What is a book synopsis?

Abi Wurdeman
November 23, 2021
April 20, 2023

How to Write a Great Book Synopsis

The book synopsis is a mighty tool in your agent submission packet.

And yet, I know exactly zero writers who look forward to writing their synopsis. If you’re a first-time novelist, you may be especially resistant to the task.

After all, you spent months—or more likely yearscrafting this masterpiece. You have workshopped your book within an inch of its life so you can offer agents a spellbinding tale they’ll be proud to shop to publishers.

But they want a book synopsis? A mere shadow of the literary voyage you wrenched loose from the depths of your soul?

Yep! That’s exactly what they want. And the better you understand the purpose of the synopsis, the more you realize that it’s actually a pretty fair request. You also come to appreciate that this summary isn’t just a way to earn the trust of an agent. It’s a form of storytelling unto itself. If you’ve been sweating your summary, tearing through book synopsis examples looking for the secret formula, I can help. Let’s start with the basics. What is a book synopsis, anyway?

Close-up of a typewriter with the words "Something worth reading" typed onto a sheet of paper.

What is a Book Synopsis?

A book synopsis is a 1-3 page telling of your story. Or, in the case of non-narrative nonfiction, it’s a short description of what you cover in your book.

This is different from a blurb, the short description on the back of the book that lures the reader in. Your goal with a book synopsis is not to leave the reader desperate to learn what happens next. Rather, a synopsis shows an agent or publisher that you have crafted (or will craft) a compelling, marketable book.

If your book is fiction or narrative nonfiction (like a memoir or biography), your book synopsis tells an agent or publisher:

  • The genre.
  • The tone.
  • Who your protagonist is.
  • The time and place of your story.
  • Major beats and twists.
  • How the story ends.

If your book is non-narrative nonfiction (like a self-help book or a how-to), your synopsis explains:

  • What problem your book solves.
  • Who your readers are.
  • Why you are qualified to write this book.
  • A chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the topics covered.

Why do you need a whole new document to share this information? Why can’t your book just speak for itself?

Great question.

Multiple stacks of paper side by side and overlapping.

Why Do You Need a Book Synopsis?

For one thing, nonfiction writers who plan to publish traditionally don’t typically submit a completed manuscript to agents. Instead, they pitch their idea and only write the full manuscript after they’ve gotten an agent and that agent has sold the book.

If you write nonfiction, the document you use to pitch your book (and yourself), is called a book proposal. Your book proposal must include—ta-da!—a book synopsis.

If you write fiction, you’re trying to sell a completed manuscript. That manuscript is probably 70,000+ words long. And while you know those are 70,000+ words of pure genius, the agent considering you doesn’t know that.

This agent gets 100 queries a day, and the quality of those queries varies dramatically. You have to convince them that your manuscript is worth their time. You do this by sending:

  • a query that promises a strong premise,
  • opening pages that demonstrate a clear voice and engaging storytelling, and
  • a book synopsis that proves you know how to craft a character and story.

Once the agent (and eventually publisher) sees that you know what you’re doing, then they’ll invest the time to read the full manuscript.

A person writing in a notebook at a desk beside a laptop computer and a blue teacup.

How to Structure a Good Book Synopsis

Your book synopsis structure depends on the type of book. For fiction and narrative nonfiction, present the following information in this order:

  1. State your genre and subgenre.
  2. Write the pitch line—a one-sentence summary of your overall concept and hook.
  1. Note: These first two ingredients often go together. (“Frankenstein is a gothic science fiction novel about an ambitious young scientist who reanimates a human corpse, only to create a vengeful monster he must now destroy.”)
  2. Introduce your protagonist and setting as they are when your book opens. Keep it simple. (“A curious and defiant orphan, Jane Eyre (10) struggles through life at her late uncle’s dreary estate, where she is unwanted, abused, and neglected.”)
  3. Continue telling your story through to the end. If your story jumps back and forth between timelines, present story beats in the order they appear in your book.

As for nonfiction:

  1. Introduce the problem your book solves. Make sure the benefit to the readers is super clear.
  2. Introduce yourself. Why are you the person to fix this problem?
  3. Provide a short description of each chapter. This should give the reader a clear understanding of how this book follows through on its promise to guide readers.
A screenshot of the first few lines of a book synopsis.

How to Format a Good Book Synopsis

Now to make this thing look professional.

Typically, your book synopsis format should include:

  • The title + “Synopsis” at the top. (Ex: “LORD OF THE FLIES Synopsis”)
  • “By” + your name beneath the title. (“By William Golding”)
  • Double spacing.
  • Times new roman font, 12 pt.
  • 1-inch margins.
  • Indented paragraphs.
  • Character names in either bold or all caps when first introduced.
  • Protagonist’s age in parentheses behind their name upon introduction.
  • Page numbers in the top right-hand corner (unless it’s a one-page synopsis).
  • Correct grammar and punctuation.

Finally: check the agent or publisher’s requirements for formatting and length. At the very least, they will ask for a specific word or page count. Give the people what they want.

A yes or no checklist.

What to Include when Writing Your Book Synopsis

How are you supposed to boil this great masterpiece of yours down to one or two pages? What do you keep and what do you discard? For fiction and narrative nonfiction, your reader wants to know:

  • The category and genre of your book.
  • Who your protagonist is.
  • What motivates your protagonist.
  • The world of your story.
  • Who the major side characters are. (Try to keep the number of side characters you introduce to a minimum. Major players only.)
  • The central conflict.
  • The narrative arc.
  • Major twists or reveals.
  • How the story ends and how your character has changed through their journey.

Nonfiction authors, you want to include:

  • The problem you are solving or knowledge gap your book fills.
  • Why this information is life-changing, relevant, or timely.
  • Who this book is for.
  • Why you are the best person to write this book.
  • A broad overview of each chapter.

Ideally, your book synopsis also provides a sense of tone and narrative voice.

A wrong way street sign.

What to Avoid When Writing a Book Synopsis

Heads-up: any of the following missteps could make an agent think you’re not a serious candidate:

  • You write your novel synopsis in first person. Even if your novel is written in first person point of view, the novel synopsis is always in third.
  • You write in past tense. A book synopsis should be written in present tense. The only exception is for memoir.
  • You talk about your book instead of telling the story. (Don’t do this: “The book then transitions to act three where Burt storms the castle.” Do this: “Newly motivated, Burt storms the castle.”)
  • You add too much—a dozen side characters, a lot of details about the trees wavering the breeze, an in-depth psychological profile of your protagonist, etc.
  • You disregard the preferred word count. Keep two or three synopses of varying lengths on file to meet differing guidelines.
  • You leave them with unanswered questions. Agents and publishers need to know the surprise twist, the powerful resolution, or your secret to making seven figures on Etsy.
  • You give your file a vague name, like synopsis.doc. Slap a title on there. Maybe your last name. Don’t let it get lost in their download file.
  • You praise your own book. Don’t call your book a “tour de force.” Don’t promise a bestseller, envision film options, or claim to be the next JK Rowling. It’s the agent’s job to imagine those possibilities. Your job is to tell a great story with the potential to fulfill their professional fantasies.
A sailboat on glassy water at sundown with clouds illuminated on the horizon and bright stars overhead.

How to Write a Book Synopsis for a Fiction Book or a Narrative Nonfiction Book

Now you know all the do’s and all the don’t-you-dares. How do you actually make it happen? Like all things writing, time and practice will reveal the best methods for you. In the meantime, I recommend tackling your novel or narrative nonfiction book synopsis by shifting your perspective.

Stop thinking about your book synopsis as an abbreviated version of your book. Instead, start from the core concept and build out.

This is what I mean:

Write your pitch line

Example: “(Title) is a (genre/subgenre) about a (protagonist) in a (setting) who has a (motivation) to achieve a (goal) despite an (obstacle.)”

Write an outline of your major beats
Flesh that outline into a synopsis that meets your reader’s word count requirements

The trick is to add details that make the major beats more vivid. Help the reader understand how the protagonist evolves through each twist and reveal. Pro tip: Dabble’s plot grid is a great tool for nailing down those major beats. If you used Dabble to write your novel, return to your original plot grid, identify the big plot points, and use your notes to create a synopsis. If you haven’t created a plot grid for your story, make one now!

A scattered pile of nonfiction books.

How to Write a Book Synopsis for a Nonfiction Book

The nice thing about writing a nonfiction book synopsis is that you haven’t written the book itself yet. You’re still planning; you don’t have the novelist’s struggle of getting hung up on minor details that now feel essential to the telling of the story.The challenge you do have as a non-narrative nonfiction writer is that you have to make an argument for the book’s marketability. This means you need to do a lot of research on your readership, your topic, your field, competing books, or anything else that helps you answer the questions:

  • Why this topic?
  • Why now?
  • And why me?

Once you can answer those questions, you want to pack them neatly into one paragraph. Remember to avoid gushing about your own genius. Don’t tell the agent or publisher this book will be a bestseller. Do tell them about your 500,000 newsletter subscribers.

Then, spill your secrets using the same structure you plan to use in your book. Will each chapter explain the next step in the reader’s roadmap to financial independence? Will your daily meditations be categorized into subtopics like gratitude and forgiveness?

If it helps, start with an outline, then add the most essential details, clarifying the contents of each chapter in a short paragraph.

Once you have it all down, read over your nonfiction book synopsis. Ask yourself: Am I convinced? Does this sound like a book that will stand out in its market? If not, workshop and revise. Lean on your writer friends to help you out.

A woman writing in a notebook at a table outside.

Above All, Write Well

Your book synopsis is not just a summary of your book.

It is the tool that helps you turn a file on your computer into a book on your local bookstore’s New Releases table. So take your time and write well. Consult great book synopsis examples and turn to your writing community for feedback. Even though you have to lose a lot of the details that make your book magical, you can still create a sense of narrative voice in your synopsis.

You can find ways to stir emotion, inject humor, or inspire connection. Easier said than done? For sure. But you pulled it off when you were writing your manuscript, and though the process is different, the purpose is the same.

You’re telling a story… a story only you can tell.

Give it all you’ve got.

Need a little help structuring your story, writing your book, or keeping track of all seventeen versions of your synopsis? Dabble has all the features you need to simplify the authoring process. Click here to start your 14-day free trial.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.