What Agents Look for in a Synopsis

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 01 2022

Is it the synopsis or the query that is most hated by new authors? However you feel, mastering the art of each is a requirement to being a published author. Not just to find an agent, but for each book you write for the rest of your career. The key to understanding how to write these things is to understand better what agents look for in reading them. In this case, what agents look for in a synopsis.

Every agent reads a synopsis differently. Typically, I don’t read it at all, but when I do it’s always after I’ve already started reading the chapters. I like to read the manuscript as if I’m reading the book for the first time, as a reader would. I want to experience all the surprises in real-time. For me, it’s the only way to really know if the book is working.

If I’ve finished the book, and couldn’t put it down, I have no need for the synopsis. But sometimes, while reading, I’ll have questions. Maybe the book doesn’t feel like it’s working quite like I wanted. In that case, I’ll go to the synopsis to see how things play out. Maybe it’s just a slow spot or a weird plot twist that could be removed because the rest of the book sounds stellar. Then I can keep reading.

Or maybe it’s a weird slow spot and when I look at the synopsis I see that from that point the entire book goes off track, at which point I’ll pass.

Synopsis 101

The most important thing to know about the synopsis is that agents and editors read it to know everything important that happens in the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean everything. We don’t need to know all the details of secondary characters for example, but we do need to know the twists, the turns, the big climactic moments, and the ending.

The synopsis is meant to spoil the story. It’s the query and query blurb that sell it, but when we’re looking at the synopsis we’re looking to see if the book is working and how well.

Does the plot follow through and am I surprised by the ending in the way I should be? With a mystery did I read the synopsis only to learn that I figured out the killer on the first page? In a romance, did I love the conflict the characters faced both internally and externally? In the case of all books, do I feel like you are writing a compelling plot in which all elements move the story forward? How about the character growth and evolution?

When writing the synopsis break it down, as you do the book, into a beginning, middle, and ending. Show us how the book starts and we meet your characters and conflict, then what inciting elements happen in the middle that propels us to the end, and, finally, how does it end.

Not simple I know, but it really doesn’t need to be overly complicated either. I believe a good synopsis can be about three pages in length. Honestly, I don’t want to read much more than that. I think keeping yourself to a tight synopsis word count forces you to keep the synopsis itself tight and compelling.

6 responses to “What Agents Look for in a Synopsis”

  1. Q: “Is it the synopsis or the query that is most hated by new authors? ”

    A: Yes. 🙂 That is, each is worse than the other.

    Well, query letters are easy to write correctly: even I can do it, and I am dim of wit.

    A synopsis is difficult, as one must condense 60,000+ words into a paragraph or two.

    I recall reading Robert Green Ingersoll’s essays, one of which was his reply to the question “How long do you need to prepare before giving a lecture?” He replied that the more time granted him to lecture, the less preparation time required.

  2. Avatar Kim Beall says:

    I think I’ve hit on fairly tear-free method for writing synopses: I copy my outline to a new file, delete all references to every character except the main two (and maybe the antagonist) and then convert the bullet-items that are left into full sentences. I mean, it still needs a lot of massaging after that, but at least what I’m massaging at that point really is the over-arching main plot.

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      That’s a great approach! Like you said, massaging still needed, but it provides a solid foundation to start with. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I don’t hate synopsis or query letters. It was the frustration of not knowing what to put in them. Writers have so many sources now than when I first started writing. I’m a professional and this is required for my career. I’ll keep working until I’m confident of my process.
    Thank you, Jessica, for sharing this information. I found it to be very helpful.

    Tambra Nicole Kendall/Nikki Kendall

  4. Avatar Cora Little-Hudson says:

    Thank you for this. I was wondering if you had any advice on how to write a synopsis for a non-linear timeline? I wouldn’t say that my structure is experimental. After the inciting incident (which takes place in the present), I alternative between the present and the past until the past narrative gives way to the present narrative’s climax, and the story stays in the present from there until the end. I know this is a very common structure.

    However, I have no idea how to write a coherent synopsis for it. I’ve done some research, and it sounds like the best way to go about it would be to:

    1. Get up to the point where the timeline diverges (the inciting incident)
    2. Spell out the past narrative, indicating where the beginning, middle, and end hook up with the present narrative
    3. Spell out the present narrative with the same markers until the end

    I’m probably overthinking it. I just know that this is probably a structure you see a lot, and I want to make sure that I do it in the cleanest way possible. I appreciate any and all advice!

    • I’m afraid I don’t have any specific ideas. I’d probably have to see it and get a sense of if it’s working. In other words, do what feels like it works for you and your book.