You know writing a book is going to be hard, even grueling. But synopsizing it should be easy.
So, why does it feel so intimidating?
It’s not just because you must convince an agent or a publisher (in as few as 500 words) that your novel or nonfiction manuscript will succeed in the marketplace.
It’s because an effective, working synopsis should become your foundational document for the writing itself.
Getting this right can make the writing so much easier. Getting it wrong can expose even the smallest crack in your foundation.
Regardless, synopsis writing is crucial to your success.
You want to craft yours in such a way that it empowers an agent to sell your manuscript to a publisher.
Writing your synopsis can also reveal fatal flaws in your outline, allowing you to make the fix before you invest months in the writing.
Below I detail everything I’ve learned about how to write a synopsis that works for you.
I also give you two synopsis templates — one for fiction and one for nonfiction, with real examples of each.
How to Write Compelling Synopses
I cover both fiction and nonfiction here, so feel free to jump straight to your genre. Just remember that each contains valuable training that applies to both.
What Is a Synopsis?
For FICTION SYNOPSES, summarize the main beats of your story, chapter by chapter.
(Don’t worry — agents and publishers know fiction is organic and stories often take on lives of their own. You won’t be held rigidly to your synopsis, and many story beats will wind up in different chapters than you predicted.)
The point of your synopsis is to reveal the entire story in as few as 500 words, allowing an agent or a publisher to determine whether the premise and approach make it worthy of asking to see the eventual manuscript.
Yes, your synopsis should reveal how your story ends.
A common mistake is to confuse your synopsis with back cover or advertising copy—which is full of teasers and questions designed to lure readers.
Your potential agent or publisher is not a buyer who needs to be lured. And they don’t want questions—they want answers. Tell what happens in your story and how it ends.
Your agent or publisher (hopefully both) will become your publishing partner.
Let them in on all the secrets and how you intend to tell the story.
Agents and publishers are deluged with thousands of manuscripts annually. You help them do their jobs and set yourself apart from that sea of competition by giving them every reason to ask to see your manuscript.
A meaningful fiction synopsis briefly tells your story in present tense. You’ll see an example below.
Full disclosure: If you’re a new novelist, few agents or publishers will extend a contract offer based on your synopsis alone (it happens, but it’s rare). Lots of writers can dream up great premises, high enough stakes to justify a novel-length manuscript, and a great ending.
The question is whether they can finish and deliver. Most can’t. Just like employers are cautioned against “hiring a résumé” without a careful screening process, agents and publishers have learned to make sure a writer can deliver an entire manuscript before committing to a contract.
So why not just write the manuscript and submit it whole, if they’re going to insist on seeing it anyway? Admittedly, some require that. But most can tell from your synopsis whether they want to see the manuscript.
For memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and narrative nonfiction, the fiction synopsis example below also applies. You merely lay out — in a sentence or two (in present tense) — what you plan to cover in each chapter.
For nonfiction, a synopsis should reveal:
- The intended audience
- What you intend to teach readers
- Why you are qualified to write on the subject
Avoid hard-selling language. Of course you’re trying to sell your manuscript, but the approach and word choice must do the work. Agents and editors are not impressed with grandiose promises and predictions.
Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need to immerse yourself in your genre of fiction. You may intend to break a lot of rules, but you had better know the conventions.
Read dozens and dozens of books in your genre. Your job in writing a synopsis is to summarize a full-length manuscript in 500 words.
That may seem impossible, but it’s also for your benefit. You’ll be amazed at how your synopsis keeps you focused and on track during the writing.
Start with the main elements of your story and flesh out your synopsis from there.
Step 1: Determine Your Premise
In my post How to Develop a Great Story Idea I walk you through coming up with a bullet-proof story idea.
You’ll know you’ve hit on a potential winner when you can summarize your novel idea in one sentence. Despite that it’s only one sentence, it deserves the time it takes to make it just right.
Moviemakers refer to this as the logline.
In Blake Snyder’s classic book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he says a good logline must have irony, and then uses this example for the movie Die Hard: “A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife, and finds her office building taken over by terrorists.”
That may look simple, but it’s not easy.
If someone asked you to tell them, in one sentence, what your novel is about, could you do it? Most can’t, and until they can, they’re not ready to write it.
Step 2: Reveal Your Story Structure
Novels will have some version of the following main beats:
1. An riveting opener
2. An inciting incident that changes everything
3. A series of crises that build tension
4. A climax where everything comes a head and is resolved
5. A satisfying ending
For more detail on the above, read 7 Story Structures Any Writer Can Use.
Step 3: Flesh Out the Details
1. Start your synopsis by hooking your reader — in this case an agent or publisher. Your one-sentence premise is the most important line of all. Would you keep reading if the Die Hard logline was the premise? I would.
What if it was, “A man discovers his own brother is living a double life, teaching junior high biology under a different name”? I wouldn’t. Now maybe if the brother were a terrorist or some other kind of a criminal…
2. Next, map out the story, using your story structure as a base. Write a paragraph or two for each of the above five main story beats (or those of whatever structure you’ve settled on). Keep it brief and clear. Aim for no more than 500 words
3. Reveal your main character’s story arc. Who are they at the end compared to who they were in the beginning — both inwardly and outwardly?
Do this as well for other major characters, like the villain.
- Write in the third person, present tense, and as tightly as possible: “Jason learns his daughter has been kidnapped,” or “At the grocery store, Sally is riveted by the best-looking man she’s ever seen.”
- Boldface or CAPITALIZE first mentions of characters’ names.
- Include a brief character sketch: “JON NELSON (38 — a retired mercenary and now a bodyguard) takes a call…”
Novel Synopsis Example
In Left Behind, millions of people throughout the world disappear in an instant in what turns out to be the Rapture of the Church at the end of the world.
RAYFORD STEELE, an airline pilot, is flying to London when a third of his passengers disappear right out of their clothes.
Rayford fears his devout Christian wife has been right about the prophesied rapture, and if she was, she and his young son will be gone when he arrives home. His college-age daughter, CHLOE, a skeptic like him, will likely have been left behind.
Passenger CAMERON WILLIAMS (a newswriter of international renown) follows the rise of NICOLAE CARPATHIA, a powerful political figure who is eventually revealed as the antichrist.
[The synopsis continues with what happens in every subsequent chapter, again with no mysteries, teasers, or questions raised. Rather, everything is spelled out and explained so the agent or publisher knows what to expect.]
Steven Pressfield, a successful novelist (The Legend of Bagger Vance) and nonfiction author (The War of Art, Turning Pro, and The Artist’s Journey) advises synopsizing a nonfiction book the same way you would a novel.
According to Pressfield, a nonfiction work also has a hero, a journey, a villain, an inciting incident, a climax, and the tension between wanted and unwanted outcomes typically found in novels.
Below I share a template for a solid nonfiction synopsis.
Step 1: Promise Reader Benefits
A successful nonfiction book should empower readers to either solve a problem or to achieve a goal, e.g., “To learn to better manage their time.”
Such a premise statement answers two questions:
- Who the book is for, and
- What it offers them
Step 2: Establish Yourself as an Authority
Steven Pressfield writes:
“If you’re a woman writing a book about weight loss for women, you’d better be a size two with washboard abs and have photos of yourself displayed throughout the book. Otherwise we readers will have trouble accepting you as an authority.”
But it’s not readers you need to convince in your synopsis—it’s an agent or publisher. It’s up to them whether your book makes it to the marketplace.
So, sell them on why you’re the person to write this book.
Example: “I write a time management blog with a monthly readership of more than 100,000. I’ve sold over 5,000 memberships to a productivity course I created, and I coach Fortune 500 executives on performance.”
Step 3: Share the Recipe
Devote a short paragraph to every chapter in the book, describing in third person, present tense, the content, purpose, and reader takeaway for each.
Aim for up to 800 words.
Nonfiction Synopsis Example
In Writing for the Soul, I impart experience and wisdom gained from a nearly half-century writing career. I reveal the rewards that can come to writers who work hard, commit to lifelong learning, and maintain their family priorities. I’ve written nearly 200 books with sales of more than 71 million copies, including 21 New York Times bestsellers.
I share how to find writing success through lifelong learning and polishing the craft.
I also include practical advice and share behind-the-scenes anecdotes of working with well-known biographical subjects (Billy Graham, Walter Payton, Hank Aaron, Meadowlark Lemon, Nolan Ryan, et al).
In 13 chapters (designed for group study as well), I discuss:
- The requirements to make a career of writing
- Breaking into the industry through reporting and writing for small markets,
- Establishing a professional image
- Lifelong learning
Then I list all 13 chapter titles and synopsize each in a sentence or two.
Writing a synopsis…
…doesn’t have to be daunting. There’s no need to be paralyzed by the fear of producing this tool so critical to both the writing of your manuscript and pitching it to agents or publishers.
You no longer have to dread the process. My simple, proven approach to writing synopses for both novels and nonfiction books should put you on a path to success.
All the best with yours!