Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Write a Synopsis

Synopsis [si-nop-sis] 

-Noun, Plural - ses

1.  Tool of the Devil. 
2.  Thing One Must Write Howevermuch One Doest Hate It. 
3.  Instrument of writerly torture at the hands of publishing professionals. 

Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?

THE BAD NEWS IS the chances of you getting through the process of traditional publishing without having to write a full synopsis at some point for someone is so slim even Victoria Beckham is jealous of it.  Accept that fact now and get a synopsis together so you can work on it before you have to have it - in which case you'll be forced to push something together that probably won't do the job well.

THE GOOD NEWS IS your synopsis itself will not be the make or break point of your writing career.  The plot it outlines might!  But the synopsis doesn't have to be a piece of literary genius.  If you don't believe me, read this.

So... How do you write one?  Well, if you're anything like me, the answer is 'badly'.  But here's the reason you want to: by writing synopses you a) learn how to distill your story down to bite sized plotpoints and b) figure out how to instill your voice into summary, and c) get a birds-eye-view of your story that will help you identify plot holes, shallow characterizations, etc.

Like anything else, you have to practice to get good at it. 

Because I'm not a natural synopsizer (is that even a word?), I'm not going to try and tell you how to write a good synopsis, only how to get one put together.  The beauty is, once you have a synopsis in place, you can play with it, edit it, revise it... in short, work on it just like you do any other piece of writing.  And one day you'll look at it and realize it's actually an okay piece of writing (or you'll hate it forever, but at least have something to give your Agent to pass on to that Editor and so forth). 

Without further ado, here are two ways in which to approach the first-draft of synopsis writing:

(NB: There is no wordcount / pagecount limit for this exercise.  We'll talk about what forms / lengths synopses should take in a later post).

APPROACH #1: The Chapter Outline

Step One:  Take your story chapter by chapter and distill each chapter into one to two paragraphs.  Or, if you change Points of View within your story as I do, give each POV a short paragraph of its own. 

Step Two:  Do this for every single chapter, then put it away. 

Step Three:  Pick it up again a few days later and read through, deleting any sentence which doesn't specifically move the plot forward. 

Step Four:  Repeat steps two and three until you have a fresh read-through wherein you don't delete anything.

APPROACH #2:  Beginning, Middle and End

Step One: Head up three separate pages in a word document "Beginning", "Middle" and "End".  

Step Two: Under Beginning, answer the following questions:
1.  Where am I?
2.  What's going on?
3.  Who's involved?
4.  What is the protagonist's primary desire? (This should be your story goal)
5.  What danger or obstacle prevents the protagonist from maintaing or achieving that primary desire?
6.  What does the protagonist decide to do to overcome that danger / obstacle?

Step Three:  Under "Ending" answer the following questions:
1.  What options does the protagonist have available to them as you approach the climax?
2.  Who and / or what is stopping them from achieving their story goal?
3.  What choice does the protagonist make? And what action do they take?
4.  What consequence occurs as a result of that choice / action?
5.  How are the protagonist and antagonist punished / rewarded for their choices / actions in the climactic scenes?
6.  How is the story resolved (what occurs to tie up loose ends)?

Step Four:  Under "Middle" outline only the major plotpoints that lead the protagonist / main characters from the Beginning to the End events.

Using either of these techniques, draft up a synopsis.  Next week we'll talk about how to pare it down into various forms for submission.

Good luck!

Q4U: Have you written your synopsis?  What did you learn from it?


  1. I've written one synopsis so far, and it's definitely not ready to go. but then, the novel itself hasn't been revised yet, so...yeah, I'm a long way from needing a synopsis. Still, I wanted to get started on it now, so I at least have something slightly revised when the time comes. :D

  2. Tool of the devil - too funny! I don't mind writing a synopsis as much as query. To pull the essence of the story in under 250 words and find voice is torture.

  3. The tough thing for me is always having the different synopsis lengths. I start a plot worksheet once I'm about three chapters into a novel, which gives me about a 10-page synopsis based on a three-act story structure. (That's similar to your second approach.) Then I have to keep whittling that down--eight pages, then five pages, then two-pages. (These are all lengths people have asked for.) But I've found that to get to the one-page outline and the query, I have to throw that out and hit character, theme, and GMC instead of plot.

    I'm eager to see your next post because that's the part I find really hard!


  4. I am not an outliner so this exercise just might kill me. lol. I know I need to do it, but it sounds like a lot of work. First the query, now this? oy! I'm getting dizzy. must--lie--down

  5. This is good advice. I'm going to go back to my synopsis and re-edit it looking for unnecessary stuff.

  6. This is a great post. I have done a synopsis for a short story, but that was before I wrote the story, and now writing the story is somewhat akin to having my intestines slowly pulled out. But the synopsis did get the story accepted, so I must have done something right.

    I suppose I should write one for my novel in progress, but I'm afraid that it would show how nothing in it actually moves the plot forward. Much fear.

  7. The work of the devil!! The work of the devil!! It's so true. That and the query letter.

    I have written one synopsis. I thought it was pretty crappy, but the agent seemed to think it was okay. I almost feel like I do better at query letters than the synopsis. I don't know why. The outline theory worked for me. I'm nearly done with my next WIP and so *cries a little* I must write the synopsis.

    Great advice :)

  8. I love your site...I too believe query letters and synopsis are the work of the devil (or at least one of his evil minyon). I have written and rewritten my synopsis too many times to count. LOL, but I'm rewriting it again. Thanks for the tips!!!

  9. GENIUS! Thanks for this! I hate writing synopsises with the passion of a thousand suns. But these tips seem like they just might be doable...

  10. I have not really worked on my synopsis yet, but all of this great information will be helpful for when I do. Thanks for the post.

  11. I'm using the scene to sequel sequence, and I'm making sure each chapter is structured well. I don't know what I'm doing, so it's a panster thing. When I finish and get ready to outline, I'll have to use the chapter outline, thanks for sharing!

    By the way, I've got two awards for you on my blog!
    Take one, take both - whatever, they're all yours. :D