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Conquering the Dreaded Synopsis

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Cartoon of four horsemen charging, laughing, and swinging weapons.
Cartoon of four horsemen charging, laughing, and swinging weapons.

I wholeheartedly believe that the dreaded synopsis is one of the four horsemen of the literary apocalypse. I’ve yet to meet a single author who enjoys writing them; and unfortunately, synopses are a necessary evil of the publishing industry. But fret not, dear friends, because I’m going to teach you some techniques that will help you conquer every synopsis you encounter from this point forward!

**Disclaimer: This blog post refers to only one of countless ways to tackle structuring and writing a synopsis. So, I encourage you to research widely and find advice that works best for you and your process. 

What is a synopsis, and why is it important? 

For querying purposes, a synopsis is a one to two-page document that summarizes the complete events of your novel.

Even the definition sounds painful, because how the heck can you condense tens of thousands of words poured directly from your bleeding heart into such a brief summary?

Stop worrying. I’m going to show you how.

Despite being evil incarnate, synopses are important to agents and editors, because they allow them to quickly tell whether or not a story might need heavy developmental edits—which can be an incredibly helpful resource when your inbox is overflowing with submissions.

What should I keep in mind when structuring a synopsis?

Here are five quick and dirty rules to keep in mind when you’re structuring a synopsis: 

  1. Focus only on your main plot, or your “A” story, no matter how intriguing your B or C stories might be.

  2. Don’t withhold plot twists or the ending. There’s no need to worry about spoiling the story for the agent or editor. 

  3. Include your character’s developmental arc. It’s very important for agents and editors to see where your character begins, how they change over the course of the story, and where they end up before THE END. This is true regardless of the arc e.g., redemption, anti-hero, hero, etc. 

  4. Avoid unnecessary details and flowery language (which might be the only redeeming factor of the synopsis—it’s a relief to have a break from worrying about being all poetic). To help me remember this, I like to recall an adage from an old detective show called Dragnet, which was a favorite of my grandmother’s *cough*: “Just the facts!” 

  5. Limit new character introductions to no more than about four per paragraph. Synopsis real estate is very limited, so having too many characters battling for the same space can be confusing to the reader. Only use proper names of characters who play a critical role in the story. 

It’s a good practice to refer back to these rules before starting, and again after finishing, the first draft of your synopsis.

Cartoon business man saying "Just the facts, ma'am."
Cartoon business man saying "Just the facts, ma'am."

What are the steps to writing a synopsis?

STEP 1: Divide your synopsis into sections based on the acts of your story.

Most stories follow a three or four act structure, which is super helpful for organizing your synopsis. If you’ve never heard of act structures, or if they’re confusing, or if you just want to know more about craft, check out Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, which I’ve found to be a stellar resource for tips and exercises on story planning.

STEP 2: Using bullets, list the major chronological events of each act, ending with a summary of how your main character is developing along their arc.

This is the tricky part. Every facet of the publishing community has emblazoned “show, don’t tell” into our brains for eons, but for the synopsis, I’m going to ask you to go rogue and forget all of that conditioning.

The synopsis is one of the few times it’s okay to tell instead of show. And remember, “Just the facts!

STEP 3: Transform your bullets into paragraphs.

Rewrite your bullets as paragraphs. No copying and pasting! This forces you to re-consider everything you’ve added to your bullets. I find that when I have to retype something, I’m more critical of what, if anything, from each line of text needs to transfer to the new version.

If you’re using Times New Roman, 12pt font and one-inch margins all around, you should be able to fit about four paragraphs of three to five sentences each on one page. With that logic in mind, the chart below can be a helpful guide for structuring your paragraphs.

Your opening image is a few short sentences that introduce your main character and setting, and mainly seek to ground us in the “where” and “when” of your story. The closing image is similar and should disclose the state of your character and their world at the end of the story.

STEP 4: Revise and condense.

Edit your paragraphs for brevity. Remove all unnecessary information, filler words, and repetitive adverbs. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t condense to the appropriate length on your first pass. Sometimes it’s best to take a break (for a few hours or even a few days) between passes to let your brain and your eyes refresh. If you’re still struggling to find cuts, ask yourself if every sentence is critical for the person reading this synopsis to understand the main plot or your character’s development.

On the matter of formatting…

Lastly, remember these standard formatting guidelines for your synopsis and you’ll be golden! 

  • Times New Roman, 12pt font (document body, header, and footer)

  • Single-spaced

  • 6pt space between paragraphs; do add space between paragraphs of the same style

  • Whenever a new character’s name appears for the first time, give their first and last name in ALL CAPS

  • 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) margins all around

  • Right-justified in the header: Last Name / BOOK TITLE Synopsis / Page# 

  • Page# centered in the footer

I’m sending lots of light and positive vibes to anyone entering the query trenches, as well as those who’ve been hunkered down for a while. I hope this blog post helps make the query experience a little easier for you. Cheers!


A little ghost with the caption "sending love! I hope you feel it soon!"
A ghost saying "sending love! I hope you feel it soon!"

Terry J. Benton (he/him)

Terry J. Benton currently lives in Atlanta, GA. He writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children, which also means he spends a lot of time holed up in coffee shops. Terry is represented by Patrice Caldwell of New Leaf Literary and Media.

Terry grew up in the small town of Sylvania, GA, which was great because everyone knew each other, but wasn't great because everyone knew each other. After surviving high school, he moved to Atlanta to attend college, and now holds a Bachelor's degree in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Tech and a Master's degree in Business Administration from Georgia State.

Terry is also interested in screenwriting and film and television production. He hopes to create his own production company and lead a team of screenwriters for a network television show such as American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Greenleaf, or Big Little Lies—but, of course, featuring Black queer leads.

Twitter: @terryjbenton

Check out his NOVEL PLANNING KIT. It's free to download and can be found on his website.

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