What is a Synopsis? Definition and How to Write a Good One

There are many types of synopses (the plural of synopsis). If you're surfing Netflix looking for something to watch, the little description of each movie or show could be considered a synopsis. You could even say that the “blurb” you peruse when choosing something to read is a book synopsis.

But if you're looking to get published by a traditional or hybrid publisher, then you'll need to know all about a different type of synopsis. And that's just what we'll uncover as we answer the question: What is a synopsis?

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What differentiates synopses.
  2. What to include in your book synopsis.
  3. Tips for writing a great synopsis.

Getting Your Synopses Straight

With all the different types of “blurbs” or synopses out there, it can be hard to figure out which one is right for you. After all, there are synopses for all kinds of things—books, video games, films, and even academic papers. And that's not even including things that many people think of when they think of a synopsis (like the Netflix analogy in the introduction). 

But in order to write a good synopsis, you first need to understand how they differ from a “blurb” or description. 

What is a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a brief yet thorough description of a piece of work. It includes the major conflict, plot points, character arc, story arc, setting, themes, major characters, genre, and style. A synopsis is designed to give the reader an accurate idea of what the story is about—and this includes major spoilers in works of fiction. In nonfiction, it outlines how the author goes about answering the overall question the book poses. 

What is a Blurb?

A blurb or description is a brief summary or teaser of a book designed to get the potential reader to purchase it. Unlike a synopsis, it doesn't include major spoilers and provides no details on how the story shakes out. Essentially, a blurb is supposed to create intrigue, giving readers a hint at what awaits them in the pages. 

Pro Tip: Check out our article on writing a compelling blurb here

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Why Would You Need to Write a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a way for literary agents to determine what a book is about without actually reading the entire thing. In the movie-making world, a film synopsis does the same for producers, directors, or actors who may be interested in the project. 

As you can see, this is why a well-written synopsis will include major plot points, the entire narrative arc, and major spoilers. If a literary agent reads your synopsis and likes it, then they will probably go on to read the first several pages of the manuscript. And if they like that, they will read more. And before you know it, you may have an offer for representation from a literary agent!

After that, your synopsis will see more use as your agent shops your book around at publishing companies. But it all starts with the synopsis. This is why nailing it is very important if you want to take this publishing route. 

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

Writing a great synopsis is very different from writing a novel or even a blurb. But it's always important to check for specific requirements from literary agents, publishing companies, etc. Some require synopses to be as short as 500 words, while others expect around 800 to 1000 words. As a general rule, it's good to have both a shorter one and a longer one ready to go. 

To start off, you'll need to know what to include. 

What to Include in Your Synopsis 

Most literary professionals will expect to see a number of things in your synopsis. If you don't cover them all, then you decrease your chances of getting a publishing deal.  

  • The five W's – Who (protagonist/antagonist), What (genre), Where (setting), When (present tense?), and Why (character motivation). 
  • Major plot points – Inciting incident, roadblocks, rising action, climactic confrontation, and the resolution.
  • Character arc – How your protagonist is changed from beginning to end. A story without a character arc often lacks intrigue. 
  • Voice/Style – Although the synopsis is very different from writing a narrative, you should still convey your style and voice.  

Writing Your Synopsis

This may seem like a lot to include, but the steps below should help you make a plan and then write your own synopsis. 

Step 1: Write it All Down

Write down everything from the section above. The five Ws, the major plot points, and the character arc. They don’t have to be in any particular order. For that matter, you can type them in a blank document or write them freehand. You just want to have them down for easy reference so you don’t have to think about your whole novel as you write. 

The trick here is brevity. Write everything down, but only go into enough detail that someone who knows nothing of your story would be able to follow it. In a synopsis, the name of the game is tell, don’t show. 

Step 2: Focus on Conflict

Now that you have everything written down in as few words as possible, it’s time to start with the first paragraph of the actual synopsis. Within two or three sentences max, you want to tell about your main character’s “ordinary world” and then introduce the inciting incident. No matter what point of view your narrative is in, you’ll want to use third person and present tense for your synopsis. 

Synopsis Example

Using Die Hard as an example, it could start off something like this:

JOHN MCCLANE, a rough-around-the-edges NYC detective, is visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for a holiday party at her company’s headquarters. The Christmas Eve festivities are violently interrupted when a group of terrorists invade the skyscraper and take hostages, HOLLY MCCLANE among them.

In just the first sentence, we get a sense that the marriage is struggling and that McClane maybe isn’t the easiest person to be around. That’s all we need to know before getting into the inciting incident, which, in this case, is the terrorists taking over the building. 

You may also note that we get several of the Ws out of the way. Who: John McClane. Where: a skyscraper in Los Angeles. When: Christmas Even, present-day (because it’s not otherwise specified). We also get a glimpse at the protagonist’s character arc; in the end, John and Holly reconcile, which was why he flew out to LA in the first place.   

Pro Tip: Put character names in bold or capitalize them upon their first introduction in the synopsis. This helps the reader navigate.   

Step 3: Spend Some Time on RoadBlocks and Character

The bulk of your synopsis will be the stuff that happens between the inciting incident and the climax. This is where your protagonist and antagonist lock horns and the stakes increase. You can and should spend some time on this chunk of the main plot. Hit all the major plot points, including twists, if you have any. 

This is also where the antagonist’s power will become apparent (even if the antagonist is something like a harsh environment and not a “Big Bad.”) The bad guy puts up roadblocks and the good guy has to move past them. Tell about this, but gloss over the stuff that doesn’t really matter. Just make sure to include information about the character arc. 

Using the Die Hard synopsis example, I would include the fight John and Holly have right before they’re taken hostage and separated. This is important later because it weighs on John and he laments not getting to say he was sorry.

Pro Tip: Stick to only four or five named characters in the synopsis. Secondary characters can be referred to as the role they play (i.e. struggling actress or burly cop).  

Step 4: Go For Broke

Don’t forget to give everything away by the end of your synopsis. Every major plot point, every major plot twist, and the nitty-gritty of how the good guy wins (or loses, if it’s that kind of book). Don’t hold anything back. 

After you go for broke with the climax, provide a sentence or two on the resolution. Remember to add something about character development to round out the synopsis and put a nice bow on it. 

Step 5: Revise and Repeat

Once you’ve written your first draft, set it aside and try another version. Revise and edit. Play around with tone a bit to make sure your writing style is there (but not overpowering). Try writing the shorter synopsis. 

Once you think you’ve got a good one done, let it sit for a day or two before coming back to it and looking at it with a critical eye. Remember, if they don’t get past the synopsis, they won’t see how good the book is. 

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What is a Synopsis: Conclusion

When you’re ready to start sending submission packages or query letters out, double-check that you’ve followed all of the agent’s (or publisher’s) submission guidelines. Some agents prefer single-spaced Times New Roman and 12-point font while others prefer double-spaced and 13-point font. Don’t forget to put [Title] Synopsis at the top of the page, along with your name. While getting a traditional publishing deal is a worthy way to go, consider self-publishing. Not only do you get to keep more royalties (like a lot more), but you also get to control your own destiny as an author. Check out this guide on the basics of self-publishing to learn more.

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