Writing a Synopsis
With all TLC manuscript assessments, you are welcome to submit your synopsis and cover letter, and we also provide a Submission Package Report, which looks at your first 8k words, synopsis, and ‘Dear Agent’ letter. Our fees can be found here, and submission guidelines here. Client feedback can be found here.
‘How to Write a Synopsis’ by Rebecca Swift originally appeared in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. You can find our updated 2019 article, ‘How To Write A Synopsis’, with a simple template, here.
The dictionary definition of ‘synopsis’ (derived from the Ancient Greek meaning) is ‘a brief description of the contents of something’.
The purpose of a synopsis is to inform a literary agent or publisher of the type of book you are writing/have written in a concise, appealing fashion, conveying that you are in command of your subject matter. If you want your manuscript to be given serious consideration, a good synopsis is a crucial part of your submission.
The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook will inform you that most publishing houses no longer accept direct submissions but those that do (usually the smaller houses) will usually ask for a cover letter, synopsis and sample chapters rather than a whole work in the first instance. The same applies to literary agents. To put it simply, the sample chapters are to show how you write, and the synopsis is to tell the reader what happens when they have finished reading them. This will help inform the publisher/literary agent whether they think it is worth their while to read more. Then, if they do want to read more, they will ask you.
So, the bottom line is this – if you want to have your manuscript read in its entirety you must invest time in getting your cover letter and book synopsis right. I know from my experiences at TLC that many writers can get disconcerted and nervous by having to produce a synopsis and there are usually two reasons why.
First, a writer might have an unwieldy story that they themselves are not 100 per cent convinced by, or a non-fiction project that they do not really know enough about. If this is so, summarising can be difficult because the level of thinking through and planning of the project has not been done in the first place.
In this instance, I would urge the writer to question why this process is so difficult. If it is because the story is insufficiently clear, persuasive or gripping, then more work needs to be done to get the manuscript into the kind of shape that would persuade an agent or editor to consider it further.
Second, a writer might genuinely be able to write a good book but not be experienced in the art of summarising a work in an effective manner. A few might even consider the act of doing so demeaning. If this is the case, I would urge you to think not of yourself, but of the reader, and treat the project as a literary exercise which you should try to enjoy: a challenge and opportunity to show your work off in its essential form. It might help to refer to book blurbs, or plot summaries in reference books such as The Oxford Companion to Literature, or online, for example in Wikipedia.
In addition to letting a professional reader know what happens in your manuscript, the synopsis will also let them know at a glance if you have thought about how your work fits in to the market. This is critical in non-fiction, less so with fiction, although with fiction awareness of what genre you have written in is vital. Also, if what you are writing coincides with any major anniversaries for example, or might have a marketing ‘hook’ of any other kind, this is important to mention if not within the synopsis itself, then within a cover letter.
A fiction synopsis should comprise a brief summary followed by a more detailed synopsis. But before writing either of these, you must clarify which genre your work fits into.
The most important thing to realise about fiction in respect of how you present it to representatives of the publishing industry is that it breaks down into different types, or genres. For those who think that the obsession with genres, or types of fiction, is a modern phenomenon, the lines from Polonius’ famous speech in Hamlet might serve to prove the opposite. He describes the actors who have come to court as ‘The best actors in the world … for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited’. Some of these dramatic forms are familiar and others not. There are always more genres being invented or cross-fertilised. It can be difficult to keep up!
The most popular genres today are, broadly speaking: crime, thriller, psychological thriller, detective, sci-fi, horror, comic, chick-lit, lad’s lit, historical, saga, literary, experimental, graphic, erotic, fantasy, romantic, women’s commercial fiction and literary-commercial crossover – or, as it’s becoming more widely coined, ‘Lit Lite’.
Classifying your novel within a genre can be a challenge. This is largely because when most people start to write a novel they do so without having studied the genre they are writing for. Although, when you start to write, you feel free to explore, practise and experiment without thinking in terms of the defining limits of a genre, by the time you come to submitting your work to be published, it is very important to know which genre your work fits into. In all art forms there are rule breakers, but almost inevitably – as in the cases of Picasso, Virginia Woolf and, more recently, the US writer Michael Cunningham – even the greatest ‘artists’ have studied the traditional forms/genres before taking any risks.
A good starting point is to read books you consider similar to the one you are writing that are already published, and note how they are classified on the back cover. By reading, and sometimes studying literature and writing through other routes, you will also learn the possibilities and limits offered by your chosen genre. The bad news is if you don’t clarify what kind of book you have written, the chances are it will reflect in the text. If you don’t clearly inform the agent or editor what your book is about and which category it falls into, it may all too quickly be labelled as a work which ‘falls between stools’ , is impossible to market and so doesn’t get considered any further.
Writing a brief summary
Having made it your top priority to identify what type of novel you have written, you can make a start on your all-important synopsis. All good synopses should begin with a brief summary of 30–75 words, the sort of thing which appears on a book’s back cover. For example, had you written Pride and Prejudice today:
Pride and Prejudice is a contemporary, literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.
Pride and Prejudice, a contemporary, literary novel, tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett, a proud, intelligent woman, one of five sisters, whose mother is committed to marrying her children off as a matter of urgency. Elizabeth meets Darcy, owner of a grand estate, but considers him over proud, arrogant and undesirable. In time, she learns that he is not all that he appears to be, and revises her prejudice, before they fall deeply in love.
Both these examples, one short, one longer, serve to whet the appetite for more detail to follow.
An example of an ostensibly weak synopsis, which rambles and fails to emphasise the most important points quickly enough, might be:
Set at some point in the nineteenth century, five sisters are looking for husbands. Or is Mary, really? Anyway, their mother is a real fuss pot and annoys everybody. Outside their house there are lots of fields and it is sometimes raining. The girls’ father is gentle and kind, with grey hair but not good at standing up to his wife always. Mr Bingley is an important character who is very handsome, but is he as handsome as Mr Darcy? It is hard to tell! …
Hopefully you can see the clear differences between the two.
Writing a detailed synopsis
Following the brief summary should be a more detailed synopsis of 350–450 words. Literary agents do not want a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown (if they do, they’ll ask for one) as reading them can be tiresome and difficult to follow. The main aim of the longer synopsis is to give a detailed overview which clearly and concisely conveys how the story flows and unfolds, and (very importantly) what is interesting about it. The longer synopsis should also reconfirm when the story is set (i.e. is it contemporary or historical?); the setting or background (e.g. is Thatcher’s government in its last throes or are we in a quiet Devonshire village where nothing ever happens, but there is a sense of impending doom?); inform the reader about the central character (i.e. what is interesting about them and what happens on their journey), as well as giving brief reference to other characters that are directly pivotal to the plot. The longer synopsis should also highlight the dramatic turning points and tell the reader of any other salient information which will help convey what kind of work it is, how well imagined are the characters involved and how well thought through and alluring is the plot.
Alongside the synopsis should also be an excellent, economically written and confident sounding cover letter. This should simply address a well-researched literary agent by name (never put a generic ‘Dear Sir/Madam’).
In this you should say that you are enclosing a novel called ‘X’, which is a thriller/literary/coming-of-age/horror novel (identify genre). It does not matter if this is repeated on the synopsis page. You may also wish to refer to writers you feel you are similar to, although do be careful not to have misplaced arrogance in this. You might say ‘I write in the genre of John Grisham because he is a writer I read and hugely admire’ or you might say ‘this is a novel in which To Kill a Mockingbird meets Crash’ or ‘Harper Lee meets J.G Ballard’ – but do be careful that you know you have the talent to claims like these. Otherwise, let the agent decide and they will help market you to the publisher, and the publisher then help market you to the public. If you admire an agent for a particular reason, such as they publish a hero or heroine of yours, let them know.
If you have something interesting to say about yourself, such as that you have won a writing competition or published before in relevant publications, do include this briefly in the cover letter. It is for you to judge what is of particular interest about you, and how much to say, but you should also provide a fuller biographical note which sits well at the bottom of the synopsis page. This should be between 50 and 200 words as a guide. If you have been published provide a summarised list of publications here. If you have not, or are trying to hide a career you think has gone off track and want to appear fresh, keep it brief and mention what you do, your age and anything that makes you sound interesting. If your career is related to your subject matter, then do say this. For example ‘I worked as a miner for twenty year’ if your book is set in a mining community. Do avoid listing technical publications as evidence of writing ability if you are submitting fiction. There is an enormous difference between writing technically and writing fiction, and if you don’t seem to know this it is not impressive. This is different for non-fiction. As a rule, err on the side of brevity if necessary. If the reader loves your work they will be in touch to find out more about you.
For help with learning how to self-market read Marketing Your Book: An Author’s Guide by Alison Baverstock.
NB: If the work is literary, there may be less emphasis on plot and more on the quality of the prose. Due to current climates and publishing trends, this is a difficult time to publish literary fiction without strong plots, although things undoubtedly will change.
A synopsis for a work of non-fiction performs a different function. The consideration of whether a non-fiction book has a potential market is generally more straightforward than for new fiction. In the case of non-fiction you should certainly have carefully researched your market before submission and ideally list the competitors in the field, outlining why your project is different and why you are the writer best positioned to write the book you have. Also, you should be able to list any marketing opportunities you believe your book may have, such as identifiable, or even guaranteed readers such as students if you teach a course, anniversary tie-ins and so on.
A literary agent is often prepared to sell a non-fiction work on synopsis and chapters only. This is an extreme rarity in the case of fiction. This is because it is easier for people to see if there is a market gap that can be filled by the project, before the work is finished.
You may not need an agent for certain, more niche types of non-fiction book. In these cases publishers may well be prepared to take direct submissions from you. Again, this is because in the area of self-help or business books for example, a list will know clearly what its gaps are. It may have a standard format it is looking to sell books in. You should certainly research these formats and contact editors specialised lists to find out if they do have space for your idea, and so that they can let you know exactly how they like work to be presented before forming the project in your mind.
I think it best in general for the non-fiction writer to prepare two different types of proposal. The first would form an initial pitch and the second the follow-up proposal if the editor or literary agent asks to see more. Both documents need to be thoroughly persuasive as these may go directly towards securing a book deal.
The initial pitch for non-fiction
This should be no more than one to two pages. Include a brief summary (e.g. ‘Flying High is a book about the history of aeronautics’ or ‘My Name was Glory is the biography of Amanda Flemming, maid to Queen Gertrude and unknown holder of the Secret Chalice’) and a description of the contents of the book, with an argument for why it should be published now and why you are qualified to write it. Ideally, you should also include an overview of other work in the field, and argue why yours fills an important gap. In addition, you should include a chapter breakdown, giving a provisional title for each chapter with a brief summary (30–60 words, as a guide only) of the contents of each chapter to show how the book is structured throughout. Here also, do spell out any ideas you have about how the book might be marketed. As non-fiction markets are more specific than fiction markets, it is helpful for the author to help the agent or editor know what hooks there might be to help sell copies. As I have said, if you are lucky enough to have any guaranteed markets, such as students on a course you teach, do of course inform the industry of this.
If you can estimate a word count for the length of the work do so. For some pre-formatted non-fiction titles, there will be a word-length you will be expected to hit anyway. You will discover this as you research.
The second pitch
The more in-depth synopsis with sample chapter should include the initial pitch, but with any added material you can muster in terms of defending your position as author or the book’s market chances. Most importantly in the longer pitch you need to show that you can write the book. Do provide more in-depth chapter breakdowns (100–150 words each) and critically 5000–10,000 words of polished, irresistibly clear and well-written text to show that you are capable of executing your intentions in a winning manner. I would always advise writing the introduction and the opening chapter if possible to really show you mean business. Those two together would usually take you to between 5000 and 10, 000 words.
Whilst it is worth spending time ensuring you have a good, short, confident cover letter, synopsis and it is important to stress that there is nothing as important to an editor than the quality of your writing and your ability to sustain the interest of a reader in the main body of the text. A synopsis is not a magic wand that will influence the real standard of a work. I have seen perfectly polished synopses followed by poor writing. The net result of this is that one feels excited, only to be let down, which is off-putting in itself. If you have the skill to write a gripping synopsis, do ensure that you have used your energies wisely in advance of submitting and make sure that the book itself is as good as it can be. Focus, particularly, on the fine-tuning of the opening 50 pages. Unless your synopsis and summary are actively off-putting, they should generally serve as a flag to indicate to the reader where they are beginning and then as a guide to the story beyond the extract submission. If the agent or publisher likes what they see well enough to ask for more … well done! Oh and good luck.