How to Write a Manuscript Synopsis (in 5 Steps)
What is a synopsis, anyway? A synopsis is a complete summary of your novel. The synopsis includes vital information about your main character(s) and all the main plot points, including how the story ends.
So many writers dread writing a novel synopsis. It's not an easy task, but I've broken it down into five steps to help you stay organized and focused on the correct material.
Step 1: Get into the right mindset.
When you take the time to think about it, writing a synopsis is really just succinct storytelling. You’ve already done the hard work of writing a full-length novel. Now, your synopsis is going to tell the exact same story, but in a “let’s sit around the camp fire and tell ghost stories” kind of way. Synopses do not need to be boring. They shouldn’t be as full of description as your manuscript, but explaining the core events of your novel should be exciting.
Step 2: Gather the most important plot points of your novel.
This task will require a complete read-through of your manuscript (and while you’re at it, you might as well do another line edit—it never hurts). As you read through the manuscript, pause after each chapter and write down two or three sentences to summarize what happens in each chapter. That’s it. You’re not allowed to write more than three sentences (and the shorter the sentences, the better). Focus on main events, not character development or subplots that don’t have to do with what’s at stake for your protagonist.
Step 3: String those events into a cohesive narrative.
Now you get to show off your writing skills. You have all the main plot points written down, so you can put your manuscript away and focus on the story highlights you’ve documented. Your synopsis should be written in third person using the active voice (regardless of which point of view you’ve used for your manuscript).
The first paragraph of your synopsis should explain where and when the story takes place, who the protagonist is, and what the initial problem is for this character. After the first paragraph, start stringing events together chapter by chapter. Start by merging Chapter 1 events with Chapter 2 events, then merge Chapter 3 events with whatever you’ve written previously.
Once you’ve made your way through all your plot notes, you should have a much smaller narrative that tells the same story as your full-length novel. It doesn’t matter how long the synopsis is at this point because you can edit it down even more later on.
Step 4: Remember that characters have feelings too.
Focusing on the plot is great, but you also need to introduce the main character(s). Read through your synopsis narrative and highlight every event that has a tremendous effect on your protagonist. This is where you’ll want to include a line or two to explain the protagonist’s emotions and reactions—let the reader know how the character develops throughout the manuscript. You don’t want to do this for every plot point, so only choose the most important ones to expand upon with your character’s development.
You only need to include the development of your protagonist. You can name other main characters by name in the synopsis, but any minor characters should be mentioned by title or whatever way works best for your short narrative (for example, refer to a minor character as a “barista” rather than using the character’s name). You don’t want to clutter the synopsis.
Step 5: Don't stop revising.
Now that you have the plot points explained and you’ve considered your protagonist’s emotional journey, it’s time to revise the synopsis to perfection. I recommend re-reading your synopsis at least four times:
1st read: Delete any unnecessary details you come across. Remember that a literary agent or editor will read the entire manuscript if they’re interested in the story. Your synopsis cannot explain everything—it simply needs to tell the main story.
2nd read: Read the synopsis out loud (either to yourself or to someone else). The pacing in your synopsis should be super quick. Since you’re focusing on just the most important parts of the story, the synopsis should hold your attention until the very end. Reading out loud will help you spot any sentences that make you stumble.
3rd read: Focus on the synopsis sentence by sentence. Make sure each sentence makes sense and is as concise as possible.
4th read: Do a thorough copy edit of the synopsis by reading it very, very slowly. Check for typos or grammatical errors.
How do you format a synopsis? There’s no official desired length for a novel synopsis. Agents and editors will prefer synopses of varying lengths, so it’s always best to have a couple on hand. I recommend writing a three-page synopsis and then whittling a version down to two pages… and then a very short synopsis that only fills one page. Obviously you’ll have to make even more cuts, and this time from the main plot points, but agents requesting a one-page synopsis understand the limitations. Use a normal font size (12 is standard; you can get away with 11 for a synopsis) and a normal font style (there’s no point veering away from Times New Roman). Use normal margins and try your best to put some sort of spacing between lines (if double spacing is impossible and makes your synopsis six pages long, then adjust the settings accordingly). Include your name and the title of the manuscript at the top of the document, especially if you’re submitting your synopsis as a separate document.
Things to remember while writing and revising your synopsis:
Ignore most, if not all, subplots. You have to make cuts. Always focus on the main story arc and maybe add in one or two subplots if you have the room (you probably won't).
Avoid adding description. Don't over-analyze what's going on in the story. Simply state the action as it happens. Leave the descriptive passages in the manuscript. Your synopsis is not the place to explain the themes of your novel.
Don't ask questions. Your synopsis is not meant to hook the reader or involve the reader in the story. Stick to telling the story—don't leave threads hanging.