Distilling Your Book:Three Different Summaries You'll Have to Write

I've spent the last week slaving over my synopsis. You'd think I know my novel well enough to distill it's essence into a couple of pages. You'd think reading about how to write a synopsis would prepare me.

You'd think wrong.

Just because I wrote the novel, doesn't mean I can easily capture its substance. As the author, I'm too aware of all the details, the cool subplots, the minor characters I've fallen in love with.

And I have to leave them all out.

If it weren't for my intrepid critique group, I wouldn't have a synopsis sitting in front of me today. It took many tries (and the first one was more awful than I can express), but it's done. Having four other pairs of eyes on it was the most important part of writing it.

Working on this synopsis got me thinking about the other ways we summarize our books, whether they're fiction or non-fiction. Here's a run-down of what you can expect.

One-sentence summary. This is one of the most important summaries you'll create, and also one of the most difficult. It's often called a log-line, tag-line, hook, or elevator pitch. Writing teacher Marilynn Byerly defines it this way, "The log line is a one-sentence statement of your premise or high concept." If you'd like to see some in action, Byerly recommends this post. Aim for fourteen to twenty-five words. Your intention is to spark interest in the reader, without giving away the ending. Not an easy task.

Work on your one-sentence summary as soon as you have the idea for your book. You'll use it often. Every time someone says, "You're writing a book? What's it about?" When you go to conferences, and meet agents and editors. It might find it's way into your query letter, and will be included in your book proposal, as well.

Back-cover copy. This is exactly what it sounds like. The short paragraphs found on the back of a book that entice the reader to buy it. It introduces the main character, plot, and the story question, but leaves the reader wondering how the story will work out. Marilynn Byerly has a great article on this in How to Create a Blurb.

You'll use a form of back-cover copy in your query letter, and once your book is done, you may also use it to create a one-sheet, basically a one-page advertisement for your book. Back-cover copy is usually included in a proposal, as well.

Synopsis. The synopsis differs from the other summaries in two ways: it's much longer, and it gives away the ending. It's a stripped-down version of your story, introducing the main characters, the main plot, and the motivations and outcomes.

Authors often write two or more synopses of different lengths, as some agents, editors, and contest organizers require different word counts. Start with one synopsis, and then add or take away words to come up with at least a short and long synopsis. The one I wrote this week had a maximum word count of 1250. Some synopses are required to be 750 or less.

If you're querying agents, and they ask to see your work, many will ask for several chapters plus a synopsis. Your synopsis will also go into your proposal, and if you submit your story to a contest, it's common for them to ask for a synopsis, also.

Have you written any of these? I'd love to hear any tips you have.


  1. I'd quibble about your one sentence summary definition. The log line is a one-sentence statement of your premise or high concept, not a summary of the novel.

    I created a how to on writing blurbs, etc. which is now used by various university publishing courses and other authors. You can find it at


  2. Thank you so much for the correction, Marilynn! I've quoted your definition in the post, and incuded the link for those who want mor information. It's a great article.


  3. Thanks for the informative blog post and the informative comment! This aspect of writing is the most challenging for me. I'm a fiction writer and love the writing process until I have to do a query letter or a synopsis. Good tips all!

  4. I just found this article which has some excellent examples of the 1-line tagline.


  5. You're welcome, Elizabeth. I don't like doing the synopsis, either. It's such a different process than novel-writing. Thanks for stopping by!


  6. Thank you again, Marilynn! You are such an excellent resource. I'll put the link into the post so it's clickable.


  7. Debbie, this is a great post. You're right--summary-writing is the hardest part.

    A speaker at a writers' conference gave this formula for a log-line:hero, flaw, life-changing event, opponent, ally, and battle.

    An example, a log-line about the movie Fifty First Dates: A womanizing veterinarian falls in love with a girl with a bizarre memory condition and, with the help of the girl's father and brother, seeks to break through to her and win her love.

    hero: veterinarian
    flaw: womanizing
    life-changing event: falls in love
    opponent: girl's bizarre memory problem
    ally: girl's father and brother
    battle: find a way to connect with her in a lasting way

  8. What a great exercise, Susan. I ran my novel through it, myself. Very helpful.

    And congratulations on your book!




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