How to Write a Chapter Synopsis for Your Book Proposal

A Step-by-Step Case Study on How to Write Your Chapter Summaries

It’s the oldest trick in the book for a cave tour guide. Ours, who halted us deep within Mark Twain Cave (near Hannibal, Missouri) shut off the lights and talked about how utterly dark it was. “To demonstrate,” he said, “try waving your hand in front of your face.” He was right, we couldn’t see a thing. Just then he turned on the lights, and we all looked rather silly waving our hands in front of our faces.

In your chapter-by-chapter synopsis (aka chapter summaries), you are giving the reviewer a tour of your book. Your role here is to shed light on each chapter in a way that will keep the reviewer reading. But how do you do that?

Courtesy of Unsplash to go to yahoo. You simply: Specify the target in the

Courtesy of Unsplash

Brief setup: In December 2012 I started a series of posts on how to create a book proposal. I wrote two posts before realizing the series would be far more helpful to folks if I actually coached a writer through the process of crafting a book proposal. After a brief contest of sorts I decided to work with Gary Neal Hansen. My strong hope is that others will be working on their book proposals as I coach Gary through this process. So far I’ve posted about motivationconceptbioplatformworking titlebrief description, and table of contents.

Let’s dive into Gary’s synopsis of his first chapter:

1. Community for Prayer — Benedictine Monasticism

While Protestants often dismiss monasticism as running from community and service, for the medieval followers of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – c. 550) the opposite was the case.  Entering monastic life was an intense immersion in community life where the purpose was to fit each member for heaven and much of the means was a shared life of prayer.  Monasteries became the training centers for remarkable leaders who were then called to the world as the missionaries and bishops that brought Christianity to Europe–where they created new monasteries to train the next generation. The chapter will tell the stories of Benedictine monasticism and some of the notable leaders it produced.  It will also draw out ways monastic life built community and discipleship through prayer, through its clearly defined roles, and through formal practices that encouraged humble service, mutual accountability, and individual growth.

Not bad at all, I’d say. Gary gives us the gist of the chapter in relatively succinct form. I would encourage:

  • Being even more succinct
  • Referencing at least one narrative per chapter
  • Including one sentence about the history of the group
  • Including one sentence about the historical importance of the movement (i.e., what did it accomplish?), and
  • Making at least one reference to what we can learn from the movement

Generally speaking, a synopsis should:

  • use the present tense (“This chapter explains…,” not “This chapter will explain…”)
  • not be an exhaustive description (That’s what chapters are for!)
  • entice the reviewer to keep reading (think: narrative references!)
  • highlight the most marketable/saleable features of each chapter

Following is my revision:

1. Community for Prayer — Benedictine Monasticism

Opening with an engaging narrative about Benedict himself, this chapter counters the frequent Protestant error of equating monasticism with running from community and service. For the medieval followers of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – c. 550) the opposite was the case. Entering monastic life was an intense immersion in community life where the purpose was to fit each member for heaven largely through a shared life of prayer. Monasteries became training centers for remarkable leaders who then went into the world as missionaries and bishops. They did nothing less than bring Christianity to Europe, and we have much to learn from them about prayer and discipleship.

Bonus Content: Even more important than your synopsis are the chapter titles and subtitles you include in your book proposal. For a brief video training on how to develop compelling titles and subtitles, including a sample Table of Contents makeover, click here.

Question: Are you working on a chapter synopsis? Drop it in a comment, and I’ll do my best to help. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • JessiRae Ino Pulver-Adell

    Wonderful insight! I always place stock in reading published books on anything I’m researching, for pleasure or otherwise, but your wisdom is invaluable.

    • Chad R. Allen

      You’re welcome! Glad to help.

  • This is so helpful! I was under the impression each synopsis needed to be one or two sentences, so I’m glad to know I have more freedom to share meat of each chapter!

  • Aliza

    I am working on a chapter synopsis. I really need help

  • That you so much for the quick and easy guidelines to writing the chapter summary. This got me right on track.

  • Hi Chad,

    I have been writing and rewriting (then rewriting some more) my book proposal and really cannot get over the trepidation of an agent or publisher actually seeing my measly work. I randomly stumbled onto your site and would adore some constructive criticism!

    I. Introduction: Fully Awake

    In our nation, life is moving so rapidly that we have lost touch of the intrinsic value of each God-formed day. With the birth of my son, Jack, I travelled to Hell and back standing by his side through open-heart surgeries, near death and daily chemotherapy. It was not until I swallowed a daily dose of the real possibility of his death, that I learned to savor every moment. Life with a terminal child has taught me that God calls us to live with purposeful intentionality. To do otherwise would be ignoring the sanctity of every moment.

    • Introduction: Fully Awake
      Life is moving so rapidly we have lost touch with the intrinsic value of each God-formed day. With the birth of my son, Jack, I traveled to hell and back, standing by his side through open-heart surgeries, near death, and daily chemotherapy. It was not until I faced the real possibility of his death that I learned to savor every moment. Life with a terminally ill child has taught me that God calls us to live with purposeful intentionality. To do otherwise would be ignoring the sanctity of every moment.

      And here’s another possible direction:
      Sometimes it takes a close brush with death to really live. Mine came in the form of a terminally ill child. As I stood by his side through open-heart surgeries, near death, and daily chemotherapy, I learned to savor the sanctity of every moment. In facing his imminent death every day, I learned something important about how to be alive.

      • I can’t thank you enough for your time and thoughts!!

  • Thanks for the interesting post Chad.It is very useful and gives a very clear idea.
    Best wishes

  • Judith Ann (Lorenz Crunk) Middlebrooks

    Good morning Chad. Thank you for helping in what I considered one of the most challenging stumbling blocks in writing a nonfiction book proposal. I had to keep telling myself “describe don’t summarize.” Sounds simple right? Not! Thank you.

  • Pingback: How to Write the Marketing Section of Your Book Proposal | Chad R. Allen()

  • The narrative idea for the beginning of each chapter is a keeper!

  • The “fiction-based-on-truth” book synopsis is different. It’s not chapter by chapter but rather several pages, so I understand. My main question is point of view of the synopsis. The book is written from a dog’s point of view. From what POV should the synopsis be written?

    • I would think from the third person. Or you could mix it up and do one in the third and one in the first (dog’s) POV. Sorry, I’m a NF guy.

      • That’s interesting: mixing it up. I’ve seen both so there doesn’t appear to me to be an industry standard. At least if there is, it will appear as soon as I’ve written mine the other way! I can experiment also with your idea. Thanks, Chad.

  • It’s amazingly helpful to see how you rewrote that. Fantastic example. It said the same thing but made me have to think a lot less about the key points and intrigued me to see how I can learn from them. Is there a firm guideline for how many sentences these should be (e.g., 3-5)?

    • Yes, I think 3-5 sentences is about right.

      • Uhh… oops.

        • Well, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but I tend to think brevity is important is chapter synopses. Thanks, Bill!

  • It really helps to see the actual work, thanks so much. I think being succinct while putting in enough information is the hardest for me. Revise, revise, revise!

  • Since I write fiction, I do a “big picture” synopsis and outline, as I work, where each chapter is headed. Out of my element a bit in the world of non-fiction, but I’m finding this process fascinating.

    Gary, how do you decide to title your chapters? Do you decide what it is you’re going to address in each individual chapter and then go from there? It truly seems like such a God-inspired process!

    I have to admit…title chapters as questions will always encourage me to read more.

    Chad, what’s an appropriate length (page wise) for a non-fiction synopsis? I suppose it would depend on the number of chapters to be covered within the book, and perhaps, you’ve mentioned this and I missed it…

    Thank you! Love this learning curve! (And wow. I guess there’s a reason I’m not a seminary student. 🙂 )

    • I hear you Cynthia! My husband, brother and sister-in-law all completed seminary together… me I just read their books 🙂

    • Cynthia, I’d say to shoot for 3 to 5 sentences per chapter. Thanks!

  • I LOVE this whole project, so thank you, Gary for your humble willingness to go along, and thank you, Chad, for your humble servant spirit. Here’s my chapter summary, but first… The SETUP: I’m working on a project about modern incarnations of the battle between legalism and grace. The working title is “Grace-ology.” I’m using the terms “traditional legalism” and “nouveau legalism” to distinguish old-time rule-bound legalism from today’s more subtle version with its stealth requirements. In a series of chapters, I critique nouveau legalism.

    The chapter summary:
    6. Shallow: A mile wide and an inch deep.
    Tozer affirmed, “the most important thing about us is what comes to mind
    when we think about God.” Dorothy Sayers warned our grandparents, “It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.” Incarnation? Trinity? Redemption? Justification? Propitiation? Theology? Who needs it. The germs of nouveau legalism proliferate in the dank cellars of biblical illiteracy. Having relegated theological depth to picky, irrelevant seminary professors, the church’s puppet-masters can yank our behavioral strings with impunity. “Control the story, control the world:” when the biblical story devolves into an endless succession of self-help hints and evil-whitewashing crusades, God gets relegated to a sub-plot, and humans become stars in their own tragic comedy. This chapter explores the indispensable links between theological thinking and grace-oriented living.

    Thank you.

    • “…God gets relegated to asub-plot, and humans become stars in their own tragic comedy…” Wow, Bill. I love that. And I like the way you summed up the entire chapter in the last sentence. Oh, but for grace!

    • I just wanted to say I love your concept! Biblical literacy is something I’m passionate about. I’m ready to read your book. 🙂

    • Thank you, Cynthia and Natasha. Very kind.

    • So, in light of later comments, I think I’ll cut everything before the word “Incarnation.” And tighten it up like this:

      Incarnation? Trinity? Redemption? Justification? Propitiation? Theology? Who needs it. The germs of nouveau legalism proliferate in the dank cellars of biblical illiteracy. When the biblical story devolves into an endless succession of self-help hints and evil-whitewashing crusades, God gets relegated to a sub-plot, and humans become stars in their own tragic comedy. This chapter explores the indispensable links between theological thinking and grace-oriented living.

      • Bill, try:

        Tozer affirmed, “the most important thing about us is what comes to mind when we think about God.” The germs of nouveau legalism proliferate in the dank cellars of biblical illiteracy. Having relegated theological depth to picky, irrelevant seminary professors, the church’s puppet-masters can yank our behavioral strings with impunity.When the biblical story devolves into an endless succession of self-help hints and evil-whitewashing crusades, God gets relegated to a sub-plot, and humans become stars in their own tragic comedy. This chapter explores the indispensable links between theological thinking and grace-oriented living.

  • Chad, I’m working on a book proposal for a fiction novel. Would you encourage a chapter by chapter synopsis. I thought this would be relevant for non-fiction, but just checking.

    • Bob, thanks for commenting! I’m a nonfiction guy, but see Cynthia’s comment below about what she does with her novel synopses. Cynthia’s a pro.

      • Great, just read what she had listed. Thanks Chad!

  • Chad, that is INCREDIBLY helpful!

    Wow.

    Thanks!