The Synopsis

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 02 2011

Lately I’ve received a number of submissions that did not include the synopsis I requested. In some cases, the author sent the entire manuscript claiming the synopsis was too hard to write so it was skipped. In other cases the authors sent sample chapters and simply ignored my request for the synopsis.

I know a synopsis is a pain to write; I do realize that, and many times I don’t even read the synopsis. That being said, it’s still a very important piece of your submission package. There are times when I’m reading a submission and concerned that the book is heading off in the wrong direction, in a way that doesn’t make sense, and checking the synopsis can clarify that for me; it can also clarify whether or not I should continue reading. Maybe I see that the book needs extensive edits, but reading the synopsis can confirm that overall it’s going in the right direction.

If I look to a synopsis for clarification and it’s not there, often I will decide that if the book needs work it’s probably just easier to reject. A synopsis could have changed my mind. A synopsis also could have given me better understanding of the book, so if I am rejecting maybe I’ll be able to give feedback that relates more to the entire book instead of just the chapters I read.

Write the synopsis. You’re going to need it. If it’s not for me, you’ll need it for your editor, your copy writers, your cover artists, etc. You will need a synopsis.


39 responses to “The Synopsis”

  1. I will be querying in a couple months and I'm actually glad when submission guidelines request a synopsis. Since my query is short and doesn't include the ending of my novel, I think agents will get a much clearer understanding of the story by reading the synopsis. Writing it isn't easy, but it's a valuable tool in my opinion.

  2. Avatar Author Guy says:

    Do you think that all stories are synopsizable? Do you think that non-synopsizable stories are also not publication-worthy?

    Marc Vun Kannon

  3. Avatar jfaust says:

    funny–remember that a synopsis does not take the place of a query. a good query is still very important to get you in the door. if you doubt your query I would work on it further.

    author guy–absolutey! A synopsis might be hard to write, but you have to be able to tell people what it's about. how else will you have cover copy or a synopsis on Amazon or the ability to sell the book at all?


  4. Avatar Andrea Mack says:

    This line made me chuckle: "the synopsis was too hard to write", since it was coming from a writer. I hate writing synopses too, but they are useful in helping me think about the key issues in my story. Sometimes, a synopsis shows me what parts of the story I need to work on further.

  5. Avatar Erika Marks says:

    It's so true, Jessica. I have been amazed through the process of publication how often I've needed to pull out my synopsis. As you say, an agent is only one person who will see/need it.

    There's no question it can be like pulling teeth to write it, but once it's done, it can be a tremendous tool for all aspects of production and promotion.

  6. Avatar R.S. Bohn says:

    People would deliberately leave out something you had requested? Do they not want to get published? Dot the is and cross the ts. I think this goes back to, "Don't give an agent a reason to reject you."

  7. Avatar Victoria says:

    I'm stunned; the synopsis was 'too hard to write'? Well, I'd be thinking that writer probably won't be too keen on tackling all the edits that might be needed, either, if they'd quit on a synopsis!

    Synopses are tough, but the work is worth it, and can reveal surprising things to you about your manuscript.

  8. This is the best case for a synopsis I've heard! I'm not a big fan of them, but when I learned it was a must, I worked really hard on mine… So hopefully somebody reads it and it's not just a formality!

  9. Avatar Roza M says:

    I don't mind doing a synopsis, the only issue I have is making so many. For example: Agent A, wants a one page synopsis. Agent B, wants two pages. Agent C wants three to five pages. With the query it's simple because you only have to have one page and that is for all agents. Why can't there just be a standard agreement with the synopsis too? What do most editors, publishers ask for? Is it one, two, or three to five?

  10. Avatar Cheyanne says:

    I am just blown away that someone would ignore what you've asked for in a submission! WOW.

  11. Avatar Phil says:

    My difficulty with synopses is that I have trouble thinking of them as road maps and instead see them as a whole heap of spoilers that kill the tension and suspense of the manuscript proper.

    Which is why it was great to read that you often skip the synopsis unless there's trouble with the manuscript. Knowing what's going to happen must make enjoying a manuscript the first time round that much harder…

  12. I plan on tackling a synopsis for my current WiP here soon. A good and needed reminder of such and the need for practice on all elements of a submission package. I'm still new to this process so it'll be an interesting learning experience.

    Thanks for this!

  13. Avatar Dara says:

    I have to admit that I laughed a little when you said a writer won't submit a synopsis because "it's too hard." I want to ask them then why are they writing? 😛 If they're truly serious about their book, they'll write the synopsis and stop wasting time and energy avoiding it. Yes I hate writing those things too but it's part of being a writer.

  14. Avatar Rosemary says:

    Most important words in the post: "A synopsis could have changed my mind."

    Reason enough to write one, I would say.

  15. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    I have difficulty writing a one page synopsis when it's for a romantic suspense.

    To have the synopsis make sense when I must show the romance and its growth and effect on the characters, and the plot, and build the suspense, and show the GMC and the ending of the suspense, and the character arcs and the reason why there's a HEA…well, it's just plain exhausting.

    Just thinking about it makes me tired. I think I'll go back to bed.

  16. Avatar ryan field says:

    A tight synopsis is especially important for cover artists.

    And being that they are so hard to write it's best to set aside a block of time, like an entire afternoon or evening, and just concentrate on that alone.

  17. I think people are intimidated by the synopsis because writing a query is so difficult and now they think, "great, I have to write another one of those, only ten times as long."

    But I've heard agents say at conferences that synopses aren't about voice or eloquence of prose, they're about what happens in the story.

    I think writing one can be a good revising tool, because it forces us to really think about what are the most important plot points and characters.

  18. I also can't believe one of your submissions didn't send the requested synopsis. I haven't started querying yet, but I would think to send whatever you ask-as much time and attention as you'll give me!

    Writing a synopsis was an excellent lesson for me. I began to realize (while fighting denial) that my storyline was all over the place and the themes were too erratic. After some soul searching and homework, I ended up rewriting the entire thing. Learned a lot from that little, innocent word.

  19. Avatar Lynn LaFleur says:

    Synopses are hard for me to write because I'm such a pantser. I let my characters tell their story, so I rarely know what's going to happen until it happens.

    However, knowing that you and editors need a synopsis has helped me to get better at writing them. And I find I do look at it while I'm writing the book. My plot may veer off in another direction a bit, but I pretty much stay true to the story and let the characters tell it.


  20. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I think a lot of people make writing the synopsis a bigger job than it has to be. All a synopsis is is a commercial about your book–one that includes the spoiler at the end. If you're really stuck, set up a recorder and tell an imaginary friend what your book is about in under two minutes. Sometimes the act of setting up a time frame will force you to organize your thoughts. Another method is to write down the main point of each chapter and work around that, but always keep your "voice" in mind. The synopsis should represent your storytelling in the same voice as the actual book.

    It's not just an agent who needs to see a synopsis–once your story is in production with a publisher, they'll need it to create the backcover blurb, the cover art and any marketing materials that will help the publisher sell the book, so whether you like writing them or not, at some point, once published, you WILL be writing a synopsis.

  21. Avatar Stephanie says:

    If a writer is not willing to do the work necessary before submitting, then I would question their work ethic and desire to do the work later on. This business is hard work. Nothing is ever perfect…it all takes tons of work to get it ready for publication.

  22. I'm not saying that no synopsis means a lazy or bad writer – but really, are you (the writer) trying to get your book published? If so, how do you think your agents and representatives are going sell the book for you to the various people who hold the keys to publication?

    You're not making it easy or possible for those people to do their jobs if you cannot write a synopsis.

    The synopsis is your selling tool to your agent (first) and then to the publication editor & others.

    The query is the hook, and that can get you an agent, but a publication house isn't going to spend money publishing your work just because it "sounds interesting" — they need something to hang their hat on, something they can bring to meetings or send through e-mail or whatever.

    If you can't write a synopsis because it's "hard" or you haven't done it before, get a book on how to write a synopsis.

    Stephen Matlock

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You know, writing Chapter One can be really hard. Do I just leave that out because I can't write one? C'mon, writers, we write, we don't try to find excuses to get out of writing. That's what those non-writers do.


  24. I just finished the first draft of my novel. It's hiding in a drawer until I'm ready to tackle the revisions, but I keep an eye out for any information on getting an agent. I'm confused why a writer looking for an agent/publisher would disregard the requirements. It sounds like students I used to teach. I wrote down in plain English the project requirements, but they didn't feel like doing particular parts. Well, I don't give points for laziness. They earn them.

    I agree with Stephanie. You want something bad enough, you have to be willing to work your ass off for it. Nothing is handed to you.

    Thanks Kate Douglas. Your breakdown of the synopsis was helpful.

  25. For the commenters who mentioned a synopsis kind of kills the story…well, I think it's an accurate reflection of what many of your readers are going to experience.

    Most readers are attracted by recommendations by friends, and this very often includes spoilers as to what's going to happen along the way, and the end. Some of us don't like that, but some people won't read a book without it.

    And really, it's hard to have a book reach major publication without your entire "synopsis" getting thrown around, so everyone already knows who Snape is, whether or not Harry will die, who ends up with who, etc. It doesn't ruin it. It's part of the publishing game.

  26. Avatar Cacy says:

    What made my synopsis seem especially difficult is that my manuscript is non-linear. But I did a google search on writing a synopsis for a non-linear story. I can't tell you how much that helped (the solution was so simple!) Help is out there for anyone willing to seek it, not to say writing a synopsis won't still be a challenge.

  27. Too hard? So is that essay you have to write with your scholarship application. Do you think they'll give you the money anyway? So is that cover letter you have to put in with your job application. Oh well, maybe they'll give you the position without it. They surely won't throw your application out of the pile.

    I can understand that writing a concise synopsis can be tricky, especially if your story is long or the narrative isn't particularly straightforward or there are lots of characters or subplots. But it's necessary. Just think of it as a summary, and pare it down to what's really important. If you only have a page or two, what's REALLY really important.

  28. I was once one of those who decided whom to query based solely on the request for a synopsis; I avoided those agents like the proverbial plague…and then I received my first request for full; along with it, I was thrown the unexpected curve ball of a synopsis requirement. I cringed and hyperventilated about it, but in the end I did it, and I lived! I will be grateful to that agent, for years to come, for kicking me through the fears that were allowing me to lack something so valuable in my manuscript submission arsenal. Even the process of doing it aids the writer in the tightening of the tale.

  29. Roza M: A one-page synopsis should be single-spaced; a two-page synopsis should be double-spaced. So, they're really the same thing!

    But I hear ya on the issue of then having to write the 3, 5, and 10 page versions too. Oof.

    By the way, everyone, this post details my breakthrough when I finally figured out how to write a synopsis that didn't utterly suck. Maybe some of you will find this approach helps you too!

  30. Avatar Lucy says:

    @ jjdebenedictis

    Thanks for the link–the discussion was helpful too!

  31. Avatar Author Guy says:

    I have found, the hard way, that taglines, loglines, blurbs, jacket copy, and synopses draw upon different parts of the story. It is completely possible to be able to come up with a blurb and still be unable to do the synopsis.

  32. Gosh, I was actually under the impression the synopsis was one of the most important parts of the proposal, giving the agent an broad idea of what the book is about; if they feel it isn't right for them then surely it would be easier to reject than having to scroll through a ms, several chapters.

    Personally, I'd much prefer to stick to the guidelines, especially as I'm now submitting my paranormal novel. Too much hard work has gone into it to have it rejected for not adhering to the submission guidelines.


  33. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    Another benefit of knowing how to write a synopsis is that once you've sold a book, you can sell future books on proposal alone if you provide a good synopsis. That means a sale prior to writing the book. Your agent wants to know you're capable of doing this because he/she wants to sell your future books on proposal. Just another point to think about.

  34. Avatar Orlando says:

    I'm curious, most of the agent blogs I've seen only request a synopsis for non-fiction, are we talking about non-fiction or fiction writing as well?

    I haven't written a synopsis only because of this. Is that an agent preference, or will you sooner or later need to present a synopsis?

  35. Avatar jfaust says:


    You will need a synopsis for both fiction and nonfiction.


  36. The synopsis is a must in the nonfiction proposal, but the synopsis is excellent to do. The input from this agency is a seriously important push to do it up front. I am also certain that writing it would give an author a heads up that a plot had not worked or if there are plot points missing. Probably, the difficulty of the synopsis writing could reveal a lazy author who doesn't want to take the time and effort, and therefore would not perform necessary editing or marketing required in the future. Being a writer is more than just writing itself.

  37. Avatar She Wrote says:

    Is there a specific length of a "short" and "long" synopsis for a mystery? I have read the length of the synopsis is some kind of ratio to the number of pages in the finished mss. How does this work?

    I have finished the mss and am about to start the synopsis – maybe more than one if I should have more than one. Does it totally depend on the length required by any given agent? Are there any rules?

  38. Great, considerate post. Your reasons for requesting a synopsis seem clear and sensible – I'd have assumed the same. It's nice to know for certain, though.

  39. Avatar June G says:

    I must admit, I've kind of dreaded writing a synopsis and I'm still revising, so I haven't had to put one together as yet, but you do make an excellent case for it. Instead of seeing it as a pain in the neck, I grasp it for the important tool that it is. Thanks. (still not looking forward to writing it though…lol…)