New Girl on the Book(s)

An Internship Experience in a Literary Agency

The Synopsis: What It’s All About

It’s been a busy month reading through queries and manuscripts, writing reader reports and pitch letters, updating logs, and so much more. I realized today that the internship passed the halfway mark a few weeks ago, which is hard to believe. I have learned so much about the publishing industry so far, and I imagine I’m going to learn even more the last four weeks.

This is a day in my life at the office! Here I am checking out the subsidiary rights for a publication.

This is a day in my life at the office! Here I am checking out the subsidiary rights for a publication.

My favorite job responsibility so far has been reading manuscripts and writing reader reports (which is lucky, because that makes up the biggest part of my tasks). There are many reasons I love this the most, but there’s one specific moment that places it at the top of my list. Reading through so many manuscripts both good and bad, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you (or Paige in this case) wants in a project.

Different agents search for different qualities in a book that they consider important, but sometimes there’s one submission that simply stands out above the rest. Whether it’s the writing, the characters, or the plot, some manuscripts just feel special and you fall in love with them. And those books–the books that you become excited about even in this earliest form–are the ones that make all the work worthwhile. These moments that I have been lucky to experience one or two times this summer, are the reason I want to go into book publishing in the first place.

The majority of the time though, manuscripts don’t stand out this much. Making the decision whether to say yes or no to a manuscript can sometimes be tricky, just like with query letters I talked about in a previous post. I have found that when I’m having trouble deciding on whether I should recommend that Paige pursue a book or not, I often go back to the synopsis for help.

After the initial query letter, an author will send the agent his or her biography, the novel synopsis, and the first three chapters of the book (this does vary depending on the agent). Understandably, you would think that it would be the first three chapters that make or break the decision. Often, the first three chapters will be the most polished and developed part of the novel in the beginning, because it’s what the agent sees first. But, you have to remember that it is only three of many chapters in the book. So, it’s in the synopsis that you’re going to get the big picture.

The Breakdown of the Synopsis: The Five W’s

These are the basic components of what a synopsis should include:

  • Who: 

    The important characters, such as the protagonist and antagonist. An agent looks for the names of the main characters, the ones he or she will get attached to or despise. It will get confusing if an author includes names of supporting characters without background of follow-up information. So, only if a character is important for the plot progression should they be included in the synopsis.

  • What: 

    The conflict. Of course, without a plot the book doesn’t exist. For an agent, they want to see a main story line that is new and unique. If the plot seems predictable without any unexpected twists or turns, then it’s just another rendition of a reused story line. Basically, what an agent is looking for is the main plot, not all of the secondary story lines.

  • When: 

    The basic plot time frame. With this an agent can determine if the plot is linear and progresses forward at a good pace.

  • Where: 

    The setting. You simply can’t have a story without a setting. World-building is a huge feature that a lot of agents consider one of the most important aspects. If an agent can’t picture the setting of the book, then it’s going to be hard to imagine readers will be able to either.

  • Why (How): 

    The motivation/reason. The story will not make sense if a reason for both the internal and external conflict is not apparent. There’s a rhyme and reason for every action whether it’s the character’s emotional and spiritual journey or the physical quest. Either way, the cause and effect needs to be clear.


When it comes down to it, a manuscript may be well-written and have great characters, a strong narrative voice, and a great beginning. But, an author may very well end up losing sight of the plot direction or development. As Jane Friedman says in her article (linked below),

“A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.”

All in all, the synopsis is truly “what it’s all about.”


Additional Resources:

My post barely touched the surface of the synopsis. Here are some handy links written by real pros in the business, some of which I used to supplement what all I’ve learned about the synopsis:

And here is a resource from Paige on CMA’s website to help polish up the first three chapters for submission:

1 Comment

  1. Suzanne Raitt

    July 28, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Hannah, another very interesting post with lots of informative details. I love the photo of you in your office! Do you think it’s hard to write a good synopsis? I know I often find that students have great difficulty writing proposals for a research paper – or abstracts once the paper is written. Can a great novel ever have a bad synopsis? Very exciting that you have had such positive experiences with a few of your manuscripts.

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