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The Book Synopsis, in Brief

Floyd Largent | Book Editing Associates
Science Fiction Editor, Fiction and Nonfiction Content Editor, Book Reviewer, Writing Mentor

One of the crucial elements of any book query package is the synopsis: a very condensed version of the story, presented in just a few pages. This holds true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, but publishers and potential agents most definitely want to see synopses for novel submissions.

When I first started in the writing business more than 25 years ago, a book synopsis was a major undertaking. According to most experts, a book’s synopsis had to be detailed, covering all plots and subplots, and no less than 10-15 pages long.

Nowadays, synopsis requirements have slimmed down nearly as much as the publishing industry. Most agents and publishers want something short and very much to the point. Four double-spaced pages is pretty much the limit, unless otherwise stated in their guidelines; and most would prefer to see just two pages. Given all that’s happened in the traditional publishing world, especially with the advent of electronic publishing, no one in the industry seems to have a second to spare.

Needless to say, two pages—or even four—won’t give you enough room to go into all the details of the main plot, much less any associated subplots. You’re best served by hitting only the high points, without giving away too much information in between. This doesn’t mean the writing should be dry, boring, and purely informational; we’ve all seen enough synopses like that on Amazon, as one of my clients recently pointed out. Instead, do your best to make the synopsis just as lively as the story itself, in order to grab the reader and pull them in (insofar as you can in such a small space). If possible, leave the climax of the story a mystery, making the reader eager to learn what happens.

I recommend that you write two synopses: both a four-page version, and a two-page version. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, because you can cut down the longer synopsis to create the shorter one. When you’re writing the longer synopsis, let the ideas flow, while keeping in mind your ultimate length. Later, cut it mercilessly to make it fit. Then triage the hell out of it to reduce it to two pages. To do so, you’ll probably need to cut some major plot points. This will hurt, but remind yourself that it’s what they want. You have no choice but to follow the gatekeeper rules, assuming you want to go the traditional publishing route. Just don’t gut the story too much, or you may find yourself without one.

If you’re going the self-publishing route, then all bets are off. But don’t assume you’re immune from synopses, because when you publish your book on Amazon or one of the other major venues, you’ll still need to include a book description . . . and what’s a book description but a synopsis? Ditto for the back-of-the-book blurb, where you have less than 150 words to make your point.

My point is this: leave the meat of the story for the story itself. For the synopsis, you must eliminate absolutely all the fat, serving up only the lean.

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