Before you can publish a book or sign a contract, you'll need a synopsis that someone can review. Here, we explain what is a synopsis and how to write one.
In writing, a synopsis can be a helpful tool to use to state your main plot in a brief manner. Yet a synopsis is more detailed than just a brief summary of the main action of the story.
So what is a synopsis? It is a summary of a larger piece of work, similar to an abridgement, that includes the most important plot points.
Learning what a synopsis is and how to write one well will give you a tool you can use to advertise your written works.
What Is a Synopsis?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a synopsis as “A condensed statement or outline.” However, when it comes to literature, this is too simplified. Your outline and your synopsis are not the same things.
When you write a book or the storyline of a movie, a synopsis is a summary of that composition. It includes the main events and style of the story and some information about the main characters.
The way you write your synopsis will depend on the goal you have for it. If you're using the synopsis to propose your novel to a literary agent, it needs quite a bit of detail.
If you are using it to entice readers, such as the blurb on the back of the book, you will leave some details out to make the reader interested in reading it. You might also be interested in our guide on how to determine the reading level of a book.
4 Steps to Write a Short Synopsis
Before writing a synopsis, you will need to check the submission guidelines of the literary agent. For example, do they want the book synopsis in the third person or the same point of view as the novel? Do they limit you to one page, or can you write more?
Once you know the rules, these steps will help you write your summary.
1. Iron Out the Basics
First, know the basics of your story. You need to know the main plot, ending and plot twists you plan to cover in the book. This can start with your basic outline.
Once you have your outline, you are ready to start filling in some details. Some elements to consider include:
- Narrative arc: The narrative arc is the explanation of the problem or plot in the book. It also states the characters and gives the ending.
- Inciting incident: What sparks the conflict? Make sure you identify this in your summary.
- Rising action: State what actions happen between the inciting incident and the story's climax.
- Climax: What is the most exciting plot point in your book?
- Resolution: The synopsis usually tells the ending, because you will use it to entice publishers to look at your work.
2. State Character Motivations
As you write your synopsis, let the reader know what is motivating your characters. For example, if you are writing a synopsis of Harry Potter, you might say:
- After living 11 years as an orphan with his uncle and aunt who hate him, Harry is ready for an adventure.
This tells the motivation that drives Harry's actions throughout the story. As the synopsis unfolds, weave motivations in with the narrative.
3. Use the Right Point of View and Voice
For most synopses, you will write in the third person, present tense point of view. If the literary agent does not specifically state the point of view, this is the default. Remember, this is a summary of the story and writing in this point of view and tense keeps the reader interested.
The voice of the story summary is also important. You need to use a tone that sets the same tone as your work. Choosing your wording carefully is the best way to do this, using the type of wording you would use in your story.
4. Edit and Simplify Your Synopsis
A good synopsis is as short as possible with an ideal word count of between 500 and 700 words. After writing, go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Eliminate any unnecessary details or plot points that aren't essential to the story.
As you edit, make sure every sentence and word is clear. This is not the place to have an opening that hooks the reader but leaves a lot of questions. You need it to be interesting, but simple and to-the-point.
Finally, make sure the novel synopsis flows. Have other people read it to ensure it is clear and concise, not choppy or wordy.
One way to learn to write a synopsis is to look at good examples from books you know well. Here are some professional synopses of popular works:
Great Expectations Synopsis
The Oxford Companion to English Literature published this synopsis of Great Expectations, the famous novel by Charles Dickens.
“Phillip Pirrip, more commonly known as “Pip,” has been brought up by his tyrannical sister, wife of the gentle Joe Gargery. He is introduced to the house of Miss Havisham who, half-crazed by the desertion of her lover on her bridal night, has brought up the girl Estella to use her beauty as a means of torturing men. Pip falls in love with Estella and aspires to become a gentleman.
Money and expectations of more wealth come to him from a mysterious source, which he believes to be Miss Havisham. He goes to London, and in his new mode of life meanly abandons the devoted Joe Gargery, a humble connection of whom he is now ashamed.
Misfortunes come upon him. His benefactor proves to be an escaped convict, Abel Magwich, whom he as a boy had helped. Pip’s great expectations fade away and he is penniless. Estella meanwhile marries his sulky enemy Bentley Drummle, by whom she is cruelly ill-treated.
In the end, taught by adversity, Pip returns to Joe Gargery and honest labor. He and Estella, who has also learnt her lesson, are finally reunited.”
This is a brief, yet detailed synopsis of the work. It tells the inciting incident and rising action touches on the climax and resolves the story.
This synopsis also tells the motivation of the characters, one specific plot twist of the surprise benefactor and some turning points of the story. It is formally and smoothly written and can easily fit on a single page if needed.
Hunger Games Synposis
An even shorter synopsis of The Hunger Games comes from Cliff's Notes.
“In Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, the Capitol forces each of Panem's 12 districts to choose two teenagers to participate in the Hunger Games, a gruesome, televised fight to the death. In the 12th district, Katniss Everdeen steps in for her little sister and enters the Games, where she is torn between her feelings for her hunting partner, Gale Hawthorne, and the district's other tribute, Peeta Mellark, even as she fights to stay alive. The Hunger Games will change Katniss' life forever, but her acts of humanity and defiance might just change the Games, too.”
Even though it is a short blurb, this synopsis has most of the elements. It tells the motivation of Katniss, to protect her sister and then to stay alive, gives one of the plot twists, her feelings between the two boys, and gives the basic story arc. However, it does not tell the ending, which would make this an incomplete synopsis.
The Final Word on What Is a Synopsis
So what is a synopsis? It is a tool to tell a literary agent or film studio the basic plot and story arc for your work. Writing synopses well increases your chances of getting your work published, so this is a skill worth learning.
Keep in mind that the synopsis has a specific job to do. It is the tool you use to get someone to notice your work and be willing to pay you for it. Write it carefully, so you can get recognition for your hard work.
FAQs on What Is a Synopsis
What is a book synopsis?
A book synopsis tells the plot and voice of a book. Writers use these to pitch their book idea to a publisher. They typically fit on one typed page.
What is a movie synopsis?
A movie synopsis tells the plot, characters, and storyline of a movie's screenplay. It is used to sell the film to industry higher-ups and entice them to read the entire screenplay in the hopes of creating the movie.
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