Writing an Effective Synopsis

November 21, 2019 by Evan Braun


So you’ve finished your book, perhaps you’ve hired an editor to help polish it up, and now you’re ready to start submitting it to publishers. To do this, you should visit the publisher’s website and find out what they’re looking for. Publishers typically include submission guidelines on their website in some form or fashion. This is invaluable information, because it tells you exactly how to submit your book in a way that will help you make a positive first impression.

In the case of Word Alive Press, submitting a manuscript comes with just such a set of guidelines. A 3-5 page synopsis that gives a detailed description of your story from beginning to end is required.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that most publishers will want you to include a synopsis of your book. Most agents will want to see one, too. Why? Because they want an efficient way to evaluate whether the book fits their publishing needs before committing to read the entire manuscript.

This means that the synopsis is the first piece of writing the publisher will read from you—even before they look at the opening pages of your book. That makes the synopsis an incredibly important document to get right.

You can find a lot of helpful resources online about how to write an effective synopsis, but in today’s blog post I’m going to lay out some key tips.

Key Tips for Writing a Synopsis

1. Be as clear as possible. The most important thing is to place a strong emphasis on clarity. You may have an instinct to use a lot of wordy, flowery phrases to demonstrate your writing chops, but trust me when I say that you’ll make a better first impression by writing clearly and concisely. You should use as few words as possible.

2. Use active voice. I’ve written before about what the difference between active and passive voice, and why the active voice is almost always better. Check out that post. But here’s the short version: the passive voice often lacks clarity (see my first tip in this list), and the active voice emphasizes clarity.

3. Emphasize your book’s unique point of view. Let’s be honest. There are a lot of books out there, and many of those books probably tell similar stories to the one you’ve told. So in the synopsis, make sure you’re putting your unique point of view front and centre. In what ways is your book fresh and distinct from all the others? This question needs to be answered whether you’re written fiction or non-fiction. The person evaluating your book is going to want to see that you’ve avoided clichés or predictable storylines.

4. Frame the synopsis around the story’s narrative arc. The main problem you’re going to face when you tackle the synopsis is figuring out what parts of the book to leave out and which ones to include. In the synopsis, you have to distill the story down to only its most essential elements, which can understandably be tricky. Do this by thinking about the main narrative arc of the story, and then only mention the elements of the character and plot that directly pertain to that arc. By doing this, you need to present enough details that the story makes sense to the uninitiated.

Although this piece of advice may sound like it’s particular to novels, I think it’s important to keep in mind that non-fiction stories also have narrative arcs. So this advice still applies to all the different types of writers out there.

5. Finally, include the ending. It’s amazing how many synopses I read where the author intentionally describes the setup, and some of the middle sections of the plot, but obfuscates about the ending or leaves it entirely unclear—to create suspense. The whole point of the synopsis is to explain the book to the person evaluating your project in a holistic sense. You don’t have to worry about spoiling them; they want to be spoiled.

After all, remember the reason for the synopsis: to help someone evaluate the merits of the book without them having to commit to reading the entire manuscript to get there. If they’re intrigued enough by the ideas presented in the synopsis, they’ll read the actual book.

Before I go, though, I also want to identify a couple of final things you may want to specifically avoid.

Pitfalls to Avoid

1. Don’t include too much detail. This may seem counterintuitive, but mentioning too many characters, plot points, and twists is a common stumbling block. This level of detail can lead to a confusing synopsis, and remember that clarity is king. If you have a confusing series of events in the book, break it down into its simplest form.

Most publishers and agents are only going to ask for a short synopsis, maybe two or three pages, so you won’t have the time and space to get into the micro-details. Avoid unnecessary description, and make very single word count. And in deciding what stays and what goes, keep in mind what I said earlier about interpreting the book through its main narrative arc.

2. Remember that a synopsis isn’t the same thing as a back cover blurb. It’s easy to get these two things confused, but the back cover of a book isn’t about summarizing the book’s content; it’s about hooking the reader into buying it. On the other hand, a synopsis is much more strongly focused on the summary aspect. As I mentioned before about not worrying about spoiling the ending, although the synopsis needn’t cover every tiny detail of the story, it does need to encapsulate the whole thing—in broad strokes.

In conclusion, writing an effective synopsis necessitates a different focus than writing a good book, which is why a lot of terrifically skilled writers struggle with it. You will have to put some careful thought into what the constitutes the crux of your story to figure out what to emphasize.

But really, at the end of the day, the advice boils down to this: make very single word count. Scrutinize every single word, no exceptions.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.