How to Write a Synopsis

magician_posterRecently, I compared a query letter to a job interview.  However, that is only partially correct. If a query letter is you, showing up a little early, dressed in a clean, pressed suit, then your synopsis is what you choose to talk about during the actual interview.

Once you’re past the first impressions (and we’ll assume you wrote a killer query letter), your synopsis is the final chance to hook your agent, get her excited about your project, and make her remember your name above the hundreds of other writers vying for her attention.

What makes a synopsis so daunting? When a writer has the stamina to finish a full-length novel, why does she struggle at synopsis-writing time?

To answer those questions, we need to look at the purpose of a synopsis. A synopsis is not a story. In fact, it’s the opposite of a story.

A novel, like a magic trick, is about suspense, creating mystery, and performing a powerful illusion using suggestion or distraction.  A synopsis, however, is akin to watching a magician work his magic from his side of the table, where you can see all the trap doors and mirrors. It’s disillusioning, to say the least.

A synopsis is all “tell” with no emotional build-up. It’s the big reveal of the whole plot and mystery, without any of the bang-for-your-buck that authors strive to achieve. And let’s not forget that it’s written in present tense. So yeah, it hurts to write a synopsis… if you do it wrong.

How to write a synopsis with as little pain as possible? Here are my tips:

1. Make the first sentence count:

Write one long sentence describing your novel.  Perhaps take something from your query letter that you loved, and ramp it up a bit. Here’s mine:

From a life of comfort, on the arm of one of Brazelton’s most powerful men, Raven is cast into a world of shape-shifters and dragons, when an unexpected letter changes her life forever.

I chose to write about the first plot twist, and set the tone for the rest of the journey.

2. The tone of the synopsis should convey the tone of the book:

The last thing you want is a synopsis that reads like, “This happened, then these people went here, and then this happened…” You need to let the agent know what she’ll be reading, and the best way to do that is to demonstrate your tone. Here’s an example from mine:

The elegant beauty finds herself locked in a dungeon and tortured for answers to a century-old puzzle, by a madman named Dimata. Desperate to escape, she must rely on the one man who made her life miserable. Martin, a pompous, though roguishly handsome bard, reveals during their flight from captivity, that he is in fact a Sayan werewolf, named Logan.

With a band of bloodthirsty mercenaries searching for her, Raven becomes the reluctant charge of Logan and his rigid grandfather, Jarren, as they do their best to help her, while closely guarding their own secrets. With the question raised as to whether Raven could be the missing heiress of a long-dead wizard, and the rightful owner of a sought-after treasure, the trio head for Mist, a small town in the path of an army of invaders from the north. Death only a step behind, Raven must rely on her companions more than she wants to, and makes frightening discoveries about herself, only raising more questions about who she really is.

In as few words as possible, I tried to convey how my characters end up together, the developing conflicts between characters, and what their main opposition is. I even reveal one of my big secrets, then allude to the next set of reveals.

3. Major plot points:

You should hit on all of the major plot lines in your story, and convey the underlying struggles/conflicts. I try to keep it simple, rather than going for the whole enchilada, but this is one place where you might want to expand on some details. While one agent will appreciate your ability to summarize in two pages, another may prefer that you use four pages and offer more details. It never hurts to write different versions and send the most appropriate to a particular agent, taking her tastes into consideration. Here’s mine:

Driven to find answers and loyal to her comrades, Raven joins their quest to save three dragons from a conqueror bent on using them as weapons.

When the quest leads them to the home of the elf, Leomere, the details of Raven’s past are revealed.  These revelations threaten to tear down what little of herself she has left, leaving her alone in a frightening new world, and questioning whether she can trust anyone.

Mending her broken heart in the arms of her former nemesis, and putting the fate of dragon-kind ahead of her own, Raven leads the Sayan into the occupied town, though it might cost them their lives. She learns to fight, trust, love and forgive; all things she avoided.

4. The Ending:

When concluding the synopsis, you need to reveal the ending (and other secrets along the way). I know it hurts, but hang in there, you’re almost done! Here’s my ending:

When she comes face to face with her traitorous father, Raven must find a way to save him from himself, by embracing her Sayan soul and the responsibilities it implies.

Your synopsis will vary depending on your story and the agent you are sending it to, but my theory is that a no-nonsense approach is best. If your story is funny, let the agent know that. If it’s an epic quest, a romance, or a good vs. evil battle, tell her. You don’t want to hold back in your synopsis, but you don’t want to bore with extraneous details either. Let the main plot lines speak for themselves, and read your agent’s website to tailor the synopsis to her specifications.

Your Experience

Have you ever tried to write a synopsis?  If so, what about the process did you find challenging or rewarding?

Also, what do you think is the hardest type of plot to convey in a synopsis?

A. Howitt

A. Howitt lives in a three bedroom home with a husband and four kids, and desperately wants to get a dog. A writer since 2001, she developed a taste for reading when she found the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and quickly fell in love with fantasy stories.

Her hobbies include sewing, gardening, sword-fighting, costuming, archery, dancing, and being outdoors, and as a lifelong artist, she's been competing in art contests off and on for more than a decade, and has been shown in the Columbus Museum of Art.
A. Howitt

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Kim Rawks
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Kim Rawks

Excellent piece. My boyfriend is an aspiring fantasy writer and since I come from a journalism background, I’m helping him edit his work for correct grammar and style. I think the summary or synopsis is something he’s been struggling with. I’ll pass this on to him so he can use it as an outline. Thanks!

JenniferDarnell
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JenniferDarnell

“Make the first sentence count.’ Great advice. Though I’ve not yet submitted my first synopsis to a publisher, I’ve written them and I always imagine a movie trailer with ‘the deep movie trailer voice’ giving my story summary. It actually helps the process. 🙂

Emily
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Emily

JenniferDarnell that is a great way of looking at it. Although a summary gives away much more than a movie trailer, they’re both a glimpse into what someone can expect from the whole body of work. And I love those deep movie trailer voices, too.

Terry Reed
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Terry Reed

Hmm, maybe time and dimensionally screwed up speculative fiction perhaps;)

Abbe Brummer
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Abbe Brummer

Yes. Twice. Hated it. Nearly killed me. How can you reduce a novel to a page and a half… or less? Ugh! And I was AWFUL at it. Ugh!

David Alexander
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David Alexander

can’t even spell synopsis.

Lisa Walker England
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Lisa Walker England

Kevin Aldrich – Professional authors I know use both a step outline (or treatment) AND a synopsis. The synopsis allows you to be sure your story works at its core. Your step outline or treatment fleshes out that core. One works in tandem with the other. If you write your synopsis well FIRST, your treatment will be much easier to write — and so will the script or book. Plus, you’ll be more likely to get people to read the longer version.

Terry Reed
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Terry Reed

I’ve been getting fond of reductionism…it helps you know your core idea is solid and comprehensible.

Lisa Walker England
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Lisa Walker England

Most of the indie books I see available on Amazon, I pass up because the synopsis is so all-over-the-place, it’s an immediate clue that the author doesn’t know what their story is about. (Which means the book wasn’t ready to be distributed in that format.) The times I DO buy an indie novel, it’s because the writer has written a kick-ass synopsis that demonstrates he or she knows the story inside out. Usually, the book itself doesn’t disappoint.

Kevin Aldrich
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Kevin Aldrich

My own experience is that the step outline and synopsis (as you describe it) are constantly being rewritten: one keeps changing the other. Then, when the script or novel is completed, the synopsis would have to be rewritten, since stories always take on a life of their own in surprising ways.

Aleeha Travis
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Aleeha Travis

I find being brief is my biggest challenge. 😀

Kevin Aldrich
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Kevin Aldrich

My understanding is that a step outline or treatment is not a synopsis. The former is a scene-by-scene telling of the story, whereas a synopsis–according to Mythic Scribes–is “loaded” differently. I’ve only seen synopses requested by people who for whatever reason don’t want to read the script or novel (yet). What is frustrating is that it takes much longer to write a synopsis than to read a script!

Lisa Walker England
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Lisa Walker England

I would argue that synopses are not primarily sales tools. Yes of course — they do serve that function. But I’ve found that if I can’t write a reasonable synopsis before I write my first draft …. well, I end up having quite a bit of trouble writing something commercial quickly, anyway.

Kevin Aldrich
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Kevin Aldrich

I hate writing synopses. They are a huge amount of work. On top of that, because they are basically sales tools the stakes are very high. If you screw up the synopsis your actual work may never be read!

Richard Cotton
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Richard Cotton

Can you repost this on the writers muse page to which I have just add you to thank you 🙂

dochappycamper
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dochappycamper

My publisher wants a synopsis that is very short, less than 300 words. I’ve struggled with keeping it that short and still hit all the main points.

Morwyn Margaret Peeler
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Morwyn Margaret Peeler

I compare my style to a crazy quilt (randomly shaped patches in no recognizable structure). I have a fairly solid idea of where I want things to end up and how I plan to get there, but what I actually write is random. Today I wrote a scene that will take place halfway through the 1st book. Yesterday I worked on chapter 2. The day before I had a great idea for the 3rd book. I used to worry about this haphazard dancing around, but I’ve since read that some of my favorite authors do the same thing. I fall in love with all my characters, even the villains, and often converse with them. My worst flaw is letting the plot become so complex and rambling that, like my body, I develop “sagging middle” and abandon the project for something NEW, FRESH, and not snarled like a ball of yarn that’s been attacked by kittens. Does anyone else do that?

Tom Austin
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Tom Austin

I’m trying to write the synopsis as I go through what will be either my final or next-to-final draft. It’s helping me to understand the story better, as I have multiple characters with multiple plots (conspiracy-type, not plot-A/subplot) going on, as well as a hint of foreshadowing.

Gaynor Roberts-Hamilton
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Gaynor Roberts-Hamilton

yes if i understand my characters well enough and the plot line that,s o.k. i,m on track but with too much flowery imagination it will be ruined. i don,t do comedy, only silly tid-bits from my childhood now and again but surely comedy must be hard to get across well. merry christmas everyone xx

Lisa Walker England
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Lisa Walker England

A synopsis is always my thermometer to guage how well I know my story. If I can’t identify the central interior and exterior conflict in a few sentences, then I know my reader won’t either. I’ve got more work to do!

Bex Pavia
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Bex Pavia

I keep hearing this being a source of anxiety for many writers. I agree that is is a tricky thing to get right. My daughter thinks mine for the book I’m writing is good, but I’m a perfectionist and am not so sure. 🙁

Tony Dragani
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Tony Dragani

I find writing a synopsis to be a valuable tool in revising a novel. It forces me to zero in on the basic elements of the story, and makes it easier for me to identify fat to be trimmed.

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