Query Letters vs. Synopses: Writers Can Get Ahead By Knowing the Difference

Tracy Stengel

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Nothing compares to the feeling of finishing a novel, editing it to perfection, and picturing it for sale at every digital and virtual bookstore in the world. Your body seems to levitate and float around the room as you indulge in a euphoric writer’s rhapsody. As your spirit soars, rivaling the effects of the most powerful psychedelic, you remember something:

You’re going to need a query letter and a synopsis for agents and publishers.

The sobering truth makes your heart drop with a sloppy sounding splat.

If you want to go the route of traditional publishing, the query letter and synopsis are necessary evils. You’ve heard of them, but aren’t sure what they are exactly. But you know they suck. All the members of your writing group describe them to be as painful as being thrown in a woodchipper … and surviving.

Don’t let their evil reputations scare you. Remember, you’ve written a novel. That, in itself, qualifies you as a badass. Now there’s just a five-paragraph letter and a two-page summary.

No. Big. Deal.

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What’s the Difference Between a Query Letter and a Synopsis?

Think of a query letter as a burlesque dancer. Its job is to tease, tantalize, and entice, leaving the audience breathless and begging for more. This translates into the agent or publisher requesting pages, or better yet, the whole manuscript.

A query introduces the main character, the conflict, the obstacles standing in the way of solving the conflict, the choice/action the main character must make, and what they stand to lose if they fail. The last paragraph consists of the title, word count, genre, and author’s bio.

The query letter never reveals the ending.

Keep the word count of the body of the letter at or under 300. When done correctly, this provocative peep show of your story will make agents and publishers request an encore.

The synopsis is no temptress. For this dandy, there’s no such thing as a wink and a nod. Picture it as an X-rated movie. It shows everything. Nothing is left to the imagination — including an honest, unvarnished look at the ending.

Most agents and publishers want the synopsis to be two pages, single-spaced.

The point of the synopsis is to show your story has a complete character or story arc. It ensures there aren’t any major plot problems such as a character’s unconvincing motivation or unlikely reaction to something. It also shows the ending is satisfying. If you write a captivating thriller and end it with an it-was-all-a-dream scenario, agents and publishers want to know before investing their time into reading hundreds of pages and finding out the ending is a dud.

The synopsis focuses on the main plot points of the story. All characters that influence, motivate, or assist the main character in their quest to solve the conflict should be included.

Synopses can be very dull, but yours doesn’t have to be. One way to avoid putting the reader to sleep is by not falling into the trap of rattling off a dry list of he-did-this-and-then-this-happened.

For example, don’t do this:

Dave cheats on Faith. She hires a lawyer. She doesn’t expect him to be so handsome. He asks her out. By the end of the night, Faith forgets she even has a husband.

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Things to Keep in Mind When Crafting the Query Letter and Synopsis

While the query letter and synopsis are different, here’s some advice that applies to both:

  • Write them in the present tense.
  • Single-space the text with a space between paragraphs.
  • Don’t indent paragraphs.
  • Don’t include dialogue.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions.
  • Don’t waste precious space by getting caught up in specifics of places, setting, or start drifting into subplots.
  • Use the same “voice” you used to write your story. If your book is funny or tender, don’t be stiff and formal in the query or synopsis.
  • Remember, you are a writer, not a critic. Do not critique your own novel by saying it is “wickedly funny” or a “fast-paced romp through the 1950s.” Do not tell the reader what they will feel or how they’ll react while reading the story.
  • Be concise. You have a lot of information to convey in the small space allotted for the query and the synopsis. Choose your words wisely. Now is not the time for tangents of any kind.
  • Don’t include secondary characters unless it’s vital. In that case, refer to them as the doctor, the neighbor, or the crackhead as opposed to cluttering the reader’s head with extraneous names.
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Don’t be daunted by the query letter and synopsis, but don’t expect to create them in one sitting. There is an art to each. Do your research and take the time needed to craft a killer query and smoking-hot synopsis. Many writers make the mistake of hurrying through them, so anxious to take steps to have their novel see the light of day.

It’s because you worked so hard to write your novel, I want you to have the best odds of landing an agent or publisher. I promise it’s worth the extra effort to make sure you get your query and synopsis right the first time.

Best of luck on your publishing journey!

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI

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