Write a Great Synopsis

27th July 2012
4 min read
13th October 2020

Most publishing houses and agents specify that a synopsis should accompany any manuscript submission. What exactly a synopsis consists of is much less clear. Here is some guidance on how to prepare one.

Choose Your Words Wisely text

For fiction

This should be an outline of what kind of book you are writing; it is not your chance to give a detailed listing of what is in each chapter. The synopsis should start by ensuring that the recipient can grasp immediately and precisely what kind of book/writer is on offer. Specify what kind of writing genre it sits within (e.g. saga, literary, science fiction, romance, etc.).

The synopsis should be no more than one side of A4 and should tell me the narrative arc of the whole book so that I know what happens after the first 10,000 words. Simple as that.
Simon Trewin

In her excellent book about selling commercial fiction, From Pitch to Publication, agent Carole Blake says that the synopsis should answer the following key questions:

  • Whose story is it? (Make it clear who the central character is.)
  • What do they want and what stops them getting it? (What is the central character trying to achieve, and what are they up against as they try?)
  • How do they get it? (Is the plot compelling and page-turning?)

Describe the action, and lay out the plot in the order the reader will encounter it, without doing it chapter number by chapter number.

Describe the characters in brief and compelling detail, without a full ‘back story’. Give a word count if the book is finished; estimated extent if not.

For non-fiction

Publishers are trying to fill gaps in non-fiction publishing, so it’s essential that what you send shows how your book fits with existing material – what fresh information do you have; what new insight can you bring?

If you can, quote which section of the bookshop your title would be stocked in (don’t just say the table at the front!) and list subjects/well-known examples of books already existing in this category. Booksellers are loathe to stock titles if they don’t know where to put them, and agents may be unwilling to back a title that has no natural home. A friend of a friend wanted to write a book on the menopause and to call it How Long Before I Can Hang-glide? A bookseller persuaded her that whilst this would make a very good subtitle, people looking for books on the subject would be in danger of not finding it – unless they were by chance looking in the sports section too.

  • Say what the competition is, and why your book is different
  • Sum up the market for the book, with facts, figures and snippets of interesting information (did you realise that rats make better pets for children than hamsters and can recognise their own names?)
  • State your credentials for writing the book. Be imaginative; things you take for granted may be interesting to others
  • Non-fiction is often accepted when still in draft form, so say how far you have progressed to date, and when you will have a manuscript ready by
  • Does it need illustration?
  • Give a word count.

The importance of the title

Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, it’s tempting to think that writing the book is the really important thing, and that the book title can grow out of the writing later. Wrong. The title is hugely important: it should catch the agent’s attention and stick in the memory. Think how the same thing works for you with films and plays: a good title can pull people in. Literary novelist Joanna Briscoe received a whole new level of attention when her third book was entitled Sleep With Me and given an enticing cover. (Previous titles, Skin and Mothers And Other Lovers, although well reviewed, had not sold as well.)

'The title matters hugely. I want something that excites me, something that will draw a similarly instant reaction from any publisher I mention it to. So go for something that is topical, intriguing or witty and to the point.' Heather Holden-Brown, hhb agency Ltd.

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