How to write the perfect synopsis by Tilly Bagshawe

Posted 2 November 2017

In my experience as a writer, a synopsis has two purposes. Its first, official purpose is to summarize the plot of the novel you are about to write. Its second, far more important purpose is to show whoever might read it that you can, in fact, write – and to get them hooked on your story, your characters or both.

The key word here is ‘show.’ Rule one for a good synopsis: Show, don’t tell. So if you are planning to write a funny book, then your synopsis needs to be funny. It is no good telling an editor or an agent “I am going to write a funny book.” The synopsis is your chance to prove that you can actually pull that off. Because let’s face it, if you can’t be funny in your synopsis, you are unlikely to be able to sustain a side-splitting novel for a hundred thousand words. Similarly, a terrifying thriller needs a terrifying synopsis, a poignant romance needs a tear-jerking synopsis, and so forth. (And yes, I do realize this is deeply obvious advice, but you would be amazed how many aspiring writers don’t follow it.)

The second rule of a good synopsis is: Keep it brief. The ‘One in Four’ new writer competition is asking writers to submit a 500 word synopsis. You are giving a would-be agent or editor a tiny, tantalizing taste of your writing, characters and story – enough to make them want more, enough to have them coming back to you with questions.  Never give anyone everything they want at the very beginning! (That’s a life rule, but it works for synopses too.) On a more mundane level, a ten thousand word synopsis will go straight in the bin. It doesn’t matter how good it is if it isn’t read. Nobody has time.

My third rule for a good synopsis (and not every writer shares this one) is: Character first.  Don’t start with a plot. Start with a really compelling, interesting, unusual character and then imagine what that character might do, in a given set of circumstances. If I think back to the books I have most enjoyed reading, whether they were commercial fiction or classics, it is the characters that I remember, long after the intricacies of the plot are forgotten. Yes, a synopsis needs to summarize your plot. But far more importantly, it is your first chance to make potential readers fall in love with your character. Where you can, try to let your main character speak for themselves, let them come to life on that page. They can be evil, or hilarious, or brittle and broken, it doesn’t matter.  Their only job in the synopsis is to captivate and perhaps slightly perplex the reader. “Who is this person? I want to know more about this person. I wonder what they do next?” These are the questions you want editors, and readers, to be asking themselves.

Personally I love writing synopses. It’s the good part, the part where your ideas are fresh and perfect and nothing has yet gone wrong. (When you write novels, things always go wrong.) Be yourselves, and have fun with it. Good luck!

The competition has now closed. We are unable to accept any further submissions. Thank you for taking part.

18 comments on “How to write the perfect synopsis by Tilly Bagshawe

  1. I have a single mum character who is facinating in the wrong ways. She is a funny, crazy-ridiculous, survivor, totally non-PC. Not everyone’s choice of a mum but captivating to read about. Am I nuts to submit this novel?

    1. Hi Tania, sounds like an entertaining character. This amazing opportunity will be awarded to a writer with the most original and exciting proposal for a contemporary novel – so as long as your story and characters are engaging then that’s great! Do check out our recent Facebook Live session for more tips on how to write your proposal: Best of luck, Emma.

  2. I’m really nervous to submit my idea. I’ve completed it, but worried it sounds too sad or irrelevant as the first 5,000 (first chapter) is the start of the character building as oppose to the unfolding of the story and the positive messages of being a single mother which will come much later. Do you think I should start again with a happier beginning…?

    1. Hi Zoe, it’s great you’re taking the opportunity to take part in this competition – it really is a unique prize! I don’t think you need to be worry about the tone of your first chapter. What’s important is that your synopsis is really strong – this needs to cover the main points of the story, and include who the characters are, when it’s set, what happens to them and how is it resolved. That way, the first 5,000 words gives the judges an idea of your writing ability, and then the synopsis helps them understand where the story is going. The winner will receive support throughout the process of writing the book including mentoring by author Tilly Bagshawe, and support from Trapeze Books. In case you haven’t seen it, we filmed a Facebook Live about the competition so check this out as you might find it helpful I hope that’s helpful and good luck!

      1. Thanks Emma! It’s such a personal story that I don’t want anyone I know to read it so will leave it to the competition to judge if it is book worthy or not! Thanks again for your advise.

        1. Hello again Emma,
          I’m sorry I have another query. Still worried about the tone/ relevance of my first submission, am I able to submit 2 ideas for different stories?

          1. Hi Zoe, I’m afraid we’re only able to accept one submission from each writer. I would choose your strongest story – the one you’re most confident will engage readers. It’s not a problem if your idea isn’t fully clear yet as the winner will receive support – but I would recommend submitting the story with the strongest synopsis (based on the advice we’ve given). Best of luck!

  3. I’m almost ready to send my application, but my first chapter is only 3700 words, but I believe is the right place to break it.
    Would this affect me? Not sending 5000 words.

    1. Hi, it’s great to hear that you’re taking part in the competition. I don’t think it’s a problem that you’re not reaching the word count as long as we can get a good sense of your writing ability, and what you have written is engaging. What’s important is that your synopsis is really strong – this needs to cover the main points of the story, and include who the characters are, when it’s set, what happens to them and how is it resolved. Please check out blog on writing tips, and the Facebook Live to give you support in putting this together. Best of luck.

  4. Hi – I really want to enter this competition and have written just under 3,200 words, however I am also studying for my Masters and I am worried I will struggle to satisfy the 5000 words – I know you mention above that not reaching the word count shouldn’t be a problem – should I still submit as it is? Also, my story is semi-autobiographical and details the issues faced with being a single parent and a depressive – is this ok?

    Many thanks for your help with the above,


    1. Hi Sarah, I would still recommend that you submit your entry. As mentioned below, your entry will still demonstrate your writing ability. What’s important is that your synopsis is really strong – this needs to cover the main points of the story, and include who the characters are, when it’s set, what happens to them and how is it resolved. Please check out blog on writing tips, and the Facebook Live to give you support in putting this together.

      It’s fine if your story is inspired by true events – if you were to be selected, Trapeze Books would support you to take what you’ve written and develop it into a fictional story – as this is the criteria of the competition. For now, do check out the tips and advice we have provided and submit your entry by 23:59 GMT Monday 4 December. You may also want to read Emily Morris’s blog about writing Best of luck.

      1. Thank you so much Emma – I have read all the information and tips. I will be submitting it but hope to add a bit more before the deadline but if not, I will submit what I have so far.

        Many thanks for your help,


  5. Hi,

    I’m working on an entry and would like to know whether or not any of the entries will get feedback if they are not accepted?



    1. Hi Nicole, we will be shortlisting 6-8 entries – these writers will receive feedback and a mentoring session as part of the process. However, we are unable to offer feedback to all other entries. Best wishes, Emma.

  6. Hello,
    I’m just doing my latest proof read, and I suddenly remembered about checking for submission preferences. I have searched for information, but I could find no mention of submission preferences, so I guess there is no specific format or file requirements. So would Word files with a 12pt font be okay, or do they all need to be a single file? Or should the entire contents be put into the body of an email? Please could someone confirm if this is the case?

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your message. Apologies if this has stressed you out! There aren’t any specific requirements for the submission. But it would be preferred if you can send it as a Word document. It just needs to be clearly show which part is your synopsis, the 5,000 words and your bio – a title for each should be sufficient. Well done for finishing your work and best of luck!

      1. Hello,

        Thank you for the clarification, much appreciated. I’ll put my paranoia back in a jar on a mental-shelf 😉


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