The Ultimate Guide to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Your synopsis is just as important, arguably even more than your actual piece. 

It seems like writing a synopsis after you’ve already written your book should be a breeze, but that’s not the case. 

In reality, writing your synopsis can be a lot more difficult than you may imagine. 

With your synopsis, you have about 500 words to convince an agent or publisher that your book is worth putting in the marketplace. 

Instead of waiting until the end to create your synopsis, writing it before can help ensure a smooth writing process overall. 

Regardless, it’s essential to write a compelling synopsis that motivates agents and publishers to sell your writing. 

In today’s post, we’ll detail the most helpful strategies on ‘How to write A Synopsis’ for both nonfiction and fiction books 

What’s a Synopsis?

Your synopsis is roughly 500 words that reveal the main points of your story. Unlike your back cover or ad copy, the synopsis should tell how your story ends. Fiction synopsis should outline the premise and approach of your story. You can rest assured that both publishers and agents understand the developmental aspects of fiction writing and will expect that your story could evolve differently than your synopsis. 

Rather than asking luring questions as you may with a back cover copy, you should tell what happens in your story and how it ends in your synopsis. You want to be clear about how you plan to tell the story, and your synopsis should set you apart from the competition. Essentially, you should tell your story in the present tense with your synopsis. 

The synopsis is important for convincing agents and publishers to work with you, but you should be aware that very few will offer a contract based on only the synopsis. You still will need a powerful novel-length manuscript to go with your synopsis. 

The synopsis is like your resume, it’s only part of the process. Delivering your idea is another challenge entirely. Just as employers will complete a rigorous hiring process, agents and publishers will want to see the entire manuscript as well as a synopsis. 

The synopsis is usually the first step, and most will use it to determine if they want to read the manuscript. 

Nonfiction synopses are slightly different. For nonfiction pieces like narrative stories, biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies, you should lay out the topics you plan to cover in each chapter. 

The synopsis for nonfiction should outline the intended audience, what you want to teach readers, and your qualifications for writing on the subject. Don’t use overly salesy language or promise things you won’t deliver. 

Writing a Fiction Synopsis

Starting your fiction writing process with the synopsis can help you determine the main direction and elements of your story. 

Study your genre hard, because summarizing a full manuscript in 500 words is not an easy task. However, starting with your synopsis will keep you focused during your writing. 

Here are the key steps to writing a fiction synopsis:

Develop Your Main Idea

You should be able to summarize your story premise in one sentence. Arguably the sentence does need to be a good one, but a winning storyline will only require a one-sentence description. 

This one-sentence premise outline is known as the “logline”.

A good logline is simple, yet intriguing. At first glance, it may not seem like much of a challenge, but try to tell someone about your novel with one sentence. Until you can do this, you shouldn’t write the full story. 

Outline Story Structure 

All novels should include variants of the main structure aspects below:

  • A powerful opener.
  • A plot twist. 
  • A series of challenges that add tension. 
  • Everything meeting at the pinnacle, or climax. 
  • A resolution. 
  • A gratifying ending. 

 

Present the Details

Your synopsis should begin with a hook. Using your one-sentence is a crucial line that must hook the agent or publisher. Take your time to craft a winning logline and begin your synopsis with a band. 

Use your story structure as a base, then add a paragraph or two for the main story beats you’ve used. Keep it concise, staying under 500 words. 

Lastly, showcase the main character’s story. Describe how they changed from the beginning. Do the same for all major characters, including villains. 

Tips:

When writing your synopsis, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use a present tense and third person as much as possible. 
  • Highlight the first mentions of a character’s name by bolding or capitalizing it. 
  • Add brief character sketches. 
  • Avoid mysteries, raising questions, and teasers. 
  • Spell out your story clearly so the agent or publisher knows what to expect. 

 

Nonfiction Synopsis Example 

Blood Dawn by John Robin 

[Context] 

Blood Dawn is set in Ghulheim, the once-mighty seat of Azzadul, a god-king who united the world then vanished mysteriously. Gholheim has fallen into disarray under the regime of King Fyrian, a tyrannical ruler bent on the suppression of art. Despite his apparent grasp of power, the seeds of revolution stir and soon ignite into a war. 

[Whose story is it + what does she want?] 

Rena, a seamstress of nearly twenty winters who has been adopted into wealthy House Arwelle, wants desperately to forget her past crimes as a child assassin and lead a life of peace and obscurity. However, she has an uncanny gift for weaving, which attracts the interest of people eager to exploit her, which soon pulls her into the center of the revolution.

[What’s standing in her way?] 

Rena’s greedy uncle, Kurt Estelle, reveals her ability to weave before Gholheim’s royal officials. Convincing them that Rena’s skill might be a benefit to the lucrative foreign cloth trade market, Estelle’s actions lead Rena to the royal palace, where she is forced to abandon her old life as a seamstress and become Mistress of Cloth to King Fyrian – a job which means she is in control of cloth production for export, and a reality which makes her feel exposed and uncertain.

[This happened and BECAUSE OF THAT this happened + why it matters] 

While in the palace, Rena encounters conspirators who seek to use her gifts for their own gain. One of them, Villiar, once the Chief Councillor to Azzadul, tells Rena she is the god-king’s long-lost daughter and insists that she must master her power for the good of Gholheim’s people. Another, a villain in Gholheim’s Underworld called Zavram, has strong ties to the royal court, and his goal is the opposite: to steal Rena’s inherited power using arcane blood rites so that with it he might become more powerful even than the former god-king. Rena is a pawn in their game, and in her moment of greatest need she calls upon the power of colors and patterns that has always comforted her and weaves a grand tapestry of dragons – and in this, she gets a glimmer of her full potential. 

[This happened and BECAUSE OF THAT this happened + why it matters]

 War breaks out around Ghulheim. While this is happening, Rena not only begins to believe in her power, she also begins a secret love affair with King Fyrian, discovering that he is just a figurehead – and an ordinary, fearful person just like her. Compelled by the power she’s just discovered and her new love, Rena seeks to master her power, not only so she can rise above the conspirators who want to use both her and the King as their puppet, but to show her new lover that it is possible to rule without fear. Rekindling the deadly gifts of her past as a child assassin, she creates magical drawings that unleash fire and destruction on her enemies, killing hundreds. 

[This happened and BECAUSE OF THAT this happened + why it matters] 

In her torn and singed gown, she sits on Azzadul’s throne, trusting that her power is indeed a sign of her birthright as Azzadul’s long-lost daughter, claiming victory for her and for Fyrian, and believing that she will bring a new age of hope to Ghulheim. Rena and Fyrian quickly marry to cement their power, but their celebration is short-lived, for House Trwl, a rogue house that has sworn false loyalty to King Fyrian rises up and murders the king. Rena is caught off guard, and finds that though she’s prepared magical drawings as wards to protect herself, they are useless to her now in her desperate time of need. She is taken prisoner where she awaits a death sentence. 

[This happened and BECAUSE OF THAT this happened + why it matters] 

Alone in captivity — the place where she first resolved to abandon her drawings so she could rebuild a life of peace in a new life with Jane Arwelle — Rena finds new resolve to become more than a timid girl. She vows that if she manages to survive this time, she will not rest until she has reclaimed the throne and restored hope to Gholheim’s people.

[This happened and BECAUSE OF THAT this happened + why it matters] 

Meanwhile, Rena’s brother, Manwen, her mother, Jane, Granduncle Lantis, and a new ally, Venton, plot her rescue. They steal Rena away, replace her with a look-alike, and fake her death. Zavram, realizing the betrayal, blames his apprentice, Din Dellion, another master of the dark arts, and in an epic battle the two men put their greatest powers against one another – a fight which ends with Zavram fleeing and Din Dellion rising up as the new king of Ghulheim.

[Resolution] 

Rena, who in exile has been rising to her full strength, begins her campaign to win back Ghulheim. Using the tapestry Rena made as a blueprint, her rescuers are able to decode an ancient device that becomes a master weapon for Rena. With it, she conquers Ghulheim and reclaims the throne and forges a permanent connection to her magic. She rules with force and confidence, defining for her people a new era of light and hope – her father’s dream restored to dark Gholheim and the vast world beyond.

Writing a Nonfiction Synopsis

Nonfiction literature should still tell a story, which means you synopsize it very similarly as you would a fiction novel. Nonfiction pieces still have heroes, journeys, villains, challenges, a climax, and the other key storytelling elements of fiction works. 

Here is the basic template for a nonfiction synopsis:

Explain the Value 

Your nonfiction text should help readers in some way. Deliver a premise statement that explains who the book is for and what it offers them. For example, maybe the purpose is to “learn to better handle defeat”. 

Establish Credibility 

Next, you have to establish yourself as an authority figure in the industry that you’re writing about. Readers need to trust that the information and advice you share is sound. 

Imagine reading about cooking techniques from someone whose version of cooking is reheating frozen meals. Without the experience, you wouldn’t trust what they are telling you. 

Before you can even convince readers, you have to convince the agent or publisher that you are an authority in the space. 

Explain why you are the best person to write this book. Layout your relevant credentials. 

Describe the Outline  

Summarize each chapter in the book with one paragraph. Use the third person and present tense to outline the content, purpose, and takeaway for each chapter. This should be up to 800 words. 

Key Qualities of a Nonfiction Synopsis

  • Present the main question or problem in a way that will seem interesting even to those unfamiliar with the subject. 
  • Explain the importance and relevance of the main question or problem. 
  • Demonstrate public interest in the subject and how it will appeal to a large enough market niche. 
  • Showcase your authority to write this book. 

 

Nonfiction Synopsis Example (Memoir)

Crossing to Invisible by Annie B Seyler

[Context – the world of the story]

As the income gap in America widens and class mobility grinds to a standstill, the national

dialogue around wealth disparity has surged to the foreground. According to a recent New York

Times/CBS News poll, “Americans are broadly concerned about inequality of wealth and

income…Far from a strictly partisan issue, inequality looms large…suggesting that it will outlive

the presidential primary contests and become a central theme in next year’s general election

campaign.” (NYT 6/3/15)

[Protagonist – who is this narrator and what does she believe?]

Amidst the dialogue and debates, one thing is clear: nothing amplifies the issues or humanizes the impact more poignantly than personal stories. But the vast majority of stories are told from only one side of the income gap. Imagine the benefits of adding to the dialogue a personal account of the experience of growing up in both privilege and poverty within one’s own nuclear family. Imagine a story that taps into America’s widespread discomfort with poverty and the social norm that encourages those with means to distance themselves from those who have less. Enter Crossing to Invisible, a provocative memoir that explores the author’s emotional experience of crossing back and forth over the income divide as a teenager and the unmistakable influence of that crossing on her choices as an adult.

[Why it matters – the topic, the big idea.]

Wealth disparity has driven a wedge among teenagers’ worlds and many educators and parents

of prep school youth are worried their teenagers are growing up in privileged silos that prevent

them from identifying with anyone who lives on the other side. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s

leaders, so cultivating in them the ability to identify and empathize with all people – across the

class divide – has never been more critical.

[What happens externally and internally + why it matters]

Crossing to Invisible provides a bridge between worlds and a leaping-off point for reflection and

discourse. From a Connecticut prep school to an Ivy League University, the author is immersed

in privilege and taught to achieve, build status, and leverage every opportunity her elite

education offers. But when her mother divorces her wealthy father and willfully remarries into

extreme poverty, the author must choose between honoring the class rules that have shaped her family’s lives for generations or defying the rules, foregoing the rewards, and following her heart.

[What happens externally and internally + why it matters]

Setting aside the distinction that privilege bestows upon her, the author sleeps on a mattress on a barn floor, dumpster dives for pecan rolls behind a Freihofer’s outlet store, and immerses herself in a community that is trapped in a cycle of generational poverty and overlooked in a country that worships what they lack: prestige and money. As the author enters adulthood and faces life’s increasing complexities, she gets trapped between a culture that urges her to leverage her pedigree and a quiet yet pervasive instinct to hide from it.

[Resolution]

Although the author’s story is unusual, many of her feelings are not. Her journey is one from

resistance to acceptance; from resentment to forgiveness; from feeling like something is missing

to feeling whole. It’s a journey in which layers of distortion are peeled away — distortions within

our culture, within her own family, and within herself. It’s a journey that gets beneath the surface

of how we show ourselves in the world and how we see others – even those we pretend are

invisible.

Write Your Synopsis 

Writing a synopsis may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. While it’s certainly frightening to pitch your manuscript to agents and publishers, you have the tools to produce a compelling synopsis. 

Ideally, begin your writing process with the synopsis. This will help you flesh out your concept and narrow in on the purpose of your book. Using the simple approach above, you can write a winning synopsis for nonfiction and fiction books

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