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Synopsis writing is hard! I used to be terrible at it—it’s one of those things that you sit down to do thinking, “I’ve written a book, how difficult can it be to write a synopsis” only to discover it’s not so easy. And there must be something happening in the writing world at the moment because I’ve had 3 people email me about writing synopses in the past couple of weeks. So I thought I’d share with you the process I’ve developed that helps me write a synopsis for a book.

1. What Needs to be in a Synopsis?

You only need 4 things in your synopsis: your working title, the genre of the book, the word count and your extended pitch.

The genre should simply be a few words, using the publisher’s language i.e. rural romance, contemporary women’s fiction, historical fiction. If you’re not sure exactly how to describe your genre, hop onto a few publishers’ websites and look up titles similar to your own. In the description on the website for each of these books, there will be a statement of what genre it is.

Your word count should obviously be appropriate to your genre. Don’t send in a 150,000 word romance novel! It is unlikely to be read.

2. What’s an Extended Pitch?

It’s a summary of the story. It’s usually around 200-300 words. Bear in mind, your synopsis really shouldn’t be more than 1 page.

The key here is the word “story”. A synopsis isn’t a summary of the themes of the book; the publisher will be able to work that out if you’ve described the story well enough. People don’t read for themes, they read for story. Your story is what will catch the attention of the publisher. A synopsis shouldn’t tell the publisher how to read the book either. It’s just about the story.

How to Write a Synopsis for a Book - 6 Tips

3. So How Do I Summarise the Story in 200-300 Words?

Good question! Obviously you have to leave a lot out. That’s the thing that most people find the hardest to do. You really want to focus on the main plot and maybe one or, at most two, subplots.

In the synopsis I wrote for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, the main focus of the synopsis was the key plot thread. I also wove in a very small amount of my biggest subplot, and an even smaller amount of two other subplots. When I say an even smaller amount, I mean each of those subplots got two key sentences each in the synopsis. There are many subplots I didn’t even mention in the synopsis because those subplots aren’t the ‘hook’ of the book.

You don’t need to order the synopsis in the same way that the book is ordered. Perhaps the chronology in your book jumps around all over the place. Imagine if you tried to jump around all over the place in the synopsis?! It would be a mess to read.

For example, in The Painted Face, my fourth book, I have some scenes set in the 1920s and some in the 1940s. These are intertwined throughout the book. But in the synopsis I sent to my agent and publisher, I simply went through the 1920s story for the first 3 paragraphs of the synopsis and then I moved into the 1940s part of the story in the last couple of paragraphs.

4. The Six Sentence Method

I find the six-sentence method really helpful. Try to summarise your story in 6 sentences, then expand a little on those six sentences in the synopsis.

The six sentences I focus on are:

  • what is life like for my main character at the start of the book
  • what is the thing that sets the protagonist off on their journey (the inciting incident, described in a compelling way)
  • what is the journey or the goal of your character and why is it so important to them
  • what are a couple of obstacles that get in the way
  • what is the biggest obstacle of all (doesn’t need to be described fully if it gives away too much, but the drama needs to be hinted at)
  • end with a question/hook

Then, in my synopsis, my first two paragraphs will be about points 1-3 above. The next 2 paragraphs will tackle a couple of the obstacles. The final paragraph will be about the big obstacle, and the question/hook.

For help with writing a synopsis of your book - try this 6 sentence synopsis method.

5. What is an Ending Question or Hook?

It’s the kind of question you might find on the back cover blurb of a book.

For example, my second book, If I Should Lose You, was about a woman who was an organ donor coordinator and whose daughter needed a liver transplant. In my synopsis, I set up the fact of this woman’s job giving her privileged access to information about organ donors, and I set up the fact of her very ill daughter. I ended the synopsis with the question: How far will Camille go to keep her daughter alive and what might it cost another child waiting on the list?

It’s a question that hints at the drama that will unfold, that makes your story sound compelling, that lures the reader (in this case the agent or publisher) in to wanting to know more about the book.

6. Should I Give the Ending Away?

I never do. I want the publisher and/or agent to want to read the book. So I will end the synopsis with the question and leave it at that.

However, there are some circumstances where you might have to reveal the end of the book. If your book relies on a twist at the end for its impact, then you might need to include the ending so that the agent or publisher understands the full impact of the story.

I hope that helps! If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below. And, don’t forget, I have a brand new on-demand course available through the Australian Writers’ Centre all about Pitching Your Novel. I teach the course through a series of videos and handouts and you can take the course at any time. I cover synopsis writing, as well as lots of other info about pitching your novel.

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19 Responses to “How to Write a Synopsis for a Book: 6 Tips”

  1. Nicole Melanson

    Interesting. I have always been told absolutely, definitely write the full synopsis – ending included. I’ve heard that the pitch is where you should put the question to pique interest but the synopsis is where you show that you’ve mapped it all out clearly and have a strong resolution in mind.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Nicole, yes I have heard people say that too, which is why I wanted to blog about what I did. As I’ve said in the blog, I’ve never put the ending in my synopsis, and that goes for all 4 books and it doesn’t seem to have been a problem! Publishing people I’ve spoken to about this say that it’s only essential if the ending is what makes the book work i.e. if it’s a trick or twist or gimmick kind of ending. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong but I’ve always felt that putting the ending in spoils the experience for the agent or publisher then reading the book.

      Reply
      • Nicole Melanson

        Food for thought. Thanks, Natasha. Always a pleasure to read your posts. I find them a great example of how an author can talk about her own work in an illuminating and generous way. I know a lot of writers struggle with how to walk that line between self-promoting and providing value, and I think you’ve nailed it exactly. 🙂

        Reply
  2. Marina Sofia

    I had a synposis rather similar to what you describe above and was told by the agent and editor whom I spoke to (a personal feedback session at a conference, not when they were discussing publishing my book, I hasten to add) that I must include the ending. But then my genre is crime fiction, so it probably is relevant information.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Marina, was that in Australia or elsewhere? I know in the US they prefer synopses with the ending included, but the whole pitch process is very different there too than it is here.

      Reply
  3. Louise Allan

    Thanks for this, Natasha. Closing dates for a couple of unpublished novel submissions are looming at the moment, which is probably why you’ve been asked about them.

    I can see your point about not including the ending in your synopsis and, personally, I don’t like giving my ending away. But, like everyone else, I’ve also always been told to include it in my synopsis.

    As a few people are probably wanting to submit to the Hachette Manuscript Development Programme, which closes next Monday, can I direct people to their webpage, from which they can download Hachette’s specific synopsis writing guidelines, as they are quite specific with what they want. They specifically state that they want the ending, and they also want a tagline, a blurb, and for the character names to be written in capitals, as well as a few other things. It’s probably best for anyone wanting to submit to them to read it for themselves, and it can be downloaded from: http://www.qwc.asn.au/resources/editing-and-mentoring-programs/qwc-hachette-manuscript-development-program/.

    Thanks again for this post!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Louise, that all makes sense now. Yes, I do think that for specific competitive programs, the rules will always be different. And I’m pretty sure the reason they’re asking for an ending in this instance is because they want to be sure the manuscript is finished! If you’re sending a synopsis off to an agent or publisher on general submission, then you should always check the guidelines, but I certainly don’t think you have to include the ending if it is not specifically requested. You will never be rejected just because you didn’t include the ending in your synopsis if you’re just on general submission! But, if in doubt, it can’t hurt to have it in there.

      Reply
  4. Karen

    Thanks, Natasha, love your idea of the six sentence synopsis. I have finished your Pitching Your Novel course, and found it so helpful. You have such practical advice, with great examples. I felt very clear and confident after working through it. Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Trevor

    Some fantastic ideas for writing a synopsis – many thanks!

    And the synopsis could also make a good start for the back cover (or more likely nowadays the Amazon description) – after all, we want people to read our next masterpiece once it hits the shelves.

    I really like the 6 sentence method because short and sweet seems to fit with our 21st century attention spans.

    Reply
  6. Sarah

    Natasha

    Thank-you. I’ve just submitted a 300 word synopsis to a publisher for a pitch I’m doing at the upcoming RWA Conference and your post on how to write a synopsis really made it come together. I’ve read so much about the best ways to attack writing a synopsis but your six sentence guide has been the most user-friendly so far. Brilliant. I’m so grateful.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      My absolute pleasure Sarah! So glad it was useful. And best of luck with pitching at the conference – make sure you come and say hi, I’d love to meet you.

      Reply
  7. Rachel

    Hi Natasha. I ‘m approaching the point where i’ll need to write a synopsis for my first book. I love the points you’ve made here, especially the six point guide. However, my book has two points of view, and therefore, two protagonists. How on earth do I do that?

    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      It depends how your book is structured. When mine have 2 protagonists and two timeframes, I deal with one protagonist and one timeframe first in the synopsis, and then introduce the second, even if they’re interwoven in the book. It usually means one protagonist gets a bit more air time in the synopsis, and the second one is in the synopsis to raise questions/drama/interest, rather than being the focus. I’m not sure if that helps?

      Reply

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