9. Writing A Brief Synopsis

In this lesson you will learn that providing an outline of your book’s narrative will help the agent and publisher to make an informed choice. You will also learn that an extended synopsis is unneeded and may even put the agent or publisher off your book.

In the previous lesson you learned why it was essential to pitch a completed manuscript. In this lesson you discover the best way to summarise your book’s narrative into a single paragraph.

By this point you should already have the ammunition to complete your first two paragraphs. The first consists of a tag line and elevator pitch. The second pin points your book’s genre, lists the word count, provides competitor titles and explains the status of the book.

The third paragraph in your query letter is a brief synopsis of your book. Before I delve into the guts of this topic I want to make one point — this is a BRIEF synopsis.

As we have discussed, at the moment of reading your query letter, the agent/publisher is concerned with assessing the suitability of your book for their list. Therefore the synopsis here is to simply reassure the agent/publisher that your book is of the correct genre and is something they will be comfortable selling to publishers. In addition to the query letter, your book proposal will also be including a more extended synopsis. This will probably be a couple of pages in length and provide a detailed outline of your book. Therefore, there is no need for your brief synopsis to be longer than a single, short, paragraph.

We have already talked about using the Five Key Elements, and we are going to return to this concept in order to write an effective synopsis of your book. As a reminder, the Five Key Elements come from these five questions:

  • 1. Who’s the main character?
  • 2. What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action?
  • 3. What is the main character’s aim?
  • 4. What is stopping the character from achieving their goal?
  • 5. What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost forever?

Let’s look at these in a little more depth and examine how they relate to your synopsis.

Who’s the main character? This may seem a simple question, but its aim is to clarify who the story is about. Good stories are about people, not events, and knowing which character your story is about is essential. Another name for the main character is the protagonist. Looking at some examples, you will see more clearly what I mean.

Who is the protagonist in the Harry Potter series? Well, Harry. What about Lord of the Rings? In this case it’s Frodo. In Lord of the Rings you have many characters and many events, but the protagonist is Frodo. He is the main character that drives the narrative forward.

What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action? All traditionally structured stories will have an event, early on in the narrative, which forces the protagonist to react. This is an event which leaves the protagonist no option but to act. They may choose not to act, but this is still an action. This is called the Inciting Incident. A clear example of this is in a cop drama. A body is found (inciting incident) leaving the protagonist policeman no choice but to react to the event. This blog post will give you more information.

What is the main character’s aim? Here we are looking at the protagonist’s resultant choice from the inciting incident. The event will have forced the protagonist to act and they now have a goal or aim that will resolve the incident. Returning to the cop drama, the discovery of a dead body will force the protagonist police officer to react. Chances are he will resolve to catch the killer. Catching the killer is now the aim of the protagonist. The aims and goals of your character may be complex, but for the sake of the synopsis you are looking to define the key aim.

What is stopping the character from achieving their goal? Having defined the protagonist, the event that spurs them into action and their goal, you can’t have the resolution occur in the opening pages of the book. For any type of story to exist there needs to be forces beyond the control of the protagonist, which conspire to stop them achieving their goal. This is conflict. It may be that the protagonist is facing an internal struggle that is stopping them from reaching their goal. It may also be that people close to the protagonist stand in their way or it may be that society as a whole is providing the conflict. It may also be the case that all three types of conflict exist. In our cop drama it is the serial killer running and hiding that is causing the conflict. Yet in Lord of the Rings, as Frodo seeks to destroy the ring, larger powers conspire to stop his progress. Yet, he also faces personal conflict as he fights an internal psychological struggle with the ring. This blog post will give you more information.

What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost forever? This is the climax of your story, the point at which the protagonist resolves the inciting incident. This can be as simple as catching the serial killer or throwing the ring into Mount Doom. However, it may be less obvious and more subtle as the protagonist overcomes an internal battle. However, whatever your climax it is essential that you identify this important moment.

By answering these five questions you have the basis for a synopsis.


As an example I have returned to The Three Little Pigs. However, I have refined the answers in light of our new understanding of the questions.

  • 1. Who’s the main character? It was, ‘The Three Little Pigs’. However, the protagonist of the story is actually the Third Little Pig. The story is about him, not his brothers.
  • 2. What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action? Was, ‘Left home and need to make their own way in the world’. This now becomes, ‘Big Bad Wolf attacks’.
  • 3. What is the main character’s aim? This was to, ‘Build three new houses’. It now becomes, ‘To survive the attack of The Big Bad Wolf’.
  • 4. What is stopping the character from achieving their goal? Was, ‘Big Bad Wolf will huff and puff and kill the pigs’. We can now think of this in terms of conflict, so this now becomes, ‘Big Bad Wolf is strong and able to destroy houses made from straw and sticks’.
  • 5. What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost forever? ‘Two pigs are killed and a third needs to escape’, becomes ‘Big Bad Wolf attacks the house made of bricks’.

Using the answers to the questions I then combined the five key elements to get the following one paragraph synopsis of the story:

Thrown out of their homes, the Third Pig and his two identical twin brothers are forced make their way in the world. When the brothers hear of a pig eating serial killer, known as the Big Bad Wolf, they have no choice but to build houses in which they can hide from the Big Bad Wolf. The First Little Pig builds a house of straw and The Second Little Pig a house of sticks. Yet these are little protection from the Big Bad Wolf who huffs and puffs and eats the pigs. The Third Little Pig constructs his house from bricks and when the Big Bad Wolf attacks, the huffs and puffs are useless. Yet, the big Bad wolf decides to climb down the chimney and only the quick thinking of the Third Little Pig saves his life, as he places a pot of boiling water on the fire and the Big Bad Wolf comes to a steaming end.


  • The synopsis should be no longer than a single paragraph
  • Use the Five Key Elements to build your synopsis
  • Keep it brief