Query vs Synopsis

Both the query letter and the synopsis are tools used to convince an agent or editor to buy a story. A synopsis is often also used by marketing to sell the book to reps and distributors, and the art department wants one to help with a cover.

Most writers will say writing the query letter or synopsis is more difficult than writing the book. I agree. With both the writer must condense thousands of words into a few hundred.

The Query Letter

In my opinion, a query letter has three functions.

  1. It gives a teaser or short (very short) idea of the story. If you can include a generally known comparison to a popular book or movie, all the better. For my suspense A Killer Past, I used a movie comparison and wrote: Imagine Lara Croft in her seventies. When two gang members try to mug Mary Harrington, they’re the ones who end up in the hospital. Problem is, now she’s exposed herself to danger, starting with a police sergeant who wants to know why he can’t discover anything about her past.
  2. The query letter’s second function is to convey the length of the manuscript, genre, time period, setting, and—most important—if the manuscript is finished. (For non-fiction, it’s important to give the book’s potential market and competition)
  3. Finally, a query letter needs a bit about you. Don’t give negatives. (I’ve never written a book before.) Just positives. Include professional organizations you belong to (RWA, MWA, SinC, SCBWI, ITW, and so on). If non-fiction, give your qualifications for writing the book (professional organizations you belong to, your profession.) And don’t forget contact information: name, phone, email. Do you have a website? Blog? Facebook page? Twitter account? This lets the agent or editor know you’re part of a social network.

For a query letter, that’s it. One page only, addressed or emailed to the right person. (Spell the name right, and make sure you don’t have any spelling or grammar errors.)

The Synopsis

The synopsis may be one page (single spaced) or up to 5 pages. (Follow whatever the submission guidelines say.) With a synopsis, the agent or editor wants to know more about the story. How are you going to go from the start to the finish? What characters are important (mention only the main characters), what they want, why they want it, and what’s stopping them from achieving it? Include the scenes that develop the plot or characters. Give the turning points. (Turning points? Places where the story changes direction, such as a body showing up, or what’s expected doesn’t happen. Maybe a new goal must be accomplished before pursuing the original goal.)

The synopsis does not have excess details. Secondary characters might simply be described as the sheriff, or the sister. The synopsis will include the ending, how the conflict is resolved.

Both the query and synopsis are difficult to write but necessary. They force you to focus on the main elements of the story. They give a sense of the story, whether it’s a comedy, drama, horror, parody, etc.. They show your writing skills and give a sense of your voice. Both let the agent or editor know if this is the same old story that’s been told over and over, and if so, if yours has something unique to make it stand out from the others.

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So take your time. Write several variations. Let others read both your query and your synopsis. Ask them which ones sound enticing. Modify each query letter to fit the recipient. Modify each synopsis to fit the guidelines. SEND THEM OUT and start working on something new.

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8 Responses to Query vs Synopsis

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    These words are often used interchangeably. But the part about following the recommendations is important. Do the research about the publishing house first. 🙂

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      I’m always amazed, Melissa, by how many people don’t read those quidelines. With most publishing houses and agents on-line with their information about what they handle and how they want submissions formatted and sent, there’s no reason for a writer not to do it properly.

  2. Good information, Maris. I completely agree with your explanations.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Jacqueline. I always hope what I write is correct, but if I do give incorrect information, I’d like to know so I can correct it.

  3. Thank you for the excellent refresher course, Maris. 🙂

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thank you, Jolana. I know you are aware of the differences, but I have been talking to several new writers who weren’t clear about the difference.

  4. Lucy Kubash says:

    While I know the difference between the two, it’s important to know just what to include in each one. It’s been a while since I’ve submitted anything to a publisher, so I can use the refresher course!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Lucy, for taking the time to read my blog. I’m sure you’ve written your share of query letters and synopses. As I said, this comparison was primarily for the new writers who have indicated some confusion regarding the two.