How to write an effective novel synopsis

Once you finish writing your potentially best-selling book you realise that you now face the intimidating task of peddling it to literary agents and publishing houses. It’s judgement day; well, almost.
If you look at the Submissions page (perhaps the most visited page) of most literary agents and publishing houses you will notice that you are being asked to submit a few chapters from your novel and (almost always) a Synopsis of your book.

What is a Novel Synopsis?

The synopsis for a novel is really a tricky piece of writing. Personally for me, it was easier writing the entire book than writing an ‘effective’ novel synopsis. (I did make some rookie errors! Refer the, “What NOT to” section below)

One (especially first time writers) would think that the synopsis is a summary of your writing; what it really is a creative attention-grabber. It is less about writing a 200 word summary for 200 pages of writing and more of a marketing tool.
Why? Simply because this is one of the first pieces of writing your to-be agent or publisher will encounter. It serves as a tool to create and sustain interest for your work

Why is a novel synopsis so important?

Agents and publishers have a lot of reading on their plate. Their attention spans are limited. They are not going to spend days reading your work. The harsh truth is that they are going to skim through and your “pitch” needs to be exciting enough.

An interesting aside: There are short contests on Twitter for exactly this reason – dwindling attention spans

How do you make your novel synopsis effective?

There is no “right” way given the subjective nature of writing. But, here are some points to consider:

1. Keep the synopsis short

If there is a specified length in the submission guidelines for the novel synopsis, then go by that. Else, remember to keep it at a page at the most.

2. Use a hook

It is important to create a sense of “awe.” The aim is to get the agent or publisher to pick up the phone and call you. Think of this as creating a lasting first impression.

A good hook sentence arouses curiosity. For instance, “my eleven year old brother carries a suicide letter in his pocket.” Wouldn’t you want to read on? Notice that the language is simple yet hard-hitting

3. Write about key dramatic events

Dramatic events are those that shape the story.

It is important to spend enough time to think through all the events that you have created and write about only those that affect the story. Look at blurbs of multiple books – that’s how your Synopsis should look like.

Example of a key dramatic event? How about this?

One solitary life-boat remains bobbing on the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan, and a 450 pound Royal Bengal Tiger. ” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel)

4. Pitch the synopsis ‘differently’

My novel is set in pre-partition India. And, when I was sending my ‘ineffective’ synopsis out, I was using exactly the same terminology until a mentor told me to change the whole pre-partition pitch. So I rewrote that sentence to read, “set at a time when there was Bombay and Lahore but no India and Pakistan.

Remember that your story is unique. So pick up those nuances that make your story different. So if your story is about a promiscuous man (or woman; we’re all equal here) don’t pitch cliches like a “coming-of-age story” or a “romantic comedy that will take you back to your college days.

Instead say something like, “what happens when A breaks-up with 3 of his super-model girlfriends to marry a priest’s daughter?
(I am going to get me one of these books!)

5. Don’t forget to include genre

Is it literary or commercial fiction, non-fiction – self-help, biography etc? Mention about the intended audience for your book (young adults, adults, pregnant women) and the word count

What NOT to do with the synopsis of your novel

1. Be verbose. Be stingy with words but use the right words.

2. Reveal the end. End it with a, “so what happens or will he complete the task?” When your manuscript is called for (yay!) you will anyway reveal the end.

3. Write about the fifty characters you’ve created along with the family tree. Keep the synopsis about the main character and one or two important ancillary characters.

4. Mention every single pitfall or tribulation your main character goes through. Write only about the most important conflict.

Final tips on the synopsis

Remember to:

– Look at submission guidelines for the synopsis
– Format your novel synopsis as per guidelines and this includes spacing, font type an font size

Have a stellar synopsis that cracked it for you? Or noticed the back-cover of a book and you thought, “wow!”
Please share it with us. We’d be happy to hear from you.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

20 thoughts on “How to write an effective novel synopsis”

  1. Ramiah Ariya

    I have read advice that you SHOULD actually write the ending; they said specifically, do NOT end with “will he complete the task?”
    I also read that you need not reveal the ending in the query letter, but should do so in the synopsis. This is also true for movie script synopsis.
    One interesting problem is the backstory. Do you start where the novel starts? Or do you narrate the “actual” story, which (at least in my case) starts way back.
    For example, if you were writing the synopsis for the “Da Vinci Code” would you narrate it starting with Langdon finding the body; or with the Illuminati plot or back story?

  2. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Ramiah,

    It is good to see you here again. Some interesting points there.

    Well, there is no one “right” way of writing a synopsis. You will find a lot of conflicting views on the internet.
    The moderator of a publishing workshop I attended at the University I go to, had this to say, “There is more you can do with prolonged teasing than with a snap full monty.” My apologies if anything is offensive there. Even how much you reveal is considered strategy. At the same time, I understand where you are coming from – for some publishers they might want to see the final conflict resolution. Blurbs of books (mostly) won’t mention the end because then it might be construed as a spoiler. Often, when we’re writing the synopsis we’re told to mimic book blurbs.
    For established authors with an existing rapport with their agents / publishers, things are different. Agents might be making pitches to publishers on the strength of the first 3 or 5 chapters. The manuscript for all practical purposes, at that point, might be incomplete.
    I still think it might be a good idea to keep the synopsis as a teaser, a creative attention grabber. When the opportunity arises the end will become evident. The ultimate product is the reading experience as a whole.
    However, what we can do on a best-effort basis, is to put this question to some key interviewees (some really interesting folks in the industry) all lined up in the coming months and we’ll see what they have to say.
    So, watch this space for more!

    Coming to your query on back-story, I’d say choose an intrigue-inciting key dramatic event and begin from there. It shouldn’t matter if your story starts at that point or if you’ve picked up something from the middle. As for Robert Langdon he is almost always woken up in the wee hours of the morning to solve cryptic clues. And I think, the Illuminati is from Angels and Demons (the ‘prequel’ to the Da Vinci Code as mentioned in the Author’s Letter) and not from The Da Vinci Code. Right?

    Regards,
    Lavanya

  3. Ramiah Ariya

    I think we are asked to imitate book blurbs for the query letter, not the synopsis. Yes, please let me know what others think.
    I think the tension (for me) is whether to treat synopsis as a “summary” for the editor, or as something that catches attention. If the editor and the author are in common understanding of what it should be, then we do not have a problem. If instead, the editor expects a summary and the author writes a suspenseful piece, then we may end up with a mismatch. As you said, this is a newbie problem, not for established authors.
    My expectation is that the the catching attention is done with the query letter, and, say, the first three chapters. I am not sure if the synopsis plays any role in that.
    And I meant Opus Dei, not the Illuminati. If he had started with the illuminati in his synopsis, it would be a long one, indeed.

  4. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Ramiah,

    Welcome back! Again valid points:-) The thing is a new writer will never know what an editor exactly expects because the editor is constantly gauging the vagaries of a changing and dynamic reading market. So, this mismatch you mention might always be there. So the surest way is to do good writing and play the intrigue card to be in the game. A simple summary may not be enough (with or without the end). Anyway,this we can try and de-mystify by getting industry opinion.

    A book blurb (apart from the promotional aspect of all the positive media reviews and industry praise) is the synopsis of the novel. A reader in a bookstore makes a buying decision based on it. He gets familiar with what to expect with respect to his own reading appetite. Therefore the parallel between a book blurb and the synopsis. The query letter on the other hand has to do many things: seek representation for work, establish author credentials and draw attention to the qualitative nature of work. A query letter is trickier than the synopsis!

    Regards,
    Lavanya

  5. kusum

    HOW ABOUT THE SYNOPSIS IN THE CASE OF AN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT STORIES ……. WRITTEN WITH A “NIRBHAYA” ANGLE LONG BEFORE THAT TRAUMATIC GANG RAPE HAPPENED TO INDIA/

  6. shetall

    I am going to get my second book published however my first book did not do well cause I was not aware of what synopsis is ? hence I ended up writing my prologue which did not attract much audience. Thanks for this valuable information . I have to write synopsis for my second book these points will help me 🙂

  7. Probal

    Lavanya – Should we really NOT reveal the end? Some authors insist on writing the end as well and not hide it.?

  8. R. V. NAGARAJAN

    Thanks for the tips!
    Can you please help me find out some sample synopsis, which could be of Indian authors accepted by the top publishing houses in India?
    I am totally in ambiguous stage in confusion what and how exactly a synopsis must be structured out.
    I can never spare my masterpiece missed out in the ‘Slush Pile’ nor ‘disqualified’ just because of the absence of attention-grabber in my synopsis.
    Please help me out in providing or directing the link to get few sample synopsis of novels. Thank you. Regards, Dr. R. V. Nagarajan.

  9. Sameer

    Nagarajan: We can’t share any synopsis written by other authors. It’s their intellectual property and they wouldn’t want it to be posted online without their approval.
    You can search on author blogs (or other writing blogs that don’t see this as an issue) to see if they’ve shared sample synopsis.
    There might be some forums as well, where authors post their synopsis to be reviewed by other writers.

  10. Anita Bakshi

    Have been reading your posts and am stupefied
    Actually read that as amazed by my own stupidity
    I attempted to write a book but didn’t have any idea about the finer details
    So wrote it and tried to publish it
    In a big hurry
    That’s a big, big mistake let me tell everyone
    But now I am trying to do a better job
    Never even wrote or considered how the synopsis works
    Will try and wrie effective 200 words. . .sounds easy but if you want to grab someone by the eyeballs it’s tough
    Will definitely follow your pointers
    And will get back to this site
    Appreciate the effort you guys are putting in

  11. Dinesh Chandra Agrawal

    Dear Lavanya
    Congratulations! You have created a lighthouse for the new writers who are lost in a disturbed sea of confusion about how to begin and break the ice. Please keep it up.

  12. Chaitali Sharma

    Dear Lavanya,
    Just like many people here, I am also a budding writer. After taking a sabbatical from my hectic work life, I realized that my real joy lies in penning down or actually pressing down the keys to create something that brings smile on people’s face.
    As the clichéd line goes, since this is my first one I don’t know where I stand in terms of content and style and would really appreciate if I can get some hand-holding on that front.
    Would really appreciate if you can inform me as to how much content I need to send across to get your opinion.
    Thanks in anticipation.
    Regards,
    Chaitali

  13. Sunil kumar

    Hi lavanya ma’m
    i’ve completed my story.but don’t know how to write a synopsis.even if i try,i can’t write in less than 400 words.can i get some publishing housing,which publish hindi novel also.my english isn’t good enough to write a big story so i decided to pen down in hindi….genre:horror,science fiction

  14. Mahesh Rajurkar

    Hello,
    I must say that its of great help all the aspiring novelists. My point is that can’t we do the other way round. I mean, we can write the synopsis first then we fine tune it. After finalizing the synopsis, we will have fair idea where the story will lead and how to go about it.

  15. Shekhar Kumar

    Sorry, but i am confused.
    Whether I should reveal the end in my synopsis or I should not reveal the end?
    Thank you.

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