Tips, Writing

Write a Novel: Synopsis

A blurb, which we went over last week, is very different from a synopsis. A blurb is a 100-word answer to the question, “What is your book about?” Its intention is to make social conversation and invite the listener, if they are truly interested, to ask more questions.

A synopsis is a screening tool. Coupled with a query letter it gives agents, editors, and publishers enough information to make a rapid interested/not interested decision. We may not think that’s fair. We’ve spent two years carefully crafting our book and we don’t want it judged by two pieces of paper. Sorry, that’s the reality of the publishing world.

There are many synopses guides. I found Beth Anderson’s several years ago. She wrote about a three stage synopsis: one-page, three-pages, and longer than three pages. Her graduated scale resonated with me right away, and I’ve never found any other how-to guide that better meets my needs. I would do her an injustice if I tried to summarize what she wrote. She is a Washington State author and this is the link to her take on synopsis writing. Check out her suggestions.

From here on, my personal opinion hat is firmly in place. This is what I do and don’t do in my synopses — and why.


Let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way. Unless an agent or publisher specifies another format, a synopsis should

  • be single spaced, with double-spaces between the paragraphs
  • have one inch (1”) margins all around
  • have the author’s name and contact information in the upper left corner. If we have an agent, their name and contact information should be there, too. The exception to this is submitting to a contest where no identifying information is to be on the manuscript. In that case the title and page number is enough.
  • in either the upper right corner, or at the bottom of the page, put [the title] synopsis, number of this page, and total number of pages. For example Perpetually Stunned synopsis/Page 1 of 2. The title should either be in italics (my preference) or in quotes.

Why? It’s easy to read and looks professional.

No like – no meets

I never compare my work to something else. My writing isn’t like another book, movie, or television program. It’s my unique work.

  • Yes, Hollywood loves the meet concept. I don’t. If we tell someone that our story is 24 meets Lost, we hope that the other person has seen both television series and loved them. Therefore, they are going to love our book. That one possibility in four. Here are the other three.
  • Both of those series are now off the air. Result, we’ve dated ourself and our work. Response? The world has moved on. Obviously this author hasn’t — not-interested pile.
  • What happens if the agent or editor hated one or both series? It makes the choice easier — instant not-interested pile.
  • We should not be surprised if a large number of people never saw either series. There are more people out there who lack pop culture references than than we might imagine. Response — never was interested enough to see those programs, probably won’t like this book — not-interested.

I figure one chance in four for a positive outcome isn’t good enough for me. The way to improve the odds is to pick elements of our like references and boil them down to their essence. Combining the first-person real time point of view from 24, and the time/event disorientation of Lost, a paragraph like the one below would work well in a synopsis.


Point-of-view is first person; the story is told with real time narration. My protagonist, Las Vegas Police Detective Wally Rackham, is coping with the after effects of a recent concussion. His symptoms, particularly auditory hallucinations, impair his ability to assess situations and create an event timeline. Laura White quickly discovers he needs her as much as she needs him.


Show, not tell, is for authors, too

Should we include a promotional opinion such as, “Readers will fall in love with this funny, quirky, well-written story.” The simple answer is no. We have no way to predict what readers will love or hate. While we hope for the best, our story may not be funny, or quirky, or well-written. We sound like a naive amateur when we make statements like this.

Leave out the self-promotion. Show the fun, the quirks, and the great writing by composing a well-structured synopsis.

The best choice

This happens, and this happens, and finally this other thing happens, is a weak way to construct a synopsis. There’s much more meat in carrying the story through it’s emotional line rather than one that’s a sequence of events. Each action is important because of the emotional impact on the characters.


Laura White arrives in Las Vegas, hot, thirsty, and worried about her mother. Gladys White has been a member of Gamblers Anonymous for eight years. What possessed her to catch a red-eye flight to Las Vegas?

How can anyone get lost between the airport and a hotel on the Strip? Laura manages and ends up in a deserted industrial area at two in the morning. Las Vegas may never sleep, but this part of town is dark and deserted, except for two men, smoking nervously beside a carpet outlet, and two more men who pop out of the shadows and kill them. And Laura, who sees the whole thing. She hasn’t even made it to her hotel yet.

And so on.


I hope to see you back on Thursday, May 15 for Level Thinking: Time Travel. I’m celebrating an anniversary.

Next Tuesday, May 20,  Write the Novel will discuss scenes. What’s a scene for, anyway?