Writing a Killer Synopsis

When it comes to querying literary agencies you will notice that most, if not all, request that a one page synopsis of your work be sent alongside your query. It is this,  believe it or not, that most authors struggle with, especially when it comes to their first query/novel.

What to include, what tone to write it in, and really what a synopsis is are common questions; you can find some answers here. But first, here’s the most common question;

Do I really need a synopsis?

In all honesty? Yes. There may be some agents that do not explicitly request a synopsis, though that is very rare, however even in these cases you will improve your chances greatly by including one.


What is a synopsis?

The synopsis is a one page sum up of your story and all the major plot points; it is your best, if not your only, tool for selling the story to an agent or publisher, and it could, in fact, be more important than your cover letter (though you will find advice on how to write one of those here, too).

What a synopsis is not is a jacket-blurb (you know, one of those high on drama, low on details, halfway breathless attention-getter statements designed to tell you next to nothing about the actual plot?), nor is it your thoughts on the symbolism, themes, and market for your novel.

A synopsis lets the agent know what they could have to work with; its the skeleton of your plot laid bare, so that the agent or publisher can decide if they want to see the full manuscript.


What should be in a synopsis?

A summary of the main plot points, main characters, and main character arcs that have a lasting effect on the direction and nature of the story. A simple synopsis will include the following;  the premise, inciting incident, rising action of conflict, climax, character growth, and the resolution.

Please do not leave out the ending or main plot points; this isn’t about keeping the reader in suspense, it’s a skilful way to inform the agent or publisher of what you have made. Think of it as a recipe; include everything that was vital to creating the finished product.


How to write a synopsis

Before you start to write your synopsis, you need to prepare your plot points; if you work from an outline this will be easier for you, but pantsers still have hope (in fact the process of writing your synopsis may help you to identify plot holes if you write this way).

If you don’t have an outline to work from you should read through your novel and make a note of all the main plot points. Try making a short summary of the key events in each chapter. Once you’ve done this you’ll probably have four or five pages of notes. Some agents want a long synopsis, three to five pages, others a very short one. I would suggest you make your notes into a four or five page synopsis and keep a version of this in case an agent wants this long version. For those looking to receive a concise synopsis you can cut it down a little.

Once you have a sum up of your key plot points you can begin the four stage process of writing the synopsis;

  1. String together your main plot point summaries to make a coherent narrative; cut anything that is non-necessary to understanding the progression of the plot and character arcs. If you find it easier to write the character arcs and main plot points individually, do so. At this stage you should be thinking about having a functional sum up of your novel; polishing and embellishing can come later.
  2. Consider the beginning; you don’t have space for a huge amount of context during your, but you should built a short foundation. Talk about who your main characters are (CAPITALISE their names), what position they start in, and most importantly what problems they face from the start. Pick up the thread of this conflict and weave it through the summary you have already created.
  3. Focus on the end; read through what you have with a particular eye for plot points, character arcs, and trends, and reinforce your ending in a way that emphasises how your ending ties up the loose ends, or if it’s a trilogy/series which loose ends are tied up.
  4. Read and refine; cut the fat, add any missing plot points or characters, and of course proofread for spelling, grammar, and consistency. At this point you should also make sure that your synopsis is formatted correctly.


How to format your synopsis

  • No matter how you write your story, e.g. in first person, third person, past or present tense, your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense.
  • Unless stated otherwise any synopsis of more than one page should be double-spaced. A one page synopsis may be single spaced, or have 1.5 spacing, but check your chosen agency or publishers website to see if they specify. If they do specify always comply with their specification.
  • Align left (do not justify text).
  • One inch margins on every side.
  • Indent first line of each paragraph by 1/2 inch.
  • In the header, include; author last name, title or key words from title, and the word Synopsis.
  • If you are sending this with a cover letter you may not need contact information in your synopsis, once again check for direction otherwise.
  • Page one should have: header information (slug), a title one or two lines below the header (centred), the word Synopsis one or two lines below the title, and then the main body of the synopsis.
  • If contact info is to be in the synopsis add it after the header information and the title.



Choosing a Literary Agent

So you’ve finished your first draft, you’ve edited your manuscript (1, 2, 3), and you’re ready to get it out into the world.

You can go the self-publishing route if you want, but if you want to get picked up by a traditional publisher you’re probably going to need an agent. Once you’ve identified the best agent for you there are somethings you should definitely never say, and there are certainly ways to ensure that your query is the very best it can be.

Before you can get to this point, however, you need to identify an agent that suits you.


Identifying a legitimate literary agent;

First things first; ensure the agent in question is legitimate! There are many new authors so eager to land an agent that they will not only query agents who are a poor fit for them, but also agents who are not even genuine!

How ca you tell if an agent is legitimate? Well, first and foremost they will not charge a reading fee, they will not take fees upfront (if they do they will usually include a clause that states they cannot take any further upfront fees without your written consent, though, so check that out), and they will not refer you to fee charging editorial services. Legitimate literary agents make their money through commissions earned when they sell your product to publishing houses. The usual fee ranges between 10% and 20%.

Be wary of any agent that contacts you out of the blue; if you have not solicited them and

do not have a large social media following or platform its likely they are scammers.


Finding the right agent for you;

When you’re thinking about querying an agent you need to consider how they fit with your genre, your style, and your goals. Most agents will specialise in either fiction or non-fiction, commercial or literary, informative or narrative, and of course many specialise by genre as well.

You should be looking for agents that have represented works similar to your own. Start by compiling a list of agents that state they are open to books in your genres and field, and then do your homework. Yes, this means more research.

No, you can’t get out of it. Here’s how it can benefit you; just because an agent is open to your kind of work does’t mean they are the very best fit for you. Try to find out some of the following information before you query (or rule anyone out);

  • How many deals have they made?
  • How many within the last two years?
  • Do they sell to a variety of publishers?
  • Which authors have they worked with?
  • What kind of advances have they negotiated?

You may not be able to find out all of this information, but you will surely find out some, and this will not only give you an idea as to whether this is the correct agent for you, but you’ll have an idea of how to personalise your approach when you do query them.


Once you have your agent single out, you’ve written a kick-ass query (and of course your manuscript is ready), all you have to do is write up a one page synopsis and you can start querying!

A Query They Can’t Refuse

Querying an agent or publisher is one of the most nerve-wracking things that you can do as a writer; you put your work out there, and hope to avoid rejection. It goes without saying that the quality of your manuscript will ultimately decide the success of your writing career, but a good quality query will make the path to publication smoother and quicker.

So, how do you write the kind of query that has manuscript requests flooding in?


The Fantastic Five (Factors)

A good query is made up of five main elements;

  1. Opening
  2. What you are selling
  3. Hook
  4. Synopsis
  5. Closing
  6. OPTIONAL – Bio (this would come before closing)


Opening – Address the agent by name, spell it correctly, and lead with your best foot, so to speak. If you have credentials and previously published works you could mention them, and if you have met the agent before (especially if they requested your manuscript) mention this right away. The most common opening, especially for new authors, is to give the hook of your story.

What You’re Selling – Detail your title, any subtitles, genre, and category. Resist the urge to over state or boast; be business like and concise.

Hook and Synopsis – Writing an effective hook and synopsis is an issue all on its own, but your hook should deal with three main points: your protagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Your synopsis should be attached to the query and be roughly one page long.

Closing – Bring you query to a close in a clear, compact way; think two or three sentences maximum. There’s no need to state that you are simultaneously querying, but you should mention if you’ve had interest from another agency. Give contact information, and thank the agent for their time.

Bio – A bio is not something that would necessarily be required at all, and it’s not wise if you’ve never published before. If you have you should mention the books or short stories you have published as well as giving a small amount of personal details.


Email Queries

Email queries are certainly an option these days, always check to see if the agent lists a preference on their site, but keep in mind that email queries should be formatted differently. They will also be read more quickly, and any mistakes will be glaringly obvious; be sure you proofread thoroughly.

For email queries;

  • Contact information should go at the bottom after your signature
  • Use Block Style; no formatting, no indents,
  • Place anything that should be in italics in CAPTIALS
  • Copy and paste your query into a word document to check spelling and grammar


Check here and here to find out what you shouldn’t say, and how to get ready to query,

Best of Luck!



Do you need a Literary Agent?

This is a divisive issue; there are plenty of people who will tell you that you don’t need an agent, or that you should avoid them at all costs. They’ll tell you either that they’re blood suckers, or that you’ll never get anywhere without them.

The truth is less clear cut, but certainly there are pros and cons to being represented by a literary agent;


  • Experience and Reputation; when you work with a literary agent you’re not only benefitting from the time they put into your manuscript, but the time they have put into every project that came before yours. You’re getting their experience, skill, and know-how as well as the time they actually put into your manuscript; after all, a reputable and experienced agent will have many years of experience in polishing and pitching novels. You also gain a bit more clout with publishers; when they see you are being represented by an established agent you will stand out, and as such have less chance of being lost in the slush pile.
  • Contacts and Connections; when you form a partnership with a literary agent it will be because they are confident that they know who they can sell your book to. You benefit from their connections, their contacts, and the relationships they have built in their career.
  • Another pair of eyes; before you query an agent your manuscript should be as ready for publication as you can make it, however an agent can offer an extra pair of eyes to really polish it till it shines.
  • Someone to fight your corner; your agent makes money when you make money, so when you hire an agent you know that they want to sell your novel. They want you to succeed, and having someone that you know wants you to find success can be a real boost when things get rough.



  • More time; when you go to an agent first you’re essentially pitching your book twice. This has its benefits, as outlined, but you will be adding time onto the process.
  • Cost; agents, like all professionals, will need to be paid for their services. Generally speaking this means 15% of your earnings from sales, but this can vary. It’s up to you to decide if the cost is worth it.


How to approach/query an agent.

There are a few things which you should definitely never say when querying an agent, but what should you do and say to up your chances of success?

  1. Finish your manuscript
  2. Do your research
  3. Be concise, reasonable, and professional in your query letter
  4. Be realistic

To expand upon these points a little; make sure your novel is completely written and proofread before you query, look for an agent that represents your kind of fiction, don’t invest in a gimmick when you write your query letter, and be realistic about what you expect from your novel. If you claim to be the next George R. Martin, you may be met with scepticism.

Take as much care with your query letter as you did with your manuscript, and include a one page synopsis which clearly states the main characters and plot points of your novel. Don’t try to get cute and leave them guessing as to what happens; you should be making it easy for them to know whether or not they wish to represent you.


Remember that agents receive hundreds of letters and emails each and every day; be professional and concise in your approach, and you’ll find it’s appreciated.



Three Differences Between Literary and Genre Fiction (know which you fall into if you want to pitch well!)

A Query They Can’t Refuse

Self-Editing 1, 2, and 3

Things You Should Never Say to an Agent

With the rise of e-publishing there are some people who will tell you that agents are obsolete, and that you don’t need them to get a book out there. This is technically true, but in reality it’s much easier to navigate the world of publishing with help. An experienced agent is invaluable for many reasons, but above and beyond all of them they have two things you probably will not; connections with established publishers and editors, and lots of experience in marketing books.


Do I need an Agent?

Literally? No. But it’s a good idea.

You can self-publish either online or in hard copy, and if you’re an expert marketer you could very well do a great job of it. However, this will take time and effort that pulls you away from what you love; writing.

An agent is, just like an author, or and editor, a specialist that brings a huge amount of value to the venture. Furthermore, most of the really big publishing houses do not take unsolicited submissions or submissions from those who have no representation.

There are many things you can do to attract an agent, but here are some things you definitely should not say;


Things you shouldn’t say to a potential agent


“I’m the next Stephen King, George R. Martin, J.K rowling [insert Big Name Here]”

You may be right, but agents hear this from over-confident authors day in, day out. Even if they believe you, you’re setting high expectations for yourself and your work. Not just once either; these are big names that sell consistently; if you have your agent and publisher believing you can replicate these numbers it doesn’t matter how well you do; it may not be enough.

Of course, it’s also very likely you’ll get this reaction;

judge judy


“I know you don’t usually deal with X, but…”


No – get out.

Agents specialise in certain subjects and genres for many reasons, the biggest being that they knew who to sell these types of books to, and how to market them. They specify genres so that they can do their job well after you’ve done your job well.

Unless you follow that sentence with “but I’d like your advice on how to add elements of Y [which they do deal with] to it to make it stronger!” just shut up and research an agent that deal with your genre. Even then, it’s not their job to fix your writing. Its yours.


“There’s nothing like this out there!”

Stitch Frustration GIF - Stitch Frustration - Discover ...

I can guarantee you there is; there’s nothing new under the sun, as that old saying goes, so this sounds like you a) have no idea what you’ve written and which genre it falls into mostly, or b) you have no idea what’s out there because you rarely read. One makes it hard for an agent to really sell it, the other is a worry because you’re probably re-using well-worn tropes that you would know to avoid if you have read widely in your genre.


“I’ve self-published [X amount] books!”

Unless one or some of your novels/stories have topped 3,000 to 5,000 sales (the average self-published book sells less than 100 – 150 copies) this won’t help your case.


“My book will appeal to everyone.” 

That right there is a promise you cannot keep!

If you don’t approach an agent with a target audience in mind you’re making their job harder than it needs to be. If you write a novel with the aim of including universal themes, that’s fine, but the story and genre will appeal to one kind of audience in particular. YA lit might very well appeal to the masses, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, but by and large it appeals to young adults.


“It’s not finished yet, but…”

No! When you approach an agent your novel should be as ready for publication as you can make it. Get a professional critique if you can afford it, have another person (with good grammar) who reads your genre to test it and make suggestions. Edit, edit, edit! 

Your agent may make suggestions, the in-house editor at a publisher may make suggestions, but its your job to write the book so don’t rely on getting huge amounts of help from agents and publishers. They have their job, you have yours.


Finally, please do not send out generic query emails to hundreds of agents; tailor your approach and pick people you think will have a genuine interest in your work. And, of course, if you have any advice about querying an agent let us know in the comments section!