How to write a great book synopsis

  • A synopsis is important even if you’re self-publishing. Your synopsis allows you to see problems with your plot and characters so you can fix them before your book hits the market.
  • A book synopsis should be between 500 and 800 words. This works out at approximately 1 single-spaced page in a standard 12pt font.
  • Your synopsis should include 5 key elements. This includes the premise, a main plot and subplot overview, your main characters, and an implicit outline of the appeal of your book.

Writing a book synopsis is notoriously tricky for authors. Synopsis writing is generally much drier and less creative than novel writing - and it’s never going to be easy to condense a 90,000 word novel into 500 words. That’s why it’s important to understand how to write a book synopsis that’s concise, compelling, and follows convention.

Nearly all editors, agents, and publishers request a synopsis for your book when you submit your work to them. Self-published authors can also benefit from writing a novel synopsis - it helps you spot plot holes, structural issues, and underdeveloped characters, and identify the key selling points of your book for your marketing campaign.

Use this guide to writing a book synopsis to help you plan, structure, and write a great book summary.

Let's define what book synopsis is

A book synopsis is a summary of your novel from start to finish. It includes an outline of the main plot, your primary characters, any subplots and plot twists, and what happens at the end.

Many new authors baulk at giving away their carefully crafted ending, but there’s no need to worry - your book synopsis isn’t going to be published. After all, it’s not exactly in agents’ or publishers’ interests to spoil the ending of a book for readers. Instead, they’ll read your synopsis to help decide whether they think your book will sell, and whether to represent you as an author.

The synopsis has a very important role

For authors pursuing traditional publishing, the purpose of your book synopsis is to sell your novel to an agent or publisher. Before they request your full manuscript, they want to know exactly what happens in your book - which is where your novel synopsis comes in.

If you’re planning on self-publishing your book, your synopsis is a tool for laying out the saleability and structure of your novel. By writing a synopsis, you can see which plot points are unwieldy, and which characters are underdeveloped, so you can fix these things before your book hits the market.

The difference between a plot summary and a synopsis

A plot synopsis is a type of plot summary. There are also other types of book summary, each of which has a different function in the publication of your book. The most common book summary types include:

  • Synopsis - Your synopsis is a summary of all the major plot points, including the ending. This is used to sell your book to agents or publishers, or to cast a critical eye over your book content.
  • Blurb - A blurb is typically found on the back page or dust jacket of your book. The blurb should sell the book to potential readers, offering teasers and plot potential, without giving too much away.
  • Elevator pitch - Your elevator pitch is a sharp one-liner that captures the essence of your book in a compelling way. It should make the reader want to find out more.

There’s a lot of literary jargon around book summaries, which can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what you need to write in your synopsis. Below, you’ll learn what you need to include in your book synopsis.

How long should a book synopsis be?

It’s generally agreed that a book synopsis should be between 500 and 800 words. This works out at approximately 1 single-spaced page in a standard 12pt font.

Many agents will have specific guidelines you need to follow in terms of synopsis word count, so tailor your submission for each agent. This could mean you need a synopsis that’s 500 words, and one that’s 700 words. The extra work will pay off - you’re way more likely to get a response from an agent if you’ve read and met their submission requirements.

What should a book synopsis include?

There are 5 key elements that every book synopsis should include:

1. The premise of your book

Your book’s premise comprises your overarching theme, setting, and conflict, forming a great hook designed to keep readers engaged.

2. A direct overview of the main plot

Go back to basics here. Show that your plot has all the key story elements in your novel synopsis, including an inciting incident, a climax, and a satisfying ending.

3. An introduction to your main characters

Make the reader care about your characters by offering compelling character motivations.

4. An outline of your major subplots

Your subplots probably converge with the main plot at some point, so it makes sense to include them in your book synopsis.

5. An implicit understanding of the appeal of your book

Synopses are notoriously dry - but if you care about your story, this should shine through in your book summary. Demonstrate why others will care about your book, too.

What tense should a book synopsis be written in?

Your book synopsis should be written in the present tense and the third person - even if your book isn’t. This automatically helps you write your synopsis in an appropriate, professional tone, without hyperbole or bias.

What is the format of a synopsis?

As well as using a standard tense and perspective, most book synopses follow a similar format. Here’s how you should structure your novel synopsis, including book synopsis examples from famous published works.

1. The premise

The premise is similar to your elevator pitch - the key piece of intrigue that makes the reader want to find out more. This opening line from the synopsis of Michelle Zink’s Prophecy Of The Sisters includes a fascinating hook:

Sixteen-year-old Lia Milthorpe’s life is in danger from the person she loves most – her twin sister.

Zink manages to introduce the main characters, a sense of peril, and a key area of conflict in a single line. It’s a great way to open the synopsis.

2. The plot

Don’t dilly-dally - when you’ve set the premise, dive straight into the plot of your book. This will form the bulk of your word count. You can find out how to write an expert plot summary below. In the meantime, take a look at this extract from J.K. Rowling’s synopsis for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car crash - or so he has always been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).
The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last.‍

Rowling splits her paragraphs into plot points. The first paragraph outlines the status quo - Harry’s unhappy home life - while the second goes on to state the inciting incident: Harry’s invitation to attend Hogwarts. Structuring your synopsis in this way is a great tactic for ensuring you don’t stray too far from the main arc of your story.

3. The ending

Spell out exactly what happens at the end of your book - your synopsis is no place for a cliffhanger. If you’ve chosen to leave your book open-ended, reflect this in your synopsis.

Here’s an example of a synopsis ending for Cinderella, written by literary agent Janet Reid:

The heartbroken prince travels the kingdom to determine which lady fits the glass slipper. Her stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic but her mouse friends help her escape. The glass slipper fits her, and Cinderella and the prince live happily ever after.

Reid removes the sense of anguish, fear, and ultimate relief that comes with the climax and resolution of Cinderella. Synopses are often deadpan and unemotive, so don’t be afraid to be forthright about the ending of your story.

How to write a book synopsis

It’s time to get writing. Follow these steps on how to write a plot synopsis to write a succinct, professional summary of your novel.

1. Write a single sentence for each major plot point

If you started your book with an outline, this will come in handy here. Using the following prompts, write one sentence for each of these points in your book:

  • Status quo
  • Inciting incident
  • Plot action
  • Climax
  • Resolution

Some writers mark the timeline of the story or map out the events to help them stay on track. Try to keep your word count below 300 words. This gives you leeway to fill in extra detail later.

2. Check on your characters

You’ve probably introduced all the characters you need to include in your synopsis in the 5 sentences you just wrote. That said, you may not have given enough detail about their motives or personalities to make your synopsis sing.

Note down any crucial character points you need to include, but be frugal with the details. Extraneous backstories are a waste of words in your synopsis, so don’t let your personal connection with your characters get the better of you here. Only include information that’s relevant to the plot.

3. Join the dots

Now you have a strong idea of the key plot points and character motivations you need to include, it’s time to craft the synopsis.

Build up your outline into a synopsis by filling in the gaps that will help the reader make the leap from one plot point to the next. If your story is solid, it will more or less tell itself at this stage - your job is to make it sound compelling. Don’t worry if your first draft is too long or a little messy.

4. Come back to it later

You wouldn’t submit your first draft of your novel to an agent - so you shouldn’t submit your synopsis first draft, either. Let it sit for a few days so you can get some distance from your work. When you come back to it, read it with a critical eye. Check it explores each of the elements in the section above. Perhaps most importantly, check it meets the word count and formatting requirements set by the agent.

5. Get feedback on your synopsis

Seeking peer feedback on your book synopsis is a great way to learn what works in a plot summary from other writers. If you can, find writers who have had their synopses accepted by agents or publishers and pick their brains about what worked well for them.

Some agents will also offer feedback on your synopsis if they think it has potential. This is invaluable, so take any of their comments on board.

Tips for writing a great book synopsis

Here are our top tips for writing the best possible book synopsis:

  • Be concise — Cut the fluff from your synopsis and keep your writing to the point, while maintaining your natural writing style. Agents don’t have time to wade through reams of description to find out what actually happens in your book.
  • Use action rather than description to portray characters — Instead of saying, “The doctor is kind and selfless”, use action to characterise your characters: “The doctor does everything she can to save him.”
  • Weave subplot points through the synopsis — Connect the dots of your main plot and subplot points seamlessly to avoid jarring character introductions or plot twists.
  • Write a second, third, and fourth draft — Your book synopsis can make or break your relationship with a literary agent, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right. Write multiple drafts until you’re happy it’s ready to send out.

Common mistakes to avoid in your book synopsis

Avoid these common errors in your synopsis to keep your summary well-structured and easy to read:

  • Muddying your narrative structure — The spine of your story is really important in your synopsis, so don’t compromise this with extra detail or flowery descriptions.
  • Giving too much detail — There are sure to be little details you love and want to include in your synopsis, but try to keep your summary top-level.
  • Introducing too many minor characters — We only need to meet your key characters in the synopsis, so keep the rest under wraps (this will help you keep your word count down, too).
  • Ignoring formatting requirements — It’s really important to stick to the requirements set out by the publisher or agent you’re submitting to. Triple check these before you click send.

Submitting your synopsis

Now you know how to write a book synopsis, you can start submitting your synopsis and query letter to agents. Before you hit send, double check the requirements from each agent to check you’re sending them what they want to see. You’re sure to increase your response rates - and maybe even receive a couple of manuscript requests. While you're at it, you should also start thinking about your author bio!

Alternatively, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, check out our advice for self-published authors. You’ll find tons of useful guides for writing and marketing your new novel.

Advice from a published writer

Alex Fisher, "Seadogs and Criminals"

Like the author bio, keep it short and sweet. It’s basically an invitation into your book. Describe the essential points and direction of the story without giving too much away. Introduce the main character, the plot, the motive/goal and finish with a question (if that works) and that’s all you need.

Dangle the story in front of the potential reader with enough information to grip them and ignite their curiosity, hook them in and make them want to know what this is all about, make them want to read on, without waffling. Too much information and you’ve lost them; the reader is smart and wants to discover the story for themselves in their own way. Keep it snappy, between 100 to 200 words. Be lethal.

This article is always evolving and being updated regularly by our expert writers. Information featured in it has been fact-checked and verified.
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