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.