Writing a synopsis

Posted by Will Mackie

If you recoil from the idea of writing a synopsis, you’re not alone. The prospect of distilling the contents of the book you’ve long laboured over to a succinct form is unlikely to appeal to many writers.

In truth, it’s impossible to recreate your manuscript in a synopsis but the positive thing is that no one expects you to.

A synopsis will usually come in a bundle along with a writing extract, covering letter and author biography. Of these, your extract is by far the most important element of the submission.

A synopsis is not a showcase for your creative talents

It should be functional, concise and well organised, indicating that you have the ideas and structure in place beyond your extract. It needs to include the key details and developments in the book, including your main characters and settings. It should follow the narrative of the book closely and show how it begins, develops and concludes. Even if you’re writing a story with a major reveal, you should include your ending and not worry about spoiling the experience for the professional considering your work.


Always check the guidelines provided by the agency or publisher you are submitting to and keep your synopsis within those limits

If your novel is a complex fantasy epic with multiple characters and settings coming in at over 150,000 words you still need to keep your synopsis to the word limit. If there’s no designated limit then as a rule try to keep it short: ideally within a page or two of A4. Remember that the synopsis is a tool for you to sell your book to someone whose time is limited and that if your work is taken on that same person will need to use your synopsis to encourage others to consider your work.


A synopsis will differ for the type of work you’re submitting

A novel or memoir can follow the chapter-by-chapter progression of the story and show where key developments happen in the plot. If you’re writing a synopsis of a short-story collection, avoid trying to summarise the plot of each individual story and instead highlight any unifying themes that run through the collection. A poetry synopsis is closer to being a commentary: it’s an opportunity to describe what holds your collection together and the themes explored in your poems.


The synopsis can be useful for you too as it allows you to map out the developments in your book

It can highlight areas where your focus might have drifted or show where implausibility has crept in. It gives you a chance to take a holistic and detached view or your work, to step back and consider the what you’ve created. It might help if you try to reduce your manuscript down to a couple of sentences. If you really had to describe it in less than 50 words, how would you do that? Once you’ve done this, you can then expand your description into a full synopsis.