Common Book Description and Synopsis Issues

Author K. S. Brooks
Author K. S. Brooks

Honestly? I’m not in the mood to write this post. Or any post. I’m feeling quite curmudgeonly at the moment. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s because I am, in fact, a curmudgeon. So, I’m not going to write it. I’m going to re-run my post on Common Synopsis Issues. Why? Because recently I’ve seen some things which confuse me.

On a daily basis I review dozens of author queries. Some of them bombard me with information, which comes understandably with eagerness. (Note: please don’t make me work too hard to find what it is I need so we can feature your book.) But what I find perplexing is the authors whose book descriptions on retail sites are confusing, lacking, or non-existent. Sometimes authors put information about themselves where their book description should be. Sometimes there’s a list of questions in place of a description. I believe the author is trying to tantalize the potential customer with those questions. I’m not so sure it works. I know it doesn’t work on me.

In a future post, I’ll be writing about what makes a good book description. Until then, I would like you to consider two things: #1 – the list below and #2 – Author Lynne Cantwell’s excellent post about news stories. News stories? Yes, news stories. Because the logic behind a good news article is the same as the foundation for a good book description: who, what, when, where, how and why.

Until next time…

When soliciting agents or publishers (or writing your book description for retail sites), the synopsis is one of your most important tools. It’s a direct reflection of you, your writing skills, and therefore, your manuscript. Yes, synopses are not easy to write – “if I could have written it in one page, I wouldn’t have written 300…” Just the same, if someone doesn’t want to read 300 – you have but one page in which to inspire them. Sure, I understand, but think of your synopsis as your book’s resume. If the resume stinks, your book won’t get the job.

Here are some of the most common Dos and Don’ts I’ve noticed when it comes to synopses, not in any particular order:

#1 – Being mysterious or cryptic does not draw in the reader, it makes them work harder to try and figure out what’s going on. Never make extra work for an agent or publisher!

#2 – Just because it’s a synopsis doesn’t mean the rules of formatting go out the window. If it’s a paragraph, indent.

#3 – Agents and publishers and readers want to know “who, what, when, where and why.” If your synopsis doesn’t get that across, you have a problem, especially if you’re taking readers to another planet, dimension, or era.

#4 – If it doesn’t impact the story, leave it out. Don’t be wordy and don’t clutter the synopsis with unnecessary details.

#5 – Don’t confuse the reader. I’ve noticed many synopses go in circles, completely disorganized and constantly introducing new characters and details that should have been used to lay things out earlier. See #4.

#6 – Sometimes there’s not enough information. “Joey is under a heinous curse.” Really? What makes it heinous? What is it? Who did it to Joey…and why? Here’s another – “this comic suspense novel” – yet nowhere in the synopsis does it sound remotely humorous. What makes it funny?

#7 – Important characters should be introduced early on. See #3 and #5.

#8 – The “Lost in Space” rule: if you’re writing Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Paranormal, and you make something up, let’s call it Pishkinata, and you constantly mention it in the synopsis – then explain what it is. If it turns out that Pishkinata is a planet filled with cute fluffy white dogs and the main character lives there – well then, we want to know that.

#9 – Ask yourself – does your synopsis make someone want to read the book? Give the synopsis to someone who has NOT read the book and ask them to honestly tell you what the book is about and if they’d be interested in reading it after seeing the synopsis. If they say yes, then ask why. You might be surprised by the answer.

#10 – Ask yourself – does your synopsis accurately reflect your story? Give the synopsis to someone who has read the manuscript and ask them to honestly tell if they think it follows the storyline.

#11 – Tenses: I’ve noticed a lot of people tend to shift back and forth between past and present tense on their synopses. I understand it can be confusing, writing your manuscript in past tense and your synopsis in present tense – but you need to be consistent.

Remember, whoever is reading your synopsis wants to know who the main characters are, what their motivation is, and what the major points of conflict are. If you have an outline for your project, take the key, pivotal points and use those in your synopsis.

Many agents and publishers will have guidelines on their web sites detailing how they want the synopsis – how many pages, etc. Make sure you do as they ask. If you don’t, you’re basically illustrating that you can’t follow instructions and that you’re going to be difficult to deal with. See Item #1. And good luck!

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K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist and photographer, author of nine books, and Co-Administrator of Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her web site: 

A version of this article originally appeared on K. S. Brooks’ Write, Write, Write blog on July 27, 2011.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

45 thoughts on “Common Book Description and Synopsis Issues”

  1. As always, grateful for your straight-up honesty, K.S. I like curmudgeons. Because they're straight-up!

    Thanks too, for adding a nonfiction category to the I.U. bookstore.

      1. OMG, grateful to know this. Thought I'd have to jump through a few flaming hoops! Ready (I think) to write a post on nonfiction writing. Is there such a thing? The answer is up to each individual, but my answer is YES!

        Did Joan of Arc die at the stake on May 30, 1429? YES! Truth is stranger than fiction, and IMHO, far more interesting. Apologies for the caps.

          1. I just made a huge, nearly unforgivable mistake. 1429 was Joan's year of great victories! She died in 1431. I repress and suppress that most horrible year, 1431. No excuses. My fault,je suis désolé.

  2. Way to go, Kat. The synopsis is the hardest thing here is to write. I used to get my students to practice by writing them for fairy tales and remind them to get the problem in right away. Every book has a problem that the main character has to solve, right?

    i.e. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, but she has nothing to wear….

  3. I guess this means I'll have to re-consider my current book description: "6×9, paperback, distinctive artwork on front, words on every page."

        1. Hey wait, how'd my comment get mixed up with Mr. Hise's comment? I'm not sure but now I'll try to say something interesting and relevant so he knows I read it.

          Um, Stephen? Yes. That is all. 😉

    1. Ah, the old "lure them with bland facts" psychology. Hise, you've done it again! The blurb doctor is in. Don't worry, this will hurt me more than it will hurt you.

    1. You're welcome! I don't know why I have a knack for writing those back cover blurbs. And I don't know how people find out, since my name never gets attached to them. So strange!

  4. I always get myself tied up in knots when I do a synopsis and end up regurgitating the entire story. I have the same problem when people ask me what my novels are about.

    I shall copy out your valuable list and use it.

    I was guilty of trying to coax people in by 'hinting' at what might happen when I finished my first novel but I have improved greatly since then. There is always further room for improvement though

    Thanks Kat.

    1. Well, Carol, you've just released your second book, and I've got nine under my belt – so I've got a bit more experience with it! Just remember short, sweet, and to the point, and you'll do great!

  5. Much good advice. As it happens I re-wrote my synopsis for Dance of the Goblins this morning as I've been unhappy with it for some time. I believe it was violating 'too cryptic'. I started explaining it to a new group in Goodreads and the explanation sounded like a much better synopsis, so I'm giving it a run to see if it affects sales.

    1. I think a bad book description can kill sales for a good book. I must have rewritten my book cover jacket blurb for Lust for Danger 100 times. I'm not kidding. 🙂

  6. Some excellent points, Kat. I always think I have written the clearest, most succinct synopsis I can; until I rewrite it. I find I can rewrite it and improve upon it almost every time I try to.

  7. Thanks for this, Kate. Very apposite – I am about to publish my first ebook, so have to write my own publicity, instead of relying on publisher. x

    1. Carol, I've seen some book descriptions by publishers which leave a lot to be desired as well. It's always best to have a book description ready either way. 🙂

  8. Kat, I like Indies Unlimited because your site does try to help independent authors. This post hits home. How do I know? When you look down and see the arrow sticking in the 'bullseye' T-shirt…you just seem to get the point.

    I took your suggestion and changed my book description, which I will soon post on Amazon.

    Once again, I thank you for your assistance. Hopefully it will result in more sales.

    Best regards,


    1. Dick, you're such a good guy. Thanks for all your support. I look forward to reading your new description. Please let me know when it's live.

      1. I'm really impressed with Amazon KDP – I made the change earlier today and it's live already.

        Please let me know what you think, and thanks again.

        Best regards,


      1. That means we would have to read them first. Hmmm. Unless you think we can spot a good grabber without that, which is what a prospective reader would do. Interesting idea.

        1. Yvonne, sometimes it's better if you've read the book (depending on the style/subject), but I do them all the time for authors without having read them. The first line has got to be the hook, and it's easy enough to eliminate extraneous information. It can involve a lot of back and forth – questions like "what's the main character's motivation?", "who is so-and-so" etc – which all translates down to the who, what, when, where, why and how. Sometimes it's better if the critiquer has NOT read the book because then they can say what it is about the blurb that does or more importantly does NOT pique their interest.

          1. Thanks Kat. That's pretty much where my thinking was headed. I do think it is an interesting idea for us. We could all hone our skills while helping each other. It's a win-win – provided we keep our egos out of it.

          2. I was thinking the opposite, read blurbs for books you haven't read and see if they make you want to read it. Reading the book would take away that objectivity. Ideally do them anonymously.

    1. R.J., curmudgeon is one of my favorite words. It was one of the featured words in an English S.A.T. Prep course I taught many years ago. Been using it ever since. I'm glad the post was helpful!

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