The Dreaded Synopsis

Suzanne McConaghy

This week, Suzanne McConaghy talks about something many writers have struggled with: the synopsis. Many times it’s been said that writing the synopsis is harder than writing the whole book. Does Suzanne agree? And do you?

What a synopsis can do for you

“When should you write a synopsis and is there any point in doing so if you are going to self-publish your novel?

Many of us probably feel daunted by the idea of writing a synopsis when approaching an agent or publisher, not least because every one of them seems to ask for something different. To remind myself of this, I only have to look at what I sent out recently to get a book placed. *

Here are the files I created:

  • Synopsis 1 (the single page I devised at the beginning of the process)
  • Synopsis 300 words (very broad stroke)
  • Synopsis 700 words (probably about the average)
  • Synopsis 1000 words (about 2 pages and enabled more detail)
  • Chapter-by-chapter breakdown as synopsis

Of course, this doesn’t even take into account how much of the manuscript they want to see – in this case: first 5 pages, 10,000 words, 50 pages, 1,000 words, first 1,2,3 or 5 chapters, 10,000 words to include first chapter.

It’s hardly surprising that some writers give up on the traditional route into publishing. Personally, I’d like the chance to work with industry professionals. Maybe I can learn something. But I’m less and less convinced about this.

Writing a synopsis as you begin your novel can be very helpful, even if you intend to self-publish. It can reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure, and I’d say it’s essential at some stage. If you can’t summarise your work in a convincing manner, are you writing something that anyone will be able to read with full understanding and enjoyment?

To write a synopsis, we have to be able to talk, in as succinct a way as possible, about the following:

  • The central character and his or her arc (mindset and motivations and what happens to change that)
  • The plot (you don’t need to mention all sub-plots)
  • The hook (linked to the theme)
  • The ending (leave no mystery here – you need to say exactly what it is). How the conflict is resolved and, where appropriate, how the character has changed both internally and externally.

Ideally, you won’t describe setting but it should become apparent as you deal with these other matters.

Synopsis to help me as I’m writing the novel

This is a matrix of ideas with possible outcomes that I gradually develop into a series of chapter headings, but which contains the other elements of a synopsis (see below). The main character will influence all of this because, as soon as I begin writing, I start to understand how my characters will react, what he’ll think, what she’ll want to do.

One thing I always do is to sum up a chapter in a single sentence as soon as I finish writing it. I might add a note to it later if there is something I particularly want to remember about it. This list of what has actually been written is mainly about continuity and timing, and is invaluable when editing – maybe I want to move scenes or even chapters around, or maybe I just need to check that X had already met Y when the explosion occurred. I am sure there is now software to do this sort of thing but I prefer to have a couple of sheets of paper I can carry around with me and consult when I feel inclined.

Let’s say you can’t write a synopsis as you start your novel. You’re the sort of writer who begins with an idea like ‘strong women win through’ or ‘your secrets will always catch up with you,’ and you’ve created a character who you know will drive the story, maybe in unexpected directions. It is still worth writing one when you come to the end. If you can’t

  • Tease out the theme
  • Summarise the action
  • Feel the beginning is the best it can possibly be, to draw the reader in
  • Work out if the ending is satisfying

then the odds are, you still have work to do – probably mainly on structure – and then, a whole lot other things should fall into place.

What it’s not

It’s not the sort of book description you get on Amazon.

It’s not blurb on the back of the book you can read in the bookshop to help you decide to buy.

It’s not an editorial about your book.

It does not make judgements on how good/ effective/ exciting, etc the book is, or how much it resembles some well-known author’s recent work.

What it is

700-800 words, well-presented, succinct. All tell, no show. Character names in caps or bold, no more than 4-5 characters mentioned.

Title and a compelling sell (why are they likely to be interested in this?)

Neutral language, present tense, e.g. ‘She’s using Antonia’s articles to promote the charity but her real interest is – ’

The same structure as your novel; put in only what’s needed to make sense of the ending.

Every plot twist, climax and the ending included.

It’s just a business letter – a tool for the agent. They have your sample, and now they can see how it develops and ends. So make it business-like:

  • No backstory unless it is tied to the character’s motivation
  • No dialogue
  • No rhetorical questions
  • No poetic language


  • Status quo
  • Initiating incident
  • Developments
  • Crisis
  • Resolution

To get started on a synopsis

  • Write a sentence for each of the above sections.
  • Expand on each without looking at your MS. Developments will be the largest section.
  • Layer in the emotional aspects. A list of events without the emotion will bore the reader.

If intending to submit, you have to keep to the agent’s word limit, so strip out all inessential words, and use your superior grammar to contain several ideas together without sounding pompous or becoming confusing.

Good luck! If you can write a whole book, you can surely write this.

*You’ll be pleased to know the novel I sent out is being considered by two publishers at the moment, and I’ll know the result by the end of May – maybe!”

Suzanne McConaghy

1 Comment

Filed under Member News, Training, Viewpoint, Writers' resources

One response to “The Dreaded Synopsis

  1. Wow Suzanne! This is so useful and interesting — thank you for sharing

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