How to Write A Novel Synopsis (with example)


What is a synopsis?

  • A synopsis is simply a clear, factual summary of your novel's storyline.
  • A synopsis is typically 500-800 words. Unless an agent specifically requires a much longer synopsis, your summary should not run to more than 1000 words
  • A synopsis does not have to fit on a single page.
  • A synopsis is not the same as a blurb for the back of a book and the text should not be 'salesy'.

What is a synopsis for?

Most agents will ask you to send them a submission pack containing three items:

  • A covering letter (see advice here and sample here)
  • A synopsis
  • The first three chapters / 10,000 words of your novel

Most agents will look at the covering letter first, then turn to the manuscript. If they like the first three chapters, they'll be thinking, "This book looks really interesting. I'm definitely tempted . . . but is the author going to hold my interest over the full 300 / 400 pages? Is it worth me making that investment of time to read the whole thing?"

That's where the synopsis comes in. The synopsis is there to answer the question, "What is the story of this book? Is there a clear story arc and will there be a satisfying ending?"

Obviously the actual experience of reading a synopsis is quite underwhelming. Synopses are boring, technical documents which (we hope) would not be true of your novel. But that doesn't matter. Agents know synopses are dull, so all your synopsis really has to do is:

  • tell the agent in very clear terms what your story is
  • make it clear what your hook / premise / elevator pitch is (more info here)
  • give some kind of feeling for why the story matters & how the jeopardy increases
  • sketch out an ending that feels satisfying

But - and this should be reassuring - agents do know that synopses are hard to write and they care less about the synopsis than any other part of your submission package.That means you probably don't need to worry excessively about your synopsis - just follow the guidelines below and you'll do just fine.

How to write a perfect synopsis

A perfect synopsis has the following ingredients:

  • Length: 500-800 words
  • Main purpose: Summarise your plot
  • Secondary purpose: Make it clear what Unique Selling Point your book has
  • Language: Be businesslike: clear, to the point, neutral.
  • Presentation: Be well-presented: no typos or spelling mistakes. Normal font size, normal margins. Line spacing no narrower than 1.5
  • Character names. It helps if you put the names of main characters in bold or CAPS when you first introduce them. That way, if an agent has forgotten who Carlotta is, it's easy for them to skim back and jog their memory. (Remember that agents are reading a lot of these things, so they have about a million character names in their heads at any one time.)
  • Extra points. It's certainly not essential, but if you have a really compelling way to 'sell' your story in 2-3 lines maximum, then you could insert that little snippet up at the top of your synopsis as a way of reminding agents why they're interested in this MS in the first place. For example, a certain Ms Rowling might have opened her synopsis with, "Harry Potter, an orphan, thinks he is an ordinary boy when an owl brings him a letter inviting him to attend wizard school." That's not strictly speaking synopsis material, but it does instantly emphasise the book's appeal.
  • And remember: Tell the story: your job is not to sell the book, write dust jacket blurb, or anything else. Just say what happens in the story. That's all you need to do.

And luckily there are things you don't need to do:

  • Go into great detail about setting. If you were writing a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel for example, you might simply say "This novel is set in a small village in Regency England."
  • Go into vast detail about character - a few quick strokes are all that you need. For example you might say: "Bridget Jones - a ditzy, mildly boozy twenty-something - ..."
  • Be scrupulous about plot detail. It's fine to skip over subplots or ignore some of the finer detail of how X accomplishes Y. The truth is, you won't have time to include those things in a 700 word summary anyway. Agents know that the synopsis is at best an approximation of the story so you don't need to have a troubled consicence.
  • You also don't have to give away your very final plot twist - though you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, "When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance - and their final bloody reckoning ensues." Mostly though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, and your job is just to spill the beans whether you like it or not.

For a perfect example of a synopsis, please see below - a synopsis penned by one of our own fair clients. The synopsis (and the book) went on to wow an agent and secure a book deal. But before you look at that, why not sign up to our mailing list and get a free, detailed PDF on How To Get A Literary Agent? The process is simple, fast and free.


Synopsis of Double Cross by Tracy Gilpin

Dunai Marks discovers the strangled corpse of Siobhan Craig, an activist who is not only her employer but also a mother figure; Dunai had been abandoned at an orphanage as a baby.

Siobhan was about to present to government the results of a controversial population control model for possible implementation at national level. Dunai believes this is the reason she was murdered.

The investigating officer on the case is instructed by an agent of the National Intelligence Agency to treat the murder as a botched burglary. Although some evidence points in this direction, Dunai believes Siobhan’s murder was work-related, which means she and Bryan, an American statistician, could be in danger.

She strikes a deal with Carl, a private investigator. If she is able to find a motive for the murder he will show her how to go about catching the killer.

Dunai discovers Siobhan was blackmailing five people who stood in the way of her pilot project, and was involved with a subversive group of radical feminists called Cerchio Del Gaia whose insignia is a double cross.

Dunai and Carl investigate the individuals blackmailed by Siobhan. They include: an anti-abortion activist, the head of an all-male religious fundamentalist group, an Anglican bishop, a member of local government, and a USAID official. One of these suspects was the last person to see Siobhan alive, another is known to have approached a contract killer a month before her murder.

Cerchio Del Gaia becomes increasingly entangled in both Dunai’s life and the investigation, and she is told that if she joins the group she will have access to information about her birth. The National Intelligence Agency is on a similar tack; if Dunai infiltrates Cerchio Del Gaia, which they believe is an international terrorist organisation, they will provide her with information about her origins. Dunai turns down both offers and the mystery of her birth and abandonment is eventually revealed by a woman claiming to be Siobhan’s sister, Dunai’s birth mother and the head of the South African chapter of Cerchio Del Gaia.

Throughout the investigation Dunai has searched for Mr Bojangles, a schizophrenic vagrant who may have seen the murderer. When she eventually finds him he seems to be of little help, yet it is his ramblings along with another clue that leads to her close friend and colleague, Bryan, who has been wanted by the FBI for twenty years for terrorist activities in the US. Bryan murdered Siobhan after discovering she intended betraying him to the National Intelligence Agency to deflect attention from Cerchio Del Gaia and as proof that she abided by the law even when it meant personal sacrifice.

Carl, who is now romantically involved with Dunai, offers to continue her training as an investigator and she agrees to divide her time between this and Siobhan’s NGO.