How to write a book synopsis better: 9 tips

Writing a book synopsis involves creating a summary that gives the reader a sweeping overview of the central plot events and the specific appeal of a story. The word ‘synopsis’ comes from the Greek prefix ‘sun-‘ (meaning ‘together’) and ‘-opsis‘ (‘seeing’). So a synopsis is literally a way to  ‘see together’ all the strands of a story. This post looks at how to write a book synopsis that sells your story.

Why should you write a book synopsis? The most common reason is to provide publishers and agents with an overview of your story idea that entices them to read your entire manuscript. Writing a book synopsis is also a helpful outlining exercise before writing a novel, since describing what will happen in the course of the story in the most compelling way possible will give you a sense of where you want your story to go and will help you keep on-track during the writing process.

How do you write a great book synopsis? Here are nine top tips:

1. Keep to the essentials

Does your character wake up in one scene and have a full English breakfast? You might have a great way with describing food mouth-wateringly. Even so, leave out everything that doesn’t give the reader an idea of character development, key plot twists and turns, and any conflicts and resolutions. This will communicate that your book has a strong underlying creative purpose.

2. Don’t give only a dry account of the core plot events

Jane Friedman who’s had a successful career in the publishing industry makes this her number one ‘don’t’ in her very detailed blog post on how to write a novel synopsis. Says Jane, ‘A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.’

3. Don’t waffle

As writers, we do sometimes like to waffle. But the only good waffle is a Belgian one. In your novel synopsis, you need to be concise. Instead of saying:

Robert is walking in a forest when he sees something between the trees and at first is fearful but then sees that it is actually just an almost human-shaped rock

Say:

Robert adventures through a forest and is initially uneasy, sensing and imagining eerie inhabitants.

4. Stick to using active voice compellingly

This is a tip Courtney Carpenter shares in a useful post for Writer’s Digest, ‘Learn How to Write a Synopsis like a Pro’. Rather than say ‘The protagonist is married by…’ say ‘The protagonist marries’. Make each action described in the summary of your story’s events seem a decisive, non-vague action that drives the plot forward.

Carpenter also suggests sticking to the second person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) since your synopsis should read as an author standing apart describing her character’s lives and developments as an observer.

5. Make every single word count

This follows on from point three. Besides keeping your synopsis concise, make sure that the words you do use carry emotive and imaginative weight. Don’t say ‘after the wedding there is some trouble during the honeymoon’ but ‘the honeymoon is a practical disaster’. Make sure each word creates a vivid emotional or descriptive pull. Make the reader curious to know more and expand their knowledge of how your story unfolds.

6. Read your book synopsis aloud

It’s common advice for writing better narrative prose. It’s also equally good advice for writing a compelling book synopsis. While reading aloud, ask yourself:

    • Does each sentence communicate something that improves the listener’s overall grasp of what the story is about and what makes it interesting?
    • Does each sentence flow smoothly with no unnecessary words or awkward constructions?
    • Is there any part that feels boring or irrelevant to the overall story development?

7. Use the synopsis format that your intended reader prefers

Because the aim of a novel’s synopsis is a concise illumination of the key plot points and feelings evoked by a story, formatting a book synopsis in a simple, elegant way is important.

Fiction Writer’s Connection provides this format:

      • In the upper left hand corner, you should have the words ‘Synopsis of “[Title of your novel]”
      • This should be followed by a space and a description of your novel’s genre: ‘Genre: [Genre of your novel]’
      • This should be followed by ‘Word count: [Word count of your novel]
      • Finally, in the right-hand upper corner, you should put your name: ‘By: [Your pen name]’

The heading of a synopsis for J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book might look something like this:

Fiction Writer’s Connection also advises to single space your synopsis, unless it is longer than a page (this is generally not ideal). If you can’t summarise your novel in one page, than your synopsis should be double-spaced.

Some publishers will give their own advice as to how they like manuscript synopses to be submitted. See if you can find this information on publishers’ websites before you submit.

8. Don’t include irrelevant cover material

Do you have a degree in linguistics? A favourite Abba song? Don’t include any personal or quirky information as an addendum to your synopsis – keep it professional. Biographical information should be kept for author bio material if it is requested. A synopsis doesn’t need a cover page. Ideally it’s a single page that the eagle-eyed editor can wave at colleagues frantically while shouting ‘you won’t believe how great this novel sounds’.

9. When writing a book synopsis, make the opening good

Just as a first chapter should make the reader want to know more, a good synopsis opening makes the reader want to know more about the characters, events and potential conflict of your novel.

Published author Marissa Meyer provides the following advice on her novel writing blog:

The first paragraph of the synopsis should give the same basic information you convey through the book’s first chapter: where and when does this story take place, who is the protagonist, and what problem are they facing right off the bat?

Is there any particular advice on how to write a book synopsis you’ve found useful that I haven’t include.d here? Let me know in the comments below.

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