The Synopsis

Many writers hate the concept of the synopsis. They would rather let their work speak for itself, and they resent the fact that nearly all agents and editors expect to see an abbreviated overview of their masterpiece in a proposal package.

Sometimes writers will “forget” to include the synopsis in their proposal packages, hoping the agent or editor won't notice. This never works; all it does is show the agent or editor that you can't or won't follow their guidelines. Sometimes writers even write long explanations as to why they can't possibly condense their novel into a synopsis. This doesn't work, either. You must include a synopsis if you want to be taken seriously as a fiction writer.

Remember that your proposal is a marketing tool. The synopsis is a key selling element in your package. Agents and editors are inundated with material every single day, and many of them use the synopsis to decide whether they want to read the rest of your proposal — or at least how much time and attention they want to give when reading. A well-written synopsis can mean the difference between a close reading and a casual perusal.

Your synopsis is a descriptive narrative that covers the main plot points in your story, usually two to three pages long. It never should be longer than five pages. It is always written in the third person and in the present tense: “Jane Smith is a bookseller in a small Midwestern town.” Cover the important scenes, but don't stray into subplots or minor characters.

Should I write my synopsis before or after I write my manuscript?

There are advantages to both methods. If you write your synopsis beforehand, it can serve as a road map while you're writing the actual story. However, keep in mind that you'll probably change key points of your plot as you write, so you'll have to rewrite your synopsis accordingly.

Engage the Reader

The opening sentence of your synopsis is at least as important as the opening sentence of your novel, and it deserves as much of your energy in crafting it. If your first sentence is blah, the reaction of the agent or editor will be blah, too. Just as your novel has to engage the reader, so does your synopsis; the only difference here is that the reader you're targeting is an agent or editor. Play around with your synopsis until you find the proper approach to keep that person reading.

Keep a Narrow Focus

Beginning writers often have a hard time writing a synopsis because they want to veer off into unnecessary exposition about their stories. The agent or editor just wants to know the main points of your plot and get a feel for your lead characters. Save the details for your manuscript, where you can give them the proper attention.

The narrow focus also applies to the mechanics of your writing. Stay in the present tense. Use the active voice. Eliminate adjectives wherever possible. The tighter your writing in your synopsis, the better your chances of impressing an agent or editor. And, if she's impressed, she'll want to read more.


One advantage to writing your synopsis first is that you won't get bogged down in details; you haven't thought of all the details yet. The synopsis tells you what your story is about. The details, subplots, secondary characters, and so on tell you how your story happens.

Avoid Amateur Devices

Your synopsis needs to be lively, descriptive, and, ideally, written in the same style you use in your manuscript. It does not need to be cutesy or gimmicky. Avoid glib, review-like comments, like this: “The best murder mystery since Agatha Christie!” Self-aggrandizing hype tends to turn agents and editors off. They may read your proposal, but they're likely to do so with an even more critical eye; they'll be looking for reasons why your work is not what you claimed it was.

Another amateur device is asking unnecessary questions, such as, “Will Jane find the real killer before it's too late?” The synopsis must tell exactly what happens in your story. Stopping your narrative to ask questions interrupts the flow for the reader and wastes valuable space for you. You only have two to five pages to sell your story; make sure every word in your synopsis gets you closer to that goal.

Reveal the Ending

Failing to reveal the ending is one of the most common mistakes beginning writers make in their synopses. They believe they'll entice the agent or editor to ask for the entire manuscript by ending their synopsis right before the climax. In fact, you'll probably irritate the agent or editor beyond belief. At the very least, you'll mark yourself as a rank amateur who isn't ready to start marketing her novel.

One of the purposes of your synopsis is to show that you can dream up an interesting plot, build suspense and drama, and resolve the issues of your story in a convincing and satisfying way. If you withhold the ending in your synopsis, the agent or editor might jump to the conclusion that you don't know how your story ends, which may mean that the agent or editor will have to help you devise a good ending. And that will only jeopardize your chances of selling your novel.

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  2. Writing a Book Proposal
  3. Elements of the Fiction Proposal
  4. The Synopsis
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