basic craft stuff: the synopsis

I'm doing a presentation tomorrow at the Glastonbury library. It's only a fast one--and then we'll do critiques of synopses. Anyway, this is one of the things I wrote for it. Not really a hand-out but here you go anyway. I'm handing it out.

Hit the High Points in a Synopsis.
"Get creative!" "Stick to the basics and don't get cute with your synopsis!"
"It's important to show off your fresh, new voice whenever possible!" "Stick to the point and don't worry about voice!" "Narrative structure only!" "It's ok to include a bit of dialogue!"

"Introduce your characters in a special section first!" "Don't divide it into sections!"
Everyone has a different idea about the best structure for a synopsis, but I found some agreement about what each synopsis should include and that is:
BASICS: You must show the plot (including the end), the core conflict and the characters. Don’t forget word count and genre (first sentence). Make sure the title, your name, and your contact info is on every page.
MAKE SURE YOU COVER THE WHOLE BOOK EVENLY (not just first 3 chapters. A HQ editor once said, “I can tell when it’s based on a partial. That’s fine for authors I know and trust, but not for new authors.)
I go with the school of don’t worry too much about the voice of synopsis—especially if you have a couple of chapters included. If editors/agents are reading your synopsis, chances are they know you’ve got a good voice and are more interested to see what is going on with the story. Worry less about captivating them with your writing and more about making sure you hit main points and avoid unnecessary detail. Ask yourself is this fact or scene necessary to understand the characters or plot of my book?
CHECK EACH PUBLISHER YOU SUBMIT TO. Different publishers have different requirements. I think Medallion wants a page per chapter. H/S wants maybe 5 pages tops.

* * *
I've asked for feedback over the years and this is what I've found in my notes and today on Twitter. Keep in mind that this is INDIVIDUAL PREFERENCES so what one person likes, another might hate.
An agent: hates seeing questions posed in synopses. State the facts simply and straightforward. Save the “will he overcome his hatred of vampires?” for the back cover copy.
An Editor: ask questions and answer them is not her favorite format but she’ll tolerate it--ONLY if the questions are answered.
Kensington editor (I love this one): “In romance, the emphasis should be on the romance. Tell me how the hero and heroine grow and change because of growing love and how the external and internal conflicts are resolved.”
An Editor: Don't hide the ending or leave me hanging--I don't want to be surprised. I do want the main plot, the GMC and the whole story.
Editor: I hate when authors include excerpts in synopsis instead of telling plot details. Seems like they can't be bothered. I also hate synopses that switch from past to present tense.
Editor: get rid of subplots and secondary characters’ names.
And I asked authors what they do. Here're their responses:
Lauren Dane: I think every author does them differently. Mine are mini outlines of 10 or less pages. I hit the highlights of story also, over time, different editors like to see different things highlighted and you get to know that
Amie Stuart: I vote no questions. I tend to lay out protags conflict etc then the storyline in a pretty linear fashion. I try to hit the high points: this is conflict, this is how I solve it, this is how the character grows or changes. Do NOT forget GMC!
Amie (and Kate): Biggest mistake we see in contest entries--focusing on minute details that don't really matter in a synopsis.
I'm going to include these links because I like them a lot.
Bob Mayer (go watch him here: )

Remember the synopsis is your friend! You can nail plot holes and weak conflict with these babies. If you’re having too much trouble with a synopsis, maybe that's an indication that there are deeper troubles with the book. As Lauren and Amie say, learning to write a good synopsis will help you be a better plotter.
And if you have trouble knowing how to start, you can't find the structure you want, follow Arianna Hart's advice: write it like you're writing a review -- make sure you include huge spoilers.
Another update, another author offers an opinion (this is from an email from Caroline Linden):
Well, Kate, I think you nailed it: there are very few things you absolutely must include. I have heard agents say they only want a page or two, and editors say they don't even look at the synopsis until after reading a few pages of the book (if they don't like the pages, there's no point in reading the synopsis). My advice would be to keep is as short as you can while still expressing the main plot ideas. One author said she concentrates less on the plot, giving only the barest idea of it, and focuses on the characters, since that's what's really important in a romance.


  1. Wish I was better as synopsis writing. I think there is an art or talent to writing one. Nice summary. Wish I could be there to hear your talk.

  2. My friend Arianna Hart says to write it as if you're writing a spoiler review.

    Just go over the main plot, character issues etc and skip the little stuff.


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