How to Write Synopses that Editors and Agents Want to Read

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by Lara Helmling


I imagine that some of you hear that word and decide you need to vacuum the living room.

To reduce your beloved novel down to a 500-word summary is almost more than you can bear.

I wish I could tell you that I have a magic pill to make synopsis writing less painful.

I don’t.

I do have a method for writing your synopsis that attracts editors’ and agents’ attention and gets you out of that slush pile.

When you present that synopsis to agents and editors at the next ACFW conference, instead of giving you that placid smile, their eyes will light up.

Once that happens, you are moments away from selling your manuscript.

The best part is there are really only four critical elements (and a few dos and don’ts) to writing editor-ready synopses.

A Caveat

Before I dive in, I have a caveat.

I’ve run across many authors who are in complete denial about the importance of the synopsis.

Make no mistake about it, your synopsis is your calling card. It’s your first impression. And we all know you only get one time to make a great first impression.

Acquisitions editors and agents want short, compelling synopses.

Please don’t underestimate the importance of this little 500-word document.

The Don’ts of Synopsis Writing

First, let’s get the don’ts of synopsis writing out of the way.

1) DON’T write a long synopsis. Challenge yourself to get it down to 500 words.

2) DON’T include more than 4-5 characters.

3) DON’T include any subplots.

4) DON’T include anything about you, how this book would be marketed, or anything else outside the scope of the story.

5) DON’T fall into the ‘and then’ trap. (Eg. And THEN the hero did this, and THEN the heroine said this, and THEN the bad guy ambushed them). Your synopsis shouldn’t be merely a list of the events in your novel.

The Dos of Synopsis Writing

Now, let’s talk about the dos.

1) DO use third person POV, even if your novel is written in first person.

2) DO write in present tense, even though your novel is most likely written in past tense.

3) DO write in active voice.

4) DO write the ending. You’re not spoiling the novel for the editor. You’re showing the editor that you can create a tight and compelling ending to the story.

The Four Critical Elements of the Synopsis

With that established, let’s move on to those critical elements.

1) Character Development

  • Include the hero, heroine, and 2-3 minor characters. If you must talk about any more characters than this, the best advice is to call them by their role (waitress, mother, grandfather).
  • Include elements of the internal and external conflicts for the hero.
  • Draw in emotion and depth.

2) Plot Development

  • Focus solely on the main conflict of the story.
  • Follow the plot arc by beginning the synopsis with a ‘bang.’ Make it exciting even though it’s short!
  • Share the two biggest turning points in the story.
  • End the synopsis with the final conflict, the climax, and the resolution.

3)  Author Qualities

  • Convey your author’s voice, your style, and your uniqueness in the synopsis. Only you can be you.
  • You are a WOW factor in and of yourself. Show your stuff!

4) Intermix Elements

  • Intermix the above three elements throughout the synopsis. For instance, move from a bit of the character’s external conflict to events to the internal conflict, writing all of it in your unique style and voice.

Final Comments

To help you further, my local chapter, ACFW Chicago, is sponsoring a Synopsis Contest, Synopalooza! You’ll have your synopsis judged by small and large press editors and literary agents. The top prize wins a first five-chapter critique and $50! Click on Synopalooza to find out more.

Most of all, don’t fear the synopsis. Don’t let it master you. Instead, master it. Write it so you’ll get the attention from editors and agents that your manuscript deserves.

God bless you, and may all of your writing dreams come true!

Lara Helmling is an acquisitions editor with Morgan James Publishing and an author of stories for caregivers of the elderly. She is the president of the ACFW Chicago Chapter where she serves a fabulous community of authors. Lara and her husband Stephen live in northern Illinois with three ridiculously spoiled dogs and one rotten kitty. She has free synopsis resources for you at




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