top of page

The Art of Writing a Compelling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step Guide with Real-life Examples


You’ve finished your novel and revised it and rewritten it and showed it to your writing friends and now it’s time to send it out into the world. Before it goes to the publishing house, however, you’re probably going to send it to an agent. If you get an agent to represent you, the agent will likely use the synopsis you wrote to get them to represent you—or they’ll have you rewrite it to their standards. Either way, you’ll need a synopsis to send with your query letter, so it doesn’t hurt to get it done once you have your novel completed.

A synopsis summarizes your novel so that it covers the plot of the novel, and how everything unfolds from page one through to the last page.

Your synopsis is, in essence, you marketing your book to the agent and publishing house (normally an editor at the publishing house who publishes novels similar to yours). And because you’re using the synopsis to get an agent/editor to request to see your book, your synopsis needs to be intriguing. You need to sell yourself and your novel to the agent or editor (without being salesy), and they’re going to evaluate whether or not they can sell your book, and the synopsis is an important part of the discovery process you’re asking them to go through. It's extremely important, which is why I wrote this post: The Art of Writing a Compelling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step Guide with Real-life Examples

The first paragraph of your synopsis should introduce the agent/editor to your hero as well as the setting, the inciting incident or problem our hero is facing, and the hurdles he/she will face throughout the novel. The second paragraph will introduce any major plot points or twists, the rising action, and perhaps any subplots or important characters that will make an impact on your plot. And the third paragraph will provide the agent or editor with a description of the climax and resolution to our hero’s problem.

The length of the synopsis is up to you, but normally they’re about 1-2 pages long, or between 500-1,000 words. They can be longer, but just make sure you have a valid reason for making your synopsis longer. Agents and editors are busy people, and they receive hundreds, if not thousands of queries from authors every year, so you’ll want to make sure you’re hitting a home run with everything you send them. Here are some things to include/consider when writing your synopsis:

  • Make sure you research the agent’s preferences when it comes to queries. Some may not want a synopsis, some may. Some may only want a query and the first 3 chapters, or no chapters. Show your professionalism by knowing and respecting your prospective agent’s preferences.

  • Your synopsis should be all telling, not showing.

  • Include your elevator pitch at the beginning, before you get into the more comprehensive synopsis, so the agent/editor gets a hint of what’s to come.

  • Make sure your synopsis is thorough and concise—no fluff. And don’t hold back anything, the agent or editor needs to know what happens.

  • Make sure you highlight how your novel is unique.

  • Make sure you include the narrative arc—in detail, including the beginning and end.

  • Consider using Freytag’s Pyramid for highlighting the plot points, or at least something similar. That means including the inciting incident, rising action, conflict, climax, etc.

  • Include the novel’s point of view—is it written in first person, second person, or third? Does the POV switch for any reason? If so, for what dramatic purpose? Be clear.

  • Include your hero’s motivation.

  • Include any major characters, including their names (in bold), their age, and potentially their title/career, if applicable.

  • Are there any plot twists that might stick out in a positive way? Include them.

  • Voice is something agents and editors hone in on in novels. Try to carry that voice over into your synopsis, but don’t overdo it.

  • Write your synopsis in the third person, present tense, using active verbs.

  • Include the genre—literary fiction, mystery, romance, etc.

  • Once you’ve completed your synopsis, make sure you edit it a few times for clarity, spelling errors, typos, flow, and so on. Then show it to a writer friend and have them read it and provide you with feedback. If necessary, revise it again, then proofread it a couple more times before you send it out.


Synopses Examples

This first example is the synopsis I sent out for my novel, THE LOSSES.

Julianne Lipscomb is thrilled to have her family visit for their annual gathering in the small town of Helen, Georgia. While the requisite sibling rivalries arise, it is Harvey, Julianne’s husband, who is the center of attention. Harvey is fading away with age, but in the tempest that is their gathering, it is Harvey and his past, that unsettle the waters at the Lipscomb home.

One morning, while everyone is asleep, Julianne startles Harvey on the back deck. Harvey is lost in thought, but finally admits, in a shiver of guilt, that he has lost a son years earlier. But Harvey’s confession is only the beginning of many confessions, of the past intruding on the present. Harvey has other families, other demons, which, as it turns out, are misinterpreted by some of Helen’s locals as more insidious behavior. In the chaos of Julianne’s daughters’ marital difficulties, Harvey’s problems are temporarily pushed to the side. But problems never settled come back to haunt, and for the Lipscomb family, the youngest family members are the ones to suffer the greatest later on.

Aaron, years older now and wandering from city to city, isn’t sure if his grandfather ever did anything inappropriate, but he’s positive Graham Oggy, his father’s boss, has. While Aaron has learned to deal with his being a victim, he struggles to not become the victimizer. He has good people around him, supportive people, but they have their own issues, their own problems to deal with. While time has passed, nothing has healed, either for him or his parents, who have drifted apart over the course of a couple of decades of denial, twisted prerogatives, and their inability to cope with the dips in the road as they chase success.  

For Hadley, Aaron’s cousin, life is just as difficult. Hadley’s parents divorced, due in large part to Aaron’s father, who, without having intended to, was promoted to a role Hadley’s father believed was rightfully his. Step in Graham Oggy. Mr. Oggy is a philanthropic man with a fondness for young boys and an ability to make business stars of middle management. Taking nothing else into consideration, Mr. Oggy promotes Michael, Aaron’s father, so he can be closer to Aaron. But in the process, Mr. Oggy destroys Hadley’s family; James, Hadley’s father, is devastated by the loss of his next promotion, and goes into a downward spiral from which he never recovers.

Yet in the end, when all hope is seemingly lost, it is Hadley, the youngest of the Lipscomb women, who seeks, and ultimately accepts, the truth of who Harvey was, and most importantly, who they, the Lipscombs, are. Hadley, with a bit of serendipity, discovers Harvey’s Spanish family, and in the process, learns that sometimes the most important things in life are those things before you, in the here, in the now, and not what you may have hoped they would be.


Here's a synopsis of PROPHECY OF SISTERS (originally titled INDIGO SKY), by Michelle Zink

Sixteen-year-old Lia Milthorpe’s life is in danger from the person she loves most – her twin sister.

It’s 1890 and Lia and Alice Milthorpe are orphaned twins reeling from the mysterious death of their father and working to cheer their crippled younger brother, Henry. After their father’s sparsely attended funeral, they return two days a week to Wycliffe, a private school for wealthy girls, and attempt to settle into some kind of normalcy.

But Lia’s reality begins to unravel with sensory-rich dreams that occur more and more frequently, bringing with them a winged demon that chases her through the velvet sky of her nightmares. The dreams are followed by the discovery of an unusual mark on the inside of her wrist – that of a serpent devouring its own tail. The strange happenings make Lia long to confide in her sister, but Alice becomes more and more withdrawn, and Lia resolves to find the answers on her own.

But it is only when James discovers an ancient tome entitled “Librum Maleficii et Disordinae”, or “The Book of Chaos”, that Lia begins to understand the timeless battle of which she is a part – the battle between the demonic Lost Souls, fallen angels of the biblical Watchers, and those who try to shield the physical world from their reappearance.

The Prophecy outlined in the Book dictates that the battle continues through a long line of sisters. In each generation one sister is the Guardian, and one the Gate. The Guardian is tasked with shielding the physical world from the reappearance of the Souls. The Gate is the pathway back that will begin the Seven Plagues outlined in the biblical Book of Revelations.

Lia becomes certain she is the Guardian and her sister the Gate. When she discovers that a beautiful young psychic and an outcast from Wycliffe both bear the Mark, the three girls set out to unravel the Prophecy’s riddle and discover how they might guard the world from The Gate. The task is great enough – and is made greater still when Lia discovers the truth hidden in the Prophecy’s riddle.

A truth that will call into question everything she believed she knew about her sister – and herself.

And now there is so much more at stake, for if Lia cannot find before her sister the Keys foretold in the Prophecy, she may lose more than her sanity. She may lose her very life – sacrificing the lives of those she loves most in the process.  Her journey takes her to the shadowy Astral Plane of the Otherworlds, to the nether reaches of the Spirit World, and to the face of evil itself.


Cully Perlman is a novelist and Substantive Editor (SE). If you have recently completed a novel and require editing, he can be reached at 

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
May 21
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you. Very thorough.

bottom of page