How to write a synopsis

One thing I’ve noticed from the submissions we receive here at UpLit Press is that there is a lot of confusion about what is meant by a synopsis.

A synopsis isn’t the same as the back cover blurb.

A synopsis is a summary of all the main plot points in your book, from beginning to end, including spoilers.

The function of a synopsis is to let an agent or publisher know if the initial promise in your first three chapters is supported by the rest of the book. So, there’s no point holding back: it has to summarise everything. And it has to be a short summary, ideally between 500 – 800 words.

How do I compress my entire magnum opus into 500 words? I hear you cry forlornly. The trick is knowing what to include, and, more importantly, what to leave out.

What to include:

  • All major plot points
  • Turning points in the narrative
  • Twists
  • Major character developments and emotional arcs

What to leave out:

  • Side characters
  • Subplots
  • Scenes which all move the narrative in one direction can be condensed into one

To give an example, here’s a made-up synopsis for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I’ve chosen on the basis that most people have read it. If you haven’t, then warning – this contains spoilers!

HARRY (11) is an orphan being raised by his horrible aunt and uncle. He thinks he’s an ordinary boy until strange letters start arriving from HOGWARTS, a school for wizards.
When Harry arrives at Hogwarts, he discovers that his parents were also wizards who were killed by the Dark Lord, VOLDEMORT. Harry survived the attack as a baby and somehow banished Voldemort.
Together with his two new friends RON and HERMIONE, Harry investigates the secrets of Hogwarts and finds out that the Philosopher’s Stone is hidden beneath the school. Moreover, Voldemort is trying to steal it to regain his power.
To protect the stone from Voldemort, Harry and his friends brave the magical traps and challenges guarding the stone. Harry faces Voldemort and is able to keep the stone out of his hands. The Dark Lord’s return to power is thwarted… for now.

That’s less than 200 words, but it would be enough to let an agent or publisher know what direction the story was heading and (hopefully!) make them want to read more. Take note of all the things that aren’t there: Quidditch, hatching a dragon, Draco Malfoy etc. All you need in your synopsis are the main narrative points that propel the story forward.