Synopsizing Part 1: Yes, We Are Going There


Calm down, honey. I know. Nothing strikes terror into a writer’s heart like the word:


Okay, that was kind of cruel. But it was fun to watch you jump like that.

If you’re submitting anything longer than a picture book, you’ll end up needing a synopsis.

“But Lisha, not every agent/editor asks for a synopsis, and I make sure to only query those with synopsisless guidelines.”

I hear ya sister, or brother, or however you wish to identify yourself, but even if you do not need a synopsis for the first step on your submission journey, you will often need it further down the road. An editor may request one when he requests the full. If he finds the middle a bit saggy, he can see if the ending justifies working through to a better manuscript. And I can pretty much guarantee your agent will need a brilliant synopsis to take on her rounds to the publishing houses.

I’ve found it easiest to keep three types of synopsicles in my arsenal: The Mini-Synopsis, The Condensed Synopsis and The Full Synopsis.


LENGTH: 50-75 words

WHEN TO USE: Bring to pitch session or critique session with agent or editor at conference, may end up as your jacket flap material

FORM: One or two paragraphs. Regular capitalization, indentation and punctuation, third person present tense.

STYLE: The Mini-Synopsis is something more than a pitch and something less than a true synopsis. Take the tone of what you’d want inside your jacket flap. Summarize: the main character, the problem, the stakes, and throw in a bit of subplot. Just enough to show the trajectory of the story in an intriguing fashion. You don’t need to reveal an ending here, only possibilities.


LENGTH: 1-2 pages

WHEN TO USE: When guidelines ask for a “brief” or “condensed” or “short” or “one or two page” synopsis.

FORM: Type the name of a character in ALL CAPS the first time he’s mentioned. Only the first time. Single space, with a break between each paragraph. Indent. Third person, present tense.

STYLE: You gotta boil the whole she-bang down into, like, 500-1000 words. HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? That 200,000-word epic about the taming of the West and the family dynasty that did it, has to be squeezed onto those two little rectangles of paper. So cover the main character’s problem–what he wants, how he overcomes adversity and how the story resolves. Only include characters and plot points that steer this narrative. Write in the style of your novel–humorous, mysterious, etc. And yes, you have to tell the ending.


LENGTH: about a page per 10,000 words

WHEN TO USE: When the submission guidelines or the agent/editor asks for a synopsis with no further instructions.

FORM: Type the name of a character in ALL CAPS the first time he’s mentioned. Only the first time. Double space, NO break between each paragraph. Indent. Third person, present tense.

STYLE: You got a little more leeway here. BUT. More information is expected. A relevant subplot can be thrown in, more characters should make an appearance, and the reader has more opportunity to appreciate the novel’s narrative arc and your writing style.

Debatable whether it’s easier to write the truncated version or the full synopsis first. Well, it’s debatable if you-all debate it in the comments.


Synopsizing Part 2: From Magnificent Manuscript to Sparkling Summary

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