How To Write A Damn Synopsis


With election season upon us, I conducted a completely unscientific poll geared toward writers. The question: “Would you rather write a synopsis or undergo an IRS audit?”

The results: 64% of authors chose the audit, 32% were undecided, and 4% of write-in votes said they rather pump out a septic tank.

Okay, I made that up, but based on anecdotal evidence gathered over decades, the vast majority of writers hate to write a synopsis.

Why is it so damn hard?

Fear – A synopsis is your initial impression on an agent/editor. The pressure is on because if you don’t impress them, they won’t accept you as a client. If you indie-pub, same pressure applies, except it comes from the reader browsing Amazon. If your synopsis (actually the logline, more on that later) doesn’t grab them, they won’t buy your book.

It’s overwhelming – How do you distill 60-100K words into 250 words?

Inability to be objective – You’re too close to your story.

Requires difficult choices – How do you decide what to include and what to leave out? Will the plot make sense to someone who hasn’t read the book? How do you choose which aspects of character and plot are most important?

Why do you need a synopsis?

An agent or editor often requests a synopsis when considering your book.

If you enter writing contests, a synopsis of 250-500 words is usually a requirement. Part of what they are looking for is your ability to construct a solid, plausible plot. That is why the ending must be included in the synopsis.

WARNING: Don’t play coy, teasing the agent with, “If you want to know who the murderer is, request the entire manuscript.” This does not work. Your query will be absolutely, positively deleted.

Another purpose is to show the agent/editor/judge that you have a good grasp of story and character arc, with plot developments that flow logically from a compelling hook in the beginning, through interesting conflicts in the middle, to the exciting climax/showdown, and a satisfying resolution.

What is the difference between a logline and a synopsis?

When you read the back cover copy of a book, a description on Amazon, or a movie blurb on your TV’s channel guide, those are loglines. The logline is a very short synopsis that teases the reader into buying the book, but does not give away the ending of the story.

A synopsis is a longer, more complete description of your story, including the ending.

Important info to include in a synopsis:

1. Genre, word count, time period, setting. Example: 70K-word contemporary suspense set in NYC; 90K-word time travel fantasy set in World War II and the 13th century.

2. Format is present tense, third person, double-spaced. You are allowed to tell (summarize) rather than show. Adjectives and adverbs are also okay.

3. Theme – one sentence that gives the meaning of the book, not the plot.

4. Central characters only. Protagonist, antagonist, a couple of important supporting characters.

5. Main plot only, no subplots unless they directly affect main plot.

6. Conclusion/outcome of the story – No mysteries allowed. You must reveal who the murderer is, if the hero lives or dies, does boy get girl, etc.

Six key elements to building a synopsis (courtesy of Colorado author Jameson Cole):

When you break down what’s required of a synopsis, you discover it is constructed of six building blocks: three pertain to CHARACTER, three pertain to PLOT.

Three elements of CHARACTER:

1. Physical – usually age, gender, marital status.

2. Sociological – occupation, status in community, position in hierarchy.

3. Psychological – driving force inside the character, i.e. guilt, greed, fear, adventure, etc.

Three elements of PLOT:

1. Past – relevant backstory, i.e. what happened in the past that causes character to react in certain ways to current situation?

2. Present – current dilemma usually requiring a goal-oriented decision.

3. Future – what happens if failure occurs.

Let’s fill in those six blanks using examples of well-known movies.

Gone With the Wind:  A beautiful (physical), narcissistic (psychological) southern belle (sociological) struggles to save her family home and way of life (past) during the Civil War (present) while failing to recognize true love (future).

In the Line of Fire (starring Clint Eastwood): An aging (physical) Secret Service agent (sociological) who feels guilty (psychological) for failing to save President Kennedy (past) duels a deadly assassin (present). The outcome of their battle (future) determines if the current president lives or dies, and if the agent’s troubled past gives way to peace.

The Hunger Games: Sixteen-year-old (physical) Katniss Everdeen saves her sister (psychological) by taking her place in a fight to the death (sociological) on live television (present). In order to survive, Katniss must kill her opponent (future), her good friend Peeta, who previously saved her life (past).

The screenwriting approach:

Author Christine Fonseca borrows screenwriting techniques to build a novel synopsis.

According to her, dramatic movies and TV shows follow a similar structure – 5 or 6 stages that lead the viewer from the opening scenes to the final climax and resolution. Nail down these stages with your own novel, including the turning points that transition from one stage to the next, and you will have the structure of your story.

Here’s a quick list of each of the stages and plot turns in a typical story: 

Opening set up – The MC is introduced in the “normal world”.  

Initial challenge – The problem the MC needs to solve. 

Reaction or new scenario – A new scenario occurs for the MC as a direct result of the choice the MC makes regarding that opportunity 

Mini Crisis – An event occurs that changes everything and a new goal is made 

Edge of Adventure – The MC works towards his new goal 

Point of no return – The MC fully commits to achieving the goal – to his journey 

Complications – The MC is tested and the stakes are raised as new complications arise 

Despair – The MC in despair as he hits a major setback in his plans 

Transformation – The MC pulls himself together to face the final obstacles to his goal 

Climax – The MC faces the final obstacle standing between him and his goal 

Resolution – The outcome of the final confrontation.

Now that the stages are clear, go through your story and write a sentence or two for each of these sections of your story.

What’s the solution to the damn synopsis dilemma?

1. If you’re an outliner, write your synopsis before you write your book. A synopsis is a frame upon which you’ll fill in your story. Start with a few questions: What does the main character want/need? What does the antagonist want/need? Two differing goals oppose each other. Only one can prevail. This is your conflict. The plot is the stage on which the conflict plays out. Then fill in the blanks.

Note: if you’re a pantser, the above suggestion just sent you screaming into the night. Take deep breaths and read on.

2. Share your synopsis with other writers, especially those who aren’t familiar with your story. They will ask questions that point out plot holes, missing information, necessary clarifications you need to include, etc. They can also indicate what details are extraneous and can be left out.

3. Trade with other authors in your critique group. You write their synopsis, they write yours. Another person is more objective and understands your goal, even if you’ve lost track of it. When you write their synopsis, you begin to understand what needs to be included in your own story. When they write your synopsis, it will not be perfect, but will give you a launching pad. You might find it easier to rewrite someone else’s words than to start with your own blank slate.

Examples of Successful Synopses:

For more ideas, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest presents samples of synopses that have worked.

After you’ve written the synopsis, what next?

Find fresh eyes. Have someone who is totally unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis. Because your critique group knows your book, they may unintentionally fill in holes. You need a completely fresh reader who has never seen your story before. If the synopsis makes sense to a stranger, you’ve done your job.

Then your synopsis is ready to submit and you can go back to pumping out that septic tank!

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