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Synopsis

Do you want the short story or the long story? If you want the long story, you read the book. If you want the short story, read the synopsis… or watch the movie. In the world of English composition and language, you will be sticking to the synopsis, and most of the time, you will be the one writing it. Writing a synopsis is not as simple as summarizing whatever you can remember about a story. In fact, it is as much about what not to include as what to include.

Definition of Synopsis

A synopsis helps a reader to understand a piece of writing without needing to read its entirety.

A synopsis is a piece of writing condensed to its essential features.

In an English class, most synopses you write will be of books, whether those books are fiction or nonfiction.

A book synopsis condenses a book into its main plot, characters, and themes.

Learning how to synopsize a book is a skill that translates to many fields of critical analysis. A synopsis is useful for everything from essay-writing to standardized test taking.

At its most fundamental level, writing a good synopsis is predicated upon your ability to pick out what is most important about a text. In other words, your critical reading skills form the basis for your ability to synopsize.

Synopsis Synonyms

You might hear a synopsis called a summary. However, a synopsis is usually longer and more formal than a summary. A summary is seldom longer than a page and is often a single paragraph. You can think of it this way. You use a summary to outline or sketch the plot of a story, while you use a synopsis to follow the plot turning point by turning point.

A synopsis is not the same as an outline, a description, a log line, a blurb, or a teaser. These are all ways to recap a story, but in shorter form. A description may only be a single sentence.

Synopsis Structure

When writing a synopsis, first consider its length and spacing. If it is an assignment, you will likely be told how long your synopsis should be. However, if you have free range to pick the length of your synopsis, here's the basic outline. Write a 2-3 page synopsis single-spaced for a novel-length book. If the book stretches over 400 pages, consider 3-4 pages single-spaced.

Once you have your length determined, it is time to start writing. Unlike an essay, which is highly structured, a synopsis more or less mirrors the structure of the book you are synopsizing.

  1. Begin with the setup. You want to synopsize the setting, the main characters, and how the main story gets underway.

  2. Follow up with the key action moments. When something changes the main character or their situation in a big way, you need to explain that. To identify these moments, consider what the reader needs to know in order for the next plot to make sense.

  3. End with the climax and conclusion. The climax is usually some kind of action or confrontation that resolves the main story. The conclusion should contain a "where are they now" section, where you discuss the aftermath for the main characters.

Tips to Write a Great Synopsis

To create a great synopsis, you need to know more than the story you are synopsizing. You need to know how to shrink that story for the reader.

What to Avoid in a Synopsis

Here is what you should avoid when writing your synopsis.

Avoid Bias

In the book you are synopsizing, you might not like a character, scene, or where you think the author is coming from (or perhaps the entire book). However, a synopsis is not the place for your opinion. A synopsis should be objective.

As you might recall, a synopsis is a piece of writing condensed to its essential features. You will notice that this definition places the focus entirely on that which is synopsized. There is no mention of commentary.

Avoid a Thesis and Drawing Conclusions

Similarly, don't turn your synopsis into an essay. It might be a part of your essay, but it should not be an essay. A synopsis should not draw controversial or debatable conclusions about the source material. It should not present a testable hypothesis.

If something is unclear in the source, describe it as "unclear" rather than trying to interpret it. The goal of your synopsis is to give a reader the experience of reading the book, not the experience of you reading the book.

Synopsis reading example StudySmarterFig. 1 - Capture the experience for your reader.

Avoid small details

A synopsis is not the place for tangents, descriptions, dropped plots, and loose threads. Do not sweat the details in a synopsis, and don't get lost down rabbit holes. Stick to the main story, the main characters, and the main themes.

Avoid the hook

When you start writing a synopsis, you might want to start at the same place the book does. However, a novel hook is often mysterious and not in time with the rest of the story. It might feature a "before" event or some odd symbol. Most of the time, it's better to start your synopsis with the main narrative rather than one of these hooks or showpieces. This is so your reader knows what's going on. If a reader wants to know every contour of how a writer uses rhetoric and literary devices, that's what reading the book is for!

What to Include in a Synopsis

So, where should you focus your attention in a synopsis?

Include the Exposition

While the hook is often not necessary to synopsize, the exposition of a story is. Be sure that your synopsis contains all the relevant information about the characters, the period, and the setting. Without these elements, your reader will not understand the rest of your synopsis.

When writing a synopsis, put yourself in the reader's shoes. Does your synopsis make sense to someone who knows nothing at all about this book?

Follow the Turning Points

Turning points are scenes that change the direction of the story. These turning points can be action scenes, scenes that change a character, scenes that create a mystery, scenes of resolution, and plot twists, among other things. When writing your synopsis, include all the turning points to guide your reader through the story.

Synopsis stepping stone example StudySmarterFig. 2 - Think of the turning points like a path of stepping stones.

There is a lot of water between you and the garden, so you must lay a path. However, you aren't planning on building a full bridge, so you decide to make it out of stepping stones. To do that, you lay each stone close enough to the next stone so you can step from one to the next without tripping into the water.

This is how you build a synopsis. Include enough turning points so as not to strand your audience out in the pond. Don't skip too much time because this will leave big holes your reader will have to jump. You want to match the pace of the book you are synopsizing when possible. Mimic a smooth walking pace.

To find the turning points, follow the arc of the main character! Think about how they change the world and how the world changes them. Think internally and externally.

Include the themes

Sometimes, you will have to break from the plot to explain what is happening thematically in a story. For instance, if you are reading about a woman struggling to fit in, you should bring up prejudice, acclimation to change, and whatever else the writer focuses on. This might require a small amount of interpretation, but try to be as objective as possible so as to relay what the author's true intent.

Although a synopsis is small, you want to capture the rich texture of a piece of literature if you can. You won't be able to weave the entire tapestry of a book's themes—that's what the author did, and that's what reading the book is for—but you can describe that tapestry in basic terms.

Your goal is to keep the reader engaged with the author's story, which includes its purpose, and keeping up with the story's themes is a great way to do this.

Only bring up the themes once every few paragraphs at most. Your main focus should still be the plot and character arcs!

Describe the finale

Although you will gloss over some action scenes, you will want to dedicate at least one paragraph to the end of the story. Try to engage your reader with the tone and mood of the finale. This is the one time you can try to elicit an emotional response from your reader. It will also help them feel like they have just finished the book.

Again, try to engage your audience as though you are the author. Rather than painting the ending the way you saw it, paint the ending in the way the author intended it. It is often apparent what an author wants you to feel at the end of their story, so capture that emotion for your audience.

If your text is neutral or unclear, then avoid emotional engagement in the description of the finale. Still describe the finale closely, though!

Be sure to include what happens to all the main characters. You might include a few sentences at the end of your synopsis that act as an epilogue, even if the book doesn't have one. So as not to crowd the description of the finale, this is a good solution.

Sample Book Synopsis

Here is a short synopsis of the book Tiger Woods (2018).

KULTIDA gave birth to Eldrick Tont Woods in December of 1975, after six years of marriage to EARL WOODS. From the time he was born, Tiger (as he comes to be called) is inundated with golf. His father is controlling and has Tiger work on golf with machine-like efficacy.

Tiger goes to Stanford in September 1994 and, by April 1995, is ranked number two in the country among all college golfers. Because he wins the US Amateur Championship in the summer of '94, he automatically qualifies for the Masters. At this same time, Tiger's parents push him and DINA, his girlfriend and best friend, apart. Without her, his life becomes less joyful.

Tiger claims three amateur titles in a row and, at the age of twenty, joins elite company as a Nike athlete with his own commercial, only the fifth to do so. With Nike, he signs the biggest sponsorship deal of any golfer many times over. Tiger's subsequent run of greatness needs no explanation. He wins the '97 Masters and a total of 14 major championships through 2008.

However, due largely to his father, his success has been built without real friends or relationships. It catches up to him. Tiger marries a beautiful, caring woman, ELIN, whom he cheats on regularly. Tiger is sex-addicted and gets in bed with everyone, from high-priced escorts to a pretty waitress at a pancake house. Eventually fed up, Elin chases Tiger out of the house, where an intoxicated Tiger crashes his car in a neighbor's yard. However, this world-shattering sports story is not the beginning of his decline as many people saw it. It was the end.


This is a highly shortened synopsis. Tiger Woods (2018) is over 500 pages long, but this nevertheless captures the essential parts of the biography. It describes Tiger's youth, success, and decline ending in a sensational tabloid car crash. This synopsis captures the book's main point: that his troubles began young and not with the drunken crash. This synopsis keeps the reader up to speed with the biography's theme of control.

When writing your synopsis, expand upon this model. In an extended synopsis of Tiger Woods, you would include more about what Tiger had to do as a kid, more about his relationship with Dina, more about what happened to his father and mother, and more about his wife and addictions. It would capture the ups and downs of his successes.

Synopsis - Key Takeaways

  • A synopsis is a piece of writing condensed to its essential features.
  • A book synopsis condenses a book into its main plot, characters, and themes.
  • You should write a 2-3 page synopsis single-spaced for a novel-length book.
  • In a book synopsis, avoid small details, bias, and drawing your own conclusions.
  • A book synopsis includes exposition, turning points in the narrative, the finale, and the main themes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Synopsis

A synopsis is a piece of writing condensed to its essential features.

To write a synopsis, avoid bias or drawing any conclusions about the book, and don't sweat small details. Instead, include the exposition of the book, the book's turning points, and the book's finale.

A book synopsis condenses a book to its essential features.

For a novel-length book, a synopsis should be 2-3 single-spaced pages.

In high school, a synopsis will likely be double-spaced, like most writing. Check with your teachers. Beyond the high school level, there is no agreed upon standard.

Final Synopsis Quiz

Question

What is a synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

A synopsis is a piece of writing condensed to its essential features.

Show question

Question

A book synopsis will condense a book into _____.

Show answer

Answer

Its main plot, characters, and themes

Show question

Question

How long should a synopsis be for a novel-length book, double-spaced?

Show answer

Answer

4-6 pages

Show question

Question

Unlike an essay, which is highly structured, a synopsis more or less mirrors _____.


Show answer

Answer

The structure of the book you are synopsizing.

Show question

Question

If you don't like a scene in a book, how should you synopsize it?

Show answer

Answer

Without bias

Show question

Question

What do you do if the book you synopsize is biased?

Show answer

Answer

Include the bias

Show question

Question

Where should you include your commentary in a book synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

You should not include it.

Show question

Question

If you have a strong thesis regarding the book, include that thesis in the beginning of your synopsis.

True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. 

Show question

Question

The goal of your synopsis is to give a reader the experience of reading the book, not the experience of _____.


Show answer

Answer

You reading the book.

Show question

Question

If there is a funny detail in a book, should you include it in a synopsis? Why or why not?

Show answer

Answer

No, because you should only include major details.

Show question

Question

What is a "turning point" in a novel?

Show answer

Answer

Turning points are scenes that change the direction of the story.

Show question

Question

You should not write about the story's theme in every paragraph of your synopsis.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Why should you synopsize the story's main themes?

Show answer

Answer

Your goal is to keep the reader engaged with the author’s story, which includes its purpose, and keeping up with the themes of the story is a great way to do this.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between a synopsis and a summary?

Show answer

Answer

A summary is almost never longer than a page, and is often a single paragraph. You can think of it this way. A summary is intended to outline or sketch the plot of a story, while a synopsis is intended to follow the plot point by point.

Show question

Question

Which of these is a synonym for synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

None of these are synonyms for synopsis

Show question

Question

What is the difference between a synopsis and an outline or description?

Show answer

Answer

An outline and/ or description are a shorter way to recap a story.

Show question

Question

Put the following details in the correct order to write a synopsis:


A. Climax and conclusion.

B. Key action moments.

C. Synopsize the setting, main characters, and how the main story gets underway.

Show answer

Answer

C, B, A.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not something to avoid when writing a synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

Avoid major plot twists. 

Show question

Question

Why should you not write a thesis for a synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

Because a synopsis is not an essay. 

Show question

Question

A synopsis is the right place for a tangent about the text.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Why should you avoid the hook in a synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

It's better to start a synopsis with the main plot line and details.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not something you should include in your synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

The exposition.

Show question

Question

Why should you include themes in a synopsis?

Show answer

Answer

You want to capture the rich texture of a piece of literature if you can

Show question

Question

Be sure that your synopsis contains all the ________ information about the characters, the period, and the setting. 

Show answer

Answer

Relevant.

Show question

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