What's the Difference Between a Story Synopsis and Query Letter?

It's that dreaded moment when you need to sum up your entire story in a few sentences but would rather gouge your eyeballs with a stapler. And if you're planning on submitting to agents and going the traditional publishing route, you might want to know this. Because you will definitely have to do this. (You just don't have to do it alone.)

I understand. You have about as much enthusiasm for this as smiling too brightly after stubbing your toe (and praying the crippling pain doesn't reach your eyes).

You've spent months to years slaving over a book you believe in as much as breathing. The sleepless nights, moments of writer's block, and time missed out with family and friends (who may or may not understand your brilliance). Then you spent money on professional editing, grew a thick skin for beta readers, built up your courage to family and friends (who may or may not understand your brilliance).

You think you're at the finish line only to realize there's still so much more distance to travel. Because you have to write a synopsis and/or query letter now.

(What's the deal with "and/or"? Is it AND or is it OR? Sometimes it's both or either. So there.)

Here's the deal:

A synopsis summarizes the main components of your entire story.

A query letter introduces your story and has a teaser ending.

They each fulfill a different purpose and are totally not the same thing. But I know you can knuckle down and do it. Why? Because you're a storyteller. It's what you do.

The Synopsis

All secrets are out of the bag with this one.

The person reading your synopsis needs to know everything major that happens in your plot and know the main characters involved. This is not the time to be coy or cute. Even your amazing ending is revealed.

A synopsis should be no longer than two pages. While that seems like hardly enough page space to explain every fantastic novel moment, I promise you can fit everything that's relevant within two pages.

The trick with a novel synopsis is to strike a balance between being detailed and being succinct. You're pulling out the most important moments and giving a summarized run-through of them from beginning to end.

Here's an example:

While this isn't the greatest plot ever, it does a decent job of showing what a synopsis looks like. It includes the major turning points, such as setup, moments that add conflict and show character development, climax, and resolution.

I find that reading movie synopses on IMDB is a great way to get us thinking in this mode too.

The Query Letter

Keep some secrets close to your heart with this one.

The person reading your letter should get a brief introduction of who you are and what your story is about. You only need to include what happens in the first quarter to half of your story. You don't want to give away your ending! You want agents to beg for your manuscript so they can find out that ending.

An author of mine once called a query letter her "biggest nightmare." But it doesn't have to be. The key here is to boil your story down to its main gears. An agent would notice if the main gears of your story are working properly.

Your query letter needs:

  • The fictional world established.
  • Sympathetic protagonist with a goal.
  • An antagonist who thwarts her.
  • The BIG question: Can she overcome the antagonist to achieve her goal or will personal conflict hold her back? We have to read to find out.

The problems the protagonist faces seem impossible to overcome. (Note: In romance, sometimes the antagonist is the love interest.)

And that's all we need to know. Everything else is just niceties. Like how you admire the agent and know your book is the scratch to her itch. Or the many awards you've won in the past and how awesome you are. (I think you're awesome too.)

And if you're still feeling overwhelmed? Book me for a query letter service.

This is real, hands-on help that digs deeper than grammar. I let you know what's working and what isn't, so you can whip your letter into shape.

Because it's not that you don't know what your story is about. It's that you need to clarify what you already know.