How to write a novel synopsis (with a perfect synopsis sample)

If you’d like a literary agent, you need a synopsis. Your submission material to agents includes your covering letter, your synopsis, your manuscript’s opening.

Here’s what that synopsis needs to be.

  • A clear, factual summary of your novel's storyline with no ‘salesy’ language;
  • Typically 500-800 words, unless an agent specifically requires a longer synopsis, and your summary shouldn’t run to more than 1,000 words.

What is a synopsis for?

Most agents will look at your covering letter first, then turn to the manuscript. If they like the first three chapters, they'll be thinking, "This looks great, but is it going to hold interest? Is it worth making that investment of time to read it all?"

That's where the synopsis comes in.

Your synopsis is there to outline your plot and to demonstrate a clear story arc, a satisfying ending. It’s your tool to make someone read on.

That said, synopses aren’t blurbs. A synopsis is your pitch to agents, who’ll pitch to publishers – the sellers. Later comes a blurb for readers – the consumers. Blurbs are designed to intrigue readers enough to pick up your book, whilst synopses tell agents and publishers whether they can sell your book in the first place.

Synopses are technical documents and they need to:

  • Tell an agent directly and clearly what your story is;
  • Make clear what your hook, premise or elevator pitch is;
  • Demonstrate implicitly its appeal and how plot momentum increases;
  • Share an ending that feels satisfying.

What to do when writing a synopsis

A wonderful synopsis has the following ingredients:

  • Length: 500-800 words;
  • Main purpose: Summarise your plot;
  • Secondary purpose: Make it clear what USP (Unique Selling Point) your book has;
  • Language: Be business-like: clear, to the point, neutral;
  • Presentation: Be well-presented with no typos or spelling mistakes, normal fonts, 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;
  • Extra points: If you have a compelling way to 'sell' your story in 2-3 lines maximum, you could insert that little snippet up at the top of your synopsis;
  • Tell the story: Again, your job is not to sell the book, write blurb, or anything else, just say what happens in the story.

What not to do when writing a synopsis

Here’s what not to do.

  • Go into 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.
  • Be scrupulous about plot detail: It's fine to skip subplots or ignore some finer details. The truth is, you won't have time to include those things in a 700-word summary. Agents know that the synopsis is at best an approximation of the story.
  • Hide the plot twist: Okay. You don't have to give away your very final plot twist, though you must make it clear there is one. A synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, opposite to a blurb, and your job is just to spill the beans, whether you like it or not.

How to write a perfect synopsis

For a perfect example of a synopsis, please see below.

This is a synopsis penned by one of our own clients, Tracy Gilpin. The synopsis (and the book) went on to wow an agent and secure a book deal.

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.

What next?

We suggest using Tracy’s synopsis as a great template for your own work.

If you need help writing your synopsis and agent letter, we offer this as one of our feedback services. Just get in touch. We’ve also more free advice on submitting to agents you’ll find useful, too.

Good luck!