HowTo: Write a Novel Synopsis

Contrary to popular belief, synopses are easy. Not fun, mind you, but easy. You already did most of the work when you wrote the novel.

It’s the concept that’s overwhelming. (Boil your story down to a page or two? It feels like cutting the story’s heart out!) But in reality it’s a simple matter of taking it one managable chunk at a time. You know … chapters.

But before you get started, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Agents and editors who ask for synopses are often looking for assurance that the character actions are realistic, that the plot and character arcs are coherent with no glaring holes, and that the story is fresh and unique.

A synopsis should clearly show the book’s core conflict, introduce major characters, establish the stakes for the main character(s), and reveal how the conflict is resolved.


The below is fairly standard, but always adjust to spec.

  • Double spaced.
  • Third person, present tense, no matter how the story was written.
  • CAPITALIZE the first mention of a character’s name.
  • Header: Author/TITLE/Synopsis (flush left), Page number (flush right).


For each chapter, summarize with a sentence or two (or three, though the longer you ramble, the more you’ll have to cut later). It should reflect the POV character’s actions and how his or her relationships progress. Introduce major characters and major plot points, and the scenes upon which the plot hangs.

This isn’t fun, and it certainly isn’t fulfilling, but you can hold an entire chapter in your head a lot easier than you can an entire novel. Vomit words if you have to. It ain’t supposed to be pretty.


Time to turn mess into finesse.

  • Set the stage. Where and when, who’s the protagonist, and what are the stakes.

When her creepy new history teacher moves into the haunted house down the street, BECCA SANCHEZ starts to wonder. Her uncle, DON Q OATNEY, doesn’t—he immediately concludes the man is a vampire.

  • Keep the cast small. Name your PROTAGONIST(S) and primary ANTAGONIST(S), and label the rest—best friend, sidekick, mom, etc. Every character you introduce should either create or help solve conflict for the protagonist.

  • Incident + Reaction = Decision (credit: Jane Friedman). Tell us what happened, how it affected the protagonist, and what they did about it. Every sentence should advance the story and/or character arc. Also known as scene-sequel plotting.

  • Explain it now. You can’t get away with saying something’ll be explained in the book. Which means no undefined magic or vague powers or mysteries left unsolved. However… Don’t deconstruct what the story means. Stick to the facts.

This includes the climax! A synopsis isn’t just a longer query. Agents or editors are looking for assurance you can plot a story and concoct a satisfying conclusion. Tie up all loose ends and character arcs.

  • Use active voice.
  • Use dialogue sparingly. Or better yet, not at all.
  • Tell, don’t show. Save that verbose crap for the book.
  • Skip the backstory.


Someone, somewhere, will request a 1-page synopsis. No one demands longer. Around 500 words is the most you can reasonably fit on a page, so start chopping.

The rest isn’t fun, but this is like butchering your favorite pet. Trim the fat and flay the muscles and most of the connective tissue too, until all that’s left is bare skeleton. The hard part is not killing the story’s soul while you’re carving it down to the bone.

Congratulations! You have a synopsis. Before you send it to an agent, I recommend getting feedback from both those who have and have not read your novel.

An Example

(credit: Chuck Sambuchino, edits mine)

Twelve-year-old DAVID FREEMAN is trekking through the woods when he falls into a ravine and blacks out. Waking later, David heads home only to find an older couple in his house and no visible trace of his parents or brother. Police arrive, and David’s statements are met with puzzlement. His parents are located in a nearby city in Florida, but upon meeting them, David is shocked to see [discovers] they have visibly aged. He faints and is taken to a hospital. There, his younger (now older) brother JEFF explains that eight years have passed since that night in the woods and David was declared dead. Everyone in the family is overjoyed with this miraculous reunion, though no one can explain David’s disappearance or lack of aging.

NASA official DR. FARADAY arrives at David’s home and asks for testing. David agrees. At the NASA base, David receives garbled messages in his head, apparently coming from someone in a nearby hangar. During tests, Faraday discovers that David’s brain now holds incredible amounts of information related to a strange flying craft, galaxy maps, and more. Faraday theorizes that an alien spacecraft picked up David and took him to another galaxy and back. The light-speed trip only took four hours, but everyone on Earth aged eight years. Scared at this revelation, David runs out of the testing room, screaming that he wants his life back. He hears more from the voice, and follows its directions to a hangar. There, he discovers the spacecraft his mind projected on screens earlier. Inside, he meets the ship’s robotic pilot, whom he nicknames MAX.

Max escapes the base with David onboard. It turns out that David, along with creatures from other planets, was taken for study on Max’s peaceful home planet. Max did not return David to his original timeline (eight years prior), fearing that humans are too delicate to survive time travel. While Max explains how he was captured by NASA while leaving Earth, David takes a liking to a small creature on the ship whose home planet was destroyed.

David and Max both need each other to get home. David needs Max to pilot to Florida, and Max needs star chart information in David’s head to navigate back to his galaxy. Max performs a scan of David to extract the information but accidentally gets some of David’s memories and personality. Max’s voice immediately changes, becoming less robotic and more humorous and erratic. David and Max bicker as to their next course of action, to which Max’s response is to shut down in a freefall, forcing David to take control and drive the ship. The two bond, and David heads for his family, though Max warns him NASA will anticipate this move.

They locate David’s house. David discovers NASA is waiting for him for more “guinea pig tests.” He urges Max to return him to his own timeline, despite the danger. Max and David share a heartfelt good-bye, having become friends. Max speeds up the ship until David passes out. Awakening in the ravine like before, David walks home and finds everything the way he left it. He hugs his family (yes, even his little brother Jeff) and gets a pleasant souvenir from his adventure: The “orphaned” alien creature [has] he bonded with seems to have stowed away in his backpack.

2 thoughts on “HowTo: Write a Novel Synopsis

  1. I’ve been looking for a good description of a synopsis, Shawn. This is it! Thanks and congratulations on your latest writing award!

  2. Thanks! I’m glad it helped someone (other than me). I’ve found that figuring out how to explain something is the best to way to fully understand it myself.

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