Agent Questions Volume Twenty-Four: Writing Summaries and Synopses (Twitter series #4)

Twitter question: Is it normal to be able to write a WIP happily for hours but to get major league writer’s block when trying to write a summary/synopsis?

Absolutely. Many of us struggle with this one. Authors think that they are moving from the creative task of writing a fictional work into a strange uninhabited territory of summarizing, where they are sure to fail. It’s scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.

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First, let me tell you that you need to be just as creative to write a summary or a synopsis as you do to write the book.

We need to know the difference between a summary and a synopsis. A summary is “a comprehensive and usually brief abstract, recapitulation, or compendium of previously stated facts or statements.” In the author’s case, they are usually talking about the summary that goes into a query letter which is very different from a synopsis. The definition for synopsis is “a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject or a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole.” For the author, the summary and the synopsis that go with a query are very different.

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Let me break it down for you. The summary that goes into your query is a snippet about your story that will hook others into wanting to read the whole story. It must be captivating- here is where you use your creativity. You want to write your summary in a way that will make a stranger want to read the book. Agents are people and they are strangers to you, they have no bias, they are looking for a great book. So, tell us in your summary who the protagonist is, and who the antagonist is. When introducing characters in your query, try to limit yourself to three main characters if you can. Put their names in all caps the first time their name is used.

Now you need to tell us what the main character’s problem is. Are they lonely and shy? A trouble-maker with strict parents? A magic wielder in a magic-intolerant society? After that is identified, give us the “stakes.” That means, tell us what will happen if the MC does NOT succeed in their plan. Will all magic wielders be imprisoned? Will an apocalypse kill the planet? Will the evil wizard become all powerful? Make us care.

Leave it there, at the hook. Make that agent think, “That sounds awesome!”

An example could be: MARY learns upon her 16th birthday that she has magical powers. Not only does she have to hide them from the world, but from her family. Mary’s step-sister, RUTH, wants nothing more than to make Mary’s life miserable because she blames Mary and her mother for breaking up her happy family. When soldiers from another world capture Mary and take her back to their kingdom, Ruth is the only witness. Mary is charged with using forbidden magic and sentenced to imprisonment until her hearing. Ruth can now have everything she wanted in life… except a sister. If Mary isn’t rescued soon, she will be sentenced to die. Her fate now lies in Ruth’s hands.

Edited 7/19 It would read better to say this:

Mary hides her magic…from everyone. Ruth hates Mary and her mother for breaking up her once happy family. When Ruth is the only witness to her step-sister’s abduction by soldiers from another world, she is ecstatic. Mary is charged and sentenced to execution, but a friend delivers a plea for help to Ruth, who can now have everything she always wanted…except a sister.

That’s probably too many words still, but I’ll be back…

Okay, I made that whole scenario up, so it needs some work. But hopefully you noticed I introduced two main characters and their relation to each other. The problem, and the stakes. That’s all you want in your query.

None of the subplots matter in the query. We don’t need to know that they are battling themselves. Actually, we EXPECT that at some point in the story, the protagonist is going to make a change, and will most likely have to battle herself in order to truly change. Tell us about the outside battle. In this case, it’s about Mary being kidnapped and imprisoned. If there is no external conflict, you might evaluate your work to see if you are missing any opportunities in your work where a conflict could be.

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The synopsis for a query is entirely different. In the synopsis, you are going to record each scene in the book, INCLUDING the ending. This is where the agent sees the whole story. They want to see rising action that increases the tension up to a climax and resolution. They want to see a brief explanation of the entire story. If you are a “planner” you are one step ahead here. Take the outline you used to write your story and put it into sentences.

I have been asked for a five-page synopsis in a query before, and I have been asked for a one-page synopsis, but for a query you will generally need a two-page synopsis. If you don’t have an outline here’s what I suggest:

Sit down with paper and pen. Do not open the book. You will see little details that you think are important that are not. Think about your story and write down each scene.

For example:

scene one: The main characters ride away from a battle and are chased down the mountain.

scene two: They camp and make a plan.

scene three: They are attacked by a bear in the night.

scene four: They ride out in the morning and one falls off the cliff face. They try to heal her, but they don’t have enough power. She dies.

scene five: Next day they find the amulet, but it was a trap. They barely escape.

scene six: …etc. etc.

I call this my “sceneology.” Once you have each scene down, turn them into sentences.

Like this: Fale, Keron, and Izzy ride away from the last battle and are chased down the mountain. They set-up camp and make a plan, but that night they are attacked by a bear who eats much of their food. The next day while riding, Fale’s horse falls off a narrow cliff and though they try to heal her, their power combined is not enough and she dies.

The next day they find the amulet they were told about, but it was a trap set by the wizard, and they barely escape….

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You may get all your scenes out and have a seven page synopsis. That’s okay. Trim it down and make it five pages, then save it as your five-page synopsis. Whittle that down to two pages and save, that’s your query synopsis. Now, work that down to one page and save it as your one-page synopsis. This way, whatever you are asked for, you already have it ready to send.

Note: Use your creativity here. In the summary, while hooking your agent, you need to try to include the “feel” of the book. Is it scary? Make your summary full of questions and intrigue. (i.e. Jane had always wanted to know her father, but now she wished she’d never been in his basement full of torture devices.) **Do not just write a query full of questions to an agent like, “What would happen if you had two weeks to live and someone put you in Alaska? Would you spend your last days solving a crime?” Don’t ask open-ended questions to agents. Write things in a way that makes the agent wonder, what happens next? Does she get away? Does Ruth change her mind?

If your book is funny, make the agent laugh. Your query should convey the atmosphere of the work well enough for the agent to know what to expect when they read your sample. Get them excited.

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I said this in another article, but don’t give your query to your non-writing relatives and friends for critique. They won’t understand the point of what you’re writing and might give you the wrong suggestions, or just say how great it is. Instead, come up with a few summaries that are only a paragraph or two in length, then show those to your trusted ones and ask, “Which of these makes you want to read this book the most?” Then plug that one into your query.

If your query hook works, and your sample is good, you should get requests for more. If not, work on those two things. If you are sending out full manuscripts to agents who are interested by your query, and then getting declined, there is probably some issue with your manuscript itself.

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If you would like help on your query, or you’d like to see if a stranger like me finds it interesting, or to see if I have any tips for you, send your query to: with “Query help” in the subject line. I go through them in the order they are received and will get back to you as soon as possible.

I’m happy to help.


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