message in a bottle

What makes a good synopsis?

How is a synopsis used and by whom?

What’s the most efficient way to “build it”?

Most writers agree that writing the whole novel is easier than writing the synopsis for the novel. But it doesn’t have to be this hard. Once you understand who uses it and how, you can get your arms around it.

The synopsis is a selling tool—traditionally for the writer to an agent, then agent to editors, editors to colleagues in-house, and to varying extents for use in the copy writing for your book. Indie publishers use the synopsis for creating short blurbs about the book online, marketing copy, press releases, and the like.

The synopsis has a lot of jobs to do because outside of the agent and editor, most other people involved in marketing or selling the book will never get to read the actual book. Even if they do, the synopsis helps break it down into quick, usable pieces of information.

But doesn’t it have to be short, like 1-2 pages, you ask? Yes, ideally it is short. Remember, you are creating “blurb” – snippets—that provide over-arching themes and character sketches. Broad strokes that convey the main characters, the situation, the dramatic tension(s) and plot around which the novel revolves, the arc of the story line, including resolution. You are conveying what we care about in the story.

Arrow for Note    The synopsis is not the place to be mysterious. Do tell us what happens and how it happens.

book secret

Jane Friedman writes in her excellent blog post about writing-the-synopsis: “The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., the whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of god, a genre romance ending in divorce. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.”  She lists these basic principles:

  • Tell what happens in an energetic, compelling way
  • Use active voice, not passive
  • Use third person, present tense
  • Clarity, clarity, clarity
  • Less is more


Arrow for Note  A synopsis is not an outline.

British author Graeme Shimmin writes a terrific post on the “Synopsis of Power” and quotes “If I wanted to tell my story in one page I wouldn’t have written the other three hundred.”   🙂

  Use the Killogator™ Formula

“One trick to try when cutting chapters down to size is the same one we used in Writing a Killer Logline. In the same way we can cut the story to a single sentence we can cut each chapter to a sentence.  So, try using the Killogator™ formula on each chapter:

In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).”

Logo ABC.Tiny Susan Dennard offers a fill-in-the-blank checklist that she created, with examples:

1. Opening image

An image/setting/concept that sets the stage for the story to come.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated.

2. Protagonist Intro

Who is the main character? Give 1-2 descriptive words and say what he/she wants.

Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland.

3. Inciting incident

What event/decision/change prompts the main character to take initial action.

When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it – a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.


So you are not without tools. There is plenty of help, and you DO need to master it. So start today.




In an ideal scenario you, the author, have edited your manuscript and had it professionally edited before submitting it to agents or publishers. This is the most efficient approach you can take. The more common scenario, however, is that the author personally edits a gazillion times, and when no longer able to read it again, he or she begins sending it to agents.

Understandably not every writer has $7500-$15000 lying around to spend on a professional editor (fees range depending on many factors of course). In lieu of this, authors will join (or create) writing groups and use beta readers to get objective feedback and critique. This is a good strategy, though it takes longer and is not as sure a bet- editorially speaking.

The less professional editing a manuscript has, the more disparate feedback you are going to get once you begin sending the proposal or manuscript out to agents or publishers. You are submitting your work to people with vast experience who regularly see an unfathomable number of manuscripts. All of their feedback is valuable, yet no two agents or editors will express the same concerns or point to the same problem that prevented them from falling in love with your book.

One might say, “I love the concept but your characters are not sufficiently developed” while another says, “The plot doesn’t work for me” and yet another says, “Your dialogue needs to be more focused and voice driven.” And so on. With nonfiction you can get one saying they’d love a big book on this topic but yours would need a different focus, while another says this topic is saturated, and yet another agent or editor says it needs to include more research.

It is human nature to feel you should respond to each criticism. The natural thought is to jump and fix everything to make them love it. But what do you think will happen if you make every single change that each person wants? It will be a mess and you risk losing the book you set out to write.

 revision angst

What advice do others have for making sound decisions in response to disparate feedback?

Author Eleanor Vincent says:

“As an author faced with conflicting feedback from respected sources, the temptation is to knuckle under and do what the market wants, or ‘what will sell’. A better strategy, in my experience, is to trust your gut. Remember that anyone with an actual or potential economic interest in your work is no more objective – and likely less so – than Joe or Jane reader. My touchstones while writing Swimming with Maya were my writing partner and my writing group. I trust reader feedback. But even then, you may get varied responses. What to do?

“If I think a piece of feedback makes sense, even if I don’t totally agree, I’ll experiment by rewriting in a way that answers the question or overcomes the objection. In the process of revision, I often discover something new or not fully developed in the work. By your willingness to revise and dive deeper into the work, you’ll often find buried treasure.

“So my advice is to be flexible enough to listen to feedback, respond in a way that improves the work, and then stand firm in your own inner knowing.”

Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story was nominated for the Independent Publisher Book Award and was reissued in paperback and e-book in 2013. It has twice appeared on The New York Times e-book bestseller list.

Agent Bob Fleck of the Robert Fleck Agency says:

“If the responses from editors aren’t jibing at all, I tell the author that the responses most likely have little to do with the actual work and more to do with each editor’s preferences. Only if something from the editors connects with issues the author or I have previously considered ourselves would I suggest taking a deeper look. Otherwise, it’s just the process and often editors don’t really know why something doesn’t connect for them. It just doesn’t, so they pass.”

 Agent Wendy Sherman of Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc. Literary Management says:

“This is something we often have to deal with. It’s always so challenging to take away from editors’ “decline” letters what to change.  If I see a clearly consistent comment, then I urge the writer to make changes accordingly.   When there is no pattern or consensus it is tough to know. But the trick is NOT to try to please everyone. Don’t become a slave to the comments, which are opinions from people NOT buying the book.”

Pencil editing

Staying true to yourself while addressing legitimate reader issues means learning to trust your gut after giving the feedback its due consideration. My own advice to authors when I was an agent followed this path, with the final caveat, “When in legitimate doubt, don’t.”

Can you resubmit to these agents or editors when their comments have been addressed? Only if that agent or editor has said they would consider it again with revisions. They will tell you up front if they want to see it again. Very often they don’t love it enough to look again, considering that every hour they have is precious and their time to judiciously allocated. You really want fresh eyes and enthusiasm for your book, but if there is a particular agent you strongly believe is right for you, you can always ask him or her, in light of your revisions, to look again. The worst they can say is “No thank you.”