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What Is The Difference Between a Query Letter and a Synopsis?

As an agent, one of the most common questions I get from authors who are getting ready to query is “what is the difference between a query letter and a synopsis?” Though they have some marked similarities, these two tools are actually quite different and serve different purposes at different points as your book makes its way from a manuscript to a finished book.

To answer this question, first, let’s define the purpose of these two tools.

What is a query letter?
Your query letter is a one page sales pitch to let agents know what kind of project you have written. It should include the main idea and/or the hook for your project as well as some brief biographical info.

What is a query letter used for?
The purpose of a query letter is to get an agent’s attention. The idea is to get them excited about the project and about you as an author, while also supplying the basic info about the project in the most exciting way possible. This gives you the best possible chance of having an agent continue on to read your pages and synopsis. We aren’t going to go too deeply into how to write or submit a query letter here. If you want more information on queries and the querying process you can read my colleague Christa’s blog post for some helpful tips.

What is a synopsis?
Your synopsis is a 1-2 page brief overview of the general story arc and character development of your book told in a narrative manner.

What is a synopsis for?
Your synopsis is a tool you use to give agents and publishers an understanding of the complete picture of what happens in your book and to get anyone who reads it interested in reading the entire book. This can include publishing professionals at every step of the way including your agent, your editor, your publisher, as well as your sales, publicity, and marketing teams.

Clearly, there is some overlap here which is no doubt the reason many authors who are starting this process sometimes feel overwhelmed when asked to write these two sales tools.

Ok, so, now you have an idea of what these two tools are and what they are for, you might be thinking, what exactly are some of the similarities between a query and a synopsis?

  • Both are a sales tool to get people interested in reading your book.
  • Both a query letter and a synopsis should give the reader an idea of the basic book details, main character, main idea/hook, key plot points (more on how specific to be in each below), key point of conflict in the story (whether external or emotional).
  • Both must include some of the pivotal details and plot points from your book.
  • Both present an opportunity to create a sense of suspense and leave the reader wanting more and itching to reader your first page.
  • Ending either a query letter or a synopsis with a question rather than giving away the ending can be a great way to create suspense and keep readers interested.

What are the main differences between a query letter and a synopsis?

  • A synopsis does not include any personal information about the author, it is just about the story
    and the characters. So leave those personal details for the query letter.
  • Your query letter can include comp titles (titles that share qualities with your book) to give an agent an idea of similar authors. A synopsis should not include comp titles.
  • A query letter should be much shorter than a synopsis. At the most your query letter should be three short paragraphs and less than one page. Your synopsis will most likely be seven to ten paragraphs long and will be 1-2 pages in length.
  • In a query letter, you are mostly telling us “about your book” where as in a synopsis you are telling us the events in your book in a more narrative and/or summary form.
  • Your query letter should include only 1-3 major plot points or elements. In a query letter you might mention the main external events and/or the main internal conflict of the characters and give us a very brief hint at the direction in which that conflict might develop.Writing a query letter is very much like writing the back flap cover on a book. Your synopsis will go into more depth, but it still is not a blow by blow of each step of the action. Instead it might focus on up to seven to ten of the major plot points to give the reader a feel for how the story unfolds and how the relationships within the story develop.
  • A query letter includes only a quick tag to describe the main character(s) vs. a synopsis where we might get a full sentence of crucial character detail. Though this is a small difference, it’s important to remember not to get bogged down by back story in either case, you only want to share what is immediately relevant to the reader understanding the events that are about to unfold.

Now that you know some of the main similarities and differences, let’s talk a bit about the things you shouldn’t include in either one of these tools so you can make your sales tools as compelling as possible. So, what doesn’t make it into the query letter or the synopsis?

  • Back-story! Unless there is a key crucial detail, we don’t need to know about the character back-story in either the query letter or the synopsis.
  • Supporting/minor characters. We only need to know about these characters once we start reading the book, so leave them out whenever possible. The only exception is if they play a critical role in the plot and the synopsis won’t make sense without it. Try to avoid getting sucked in to describing minor characters whenever possible as it distracts from the big picture.
  • Subplots. Most books have an A plot and B plot, unless the two converge it’s ok to leave the B plot out of the synopsis.
  • Minor plot points. Most books have minor plot points to build character or other elements such as world building, setting, etc. You can leave out anything that doesn’t directly contribute to moving the story forward in your query and synopsis.
  • The ending of a suspense or mystery plot. One of the most common questions I get is, “should I give away the ending?” This one is just a matter of personal taste and I also find its genre specific. Some editor and agents do like to see the ending revealed at the very end of a synopsis. For me, if it’s a straight commercial novel, or a romance, please tell us how the book ends. However, if there is a big reveal at the end of the book, I prefer when the final conflict is staged a question. That way we know what is happening right up until the end of the book, but there is still a bit of suspense left for whoever is reading the synopsis when they pick up the book.

One final thing to keep in mind when writing your synopsis is that this is a tool that your agent can and should help you refine before it goes out to the publisher. You still want it in great shape before you send it off to agents, but your agent can help you fine tune it before you submit, so don’t get overwhelmed!

I hope this breakdown helps to answer some of the common questions writers often have regarding this process and the nitty gritty of what should and should be include in a query letter and synopsis. Keep checking back here at M&O for more helpful tips and follow me on twitter @ShiraSHoffman for publishing advice, updates, and more!

–Shira S. Hoffman