are your big scenes that move the story forward and show a progression in your character arcs—in other words, a character is learning, changing, or growing. In a mystery, a turning point might be a major clue (or a major red herring.) In a romance, it’s a scene that brings the characters together—or makes one or both of them pull back. In any genre, it might be a triumph, a heartbreaking loss, or a big decision for one of your characters.
Write out a short description of the inciting incident, these major turning point scenes, and the ending. (Note: actual lines of dialogue generally don’t belong in a synopsis.) Take more time on the beginning and the ending than anything else.
Now, what if you have this one great scene that’s not really a turning point, but you’re very proud of it because it’s hilarious or just plain cool? Go ahead and put that one in there, too.
4. Now add the connective tissue between the big scenes.
By “connective tissue,” I mean a summary that is short on the details. For instance:
•Eliza settles into the boardinghouse, and after a couple of failed attempts, finds a position as a maid.
•By hiring someone to hack into the CIA’s files, Marcus discovers the connection between his former boss and the terrorist cell.
•Zoe is entertained by the quilters’ colorful stories and the next time they meet, she tries her hand at quilting herself.
Now you’ve got a draft of a synopsis.
If writing a synopsis makes you realize you need to do more revision of your novel—to clarify a character’s motivation, increase the conflict, trim a subplot, or so on—you’re not alone. Don’t feel bad about it! Embrace the insight and the opportunity to make the book better before you send it out.
Otherwise, just get some feedback from others on your synopsis—don’t be shy. Tweak it as necessary. Make an English major who loves you proofread it. And then it’s good to go.
Do you have your own tips for writing a great synopsis? Please share them in the comments! And if you have questions, go ahead and ask those, too—I’ll answer them if I can. Thanks so much for reading, and happy writing!