Writing A Synopsis For A Novel To Submit To Publishing Houses

Posted at 17:40pm on 12th January 2009

Your book manuscript is finished. From your Writers' & Artists' Year Book, you've chosen the first publisher you're going to send it to, written your submission proposal letter and sat back and waited. One month. Two. . .

Hang on a minute. Rewind!


If the book publishing agent or editor you've written to is interested in reading your manuscript, she will, almost certainly, require a synopsis. Consequently, as soon as you complete your novel, you should begin working on an outline, polishing it to ensure that it is the best that it can be. Your synopsis, at this stage, is the whole of your budget for advertising, your entire PR team, your most devious marketing strategy, and the biggest charm offensive you can muster - all rolled into one! On it, depends the future of your book and, perhaps, your career as an author.

So what exactly is a synopsis?

Well, for a start, it is not the same as a blurb. The blurb is the bit that goes on the back of the book's cover: a taster to whet the appetite of a potential reader. A synopsis might best be described as an outline. But it is not an outline in the sense of headings or abstract phrases; a synopsis is a narrative, telling the story in condensed form.

So what are the components of a good synopsis?

  1. Format: Your synopsis should be formatted in the same way as your manuscript: courier 12 (or similar), same margins. See Manuscript Formatting for full details.
  2. Writing in the present tense: A synopsis is always written in the present tense. This gives it an immediacy which is instantly engaging.
  3. Omniscient Viewpoint: A synopsis is not written "in character" but in what is called an "omniscient" viewpoint. Let me explain: In your manuscript you write each character's scene from a distinct Point of View (POV) but as each character is limited in what they know (for example, in a who-dunnit, it is usually only at the end that all is revealed to all the characters) this is not suitable for a synopsis. The editor reading your synopsis needs to know everything that you know, as the author. Therefore, your "voice" or "viewpoint" is the omniscient - or all-knowing - one.
  4. Tell the whole story: As No 3 above suggests, your synopsis should tell the entire story. You should never, ever, keep an editor in suspense by omitting certain aspects of the story, or its denouement. Neither should you omit details of the sample chapters you enclose.
  5. Layout: Don't divide your synopsis into chapters. It should be written as one piece, just as it would if it were an account of the story. Which, of course, is what it is.
  6. Length: Most recommendations for the length of your synopsis used to be that you should produce one page of synopsis for every twenty-five pages of manuscript. So a 300 word manuscript would produce a 12 page synopsis - give or take a page or two. Now, however, it's best to check with the publisher or agent as anything too lengthy may be discarded.
  7. What to include: Always think of your synopsis as an advertisement for your book. It must, therefore, be more than simply interesting; it must grab the editor's attention; make her eager to read on. Your synopsis, therefore, needs to mirror your manuscript in terms of hooking your reader on page one; building suspense; creating cliffhangers.
  8. What to leave out: Make sure that the editor reading your synopsis has a sense of Who, What, Where, When and Why. But don't belabour your narrative, or embellish it with too many adverbs and adjectives. Write: Divorced from Mark, Claire is the forty-eight year old wife of Richard Lombard, rather than what you might put in your manuscript: the handwritten scrawl is instantly recognisable as Mark's. Claire Lombard, it reads. No title, then! No Mrs, or even a despised Ms. As if, even after all these years and the precedent of his own remarriage, Mark is indicating his disdain of mine to Richard.
  9. Characters: The first time a character is mentioned in your synopsis, his/her name should be typed in CAPITALS.


Here is the beginning of the synopsis for my novel, A Painful Post Mortem.

"CLAIRE LOMBARD is shocked when her adult daughter, KATYA StJOHN, is found dead in her home, her baby, ZARA, asleep upstairs. Even more shocking is the Pathology Report Claire receives through the post from Kat's father, MARK StJOHN. A known drug addict it says. But Claire is certain that Katya would never have been stupid enough to take drugs, let alone risk the safety of 15 month old Zara. For Katya's sake, for her baby's sake, Claire cannot let that stand. Besides, piecing together events from the previous week, she has reason to suspect that Katya was under pressure from so-called friends. However, to prove that Kat's death is not accidental, Claire will have to enlist Mark's help. And following an acrimonious divorce years earlier, and the remarriage of both, that's something she'd rather avoid at all costs!"


Note that both the problem which precipitates the conflict and and the theme that drives the narrative forward are clearly stated: PROBLEM: the Pathology Report resulting from the Post Mortem is wrong (in Claire's eyes); THEME: she is on a Quest to reverse the Cause of Death statement. The Plot hinges on these two factors. (See the Seven Basic Plots Part 3: The Quest)


Note the reader hook which is designed to engage the editor; to make her want to read on. Is there any truth in Claire's denial of the findings of the Post Mortem? Or is this just a mother's refusal to think the worst of her daughter? And how will Claire and Mark fare working together?


Note, too, the hint of problems to come in the form of Kat's baby, Zara. Kat is evidently unmarried (her surname is the same as her father's). So who is Zara's father? Who is taking care of the baby at present? Are there going to be custody issues ahead?


Note, also, that this is not simply a dry account of facts. Words like "shocked" and "shocking" convey emotion. Repeating the phrase "for (Katya's) sake; for (her baby's) sake" implies an impassioned commitment on Claire's part. However, working with Mark is something she'd "rather avoid at all costs."


Following this, your editor-reader needs to know the Who, Why, What, Where and When. Hence, you might continue the above synopsis by writing that Claire lives in a London flat with her second husband, Richard, while Mark has a business in the North of England where he lives with his second wife. This would, also, be a chance to allude to further complications in the form of jealousy if Claire and Mark were to collude in some amateur detective work to clear their daughter's name.


Finally, check spelling, grammar and style. Remember that you are selling your creativity and writing style, and you will be judged on your ability to put together a good synopsis. Make sure it's the very best you can produce. Good luck!

Your Comments:

18th May 2012
at 6:13am
Excellent summary of how to write a synopsis. Thank you!
Mel Menzies
18th May 2012
at 7:04am
Glad to be of help SC
Mary Margaret Ball
7th June 2012
at 1:33pm
If you are using a factitious name, and it turns out to be a real name of someone else, can you get sewed? If you are using a real name of someone, do you have to have authorization from them?
Mel Menzies
8th June 2012
at 2:07pm
I'm no lawyer, Mary, but as I understand it, if you are using a name for a fictitious character and it turns out to be the name of a real person - say John Smith - then providing that the storyline of that character has not been taken from the true life events of John Smith there is no reason to suppose that you would be sued.

If, however, you were to use the name John Major and wrote a story about a politician who became Prime Minister of GB, and who then went on to head up an international crime organisation, then you might well be in trouble. Defamation of character is a serious business. As far as I know you receive no legal aid, and it's up to you, the author, to produce positive proof that what you've said is fact. In other words, it's not worth contemplating!
26th February 2015
at 1:30am
Thanks for the compliment.i am first time going to send my novel(the end of romance) synopsis and it really helped me,so thanks from the bottom of my heart.

(I am fine because world is mine)

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