Saturday, March 27, 2010

5 Writing a Synopsis -- An Easier Approach

As writers, we focus naturally on the query letter as the bane of our existence. It is so hard to write a good one. But what happens when you get that right and, gulp, an agent suddenly asks you for a synopsis to go along with your full?

In my case, I thought I was in great shape because I had several versions that came organically out of using the Complications Worksheet to do my plotting and revising. The first synopsis rang in at just under eight single spaced pages, which is fine for what is called the "long synopsis." But agents also need a "short synopsis." Not only does this sell the book to the prospective agent, but it's also the version an acquisition editor uses to decide whether or not to take the book to marketing, and the version the marketing and promotional staff uses to write your book cover blurb. In other words, the short version has to be the best thing you've ever written.

Even paring mine down to what I thought was the bare bones, my short version was still two pages too long. Clearly, it was time to do a little research. There had to be a trick to getting the short version right.

And there was. A couple of articles I found suggested turning the idea of "condensing" the manuscript on its ear and "expanding" the query letter instead. After all, the excitement and "hookiness" you are going to need should already be in your query. That's where you've distilled the essence of your story, so it's a logical place to start.

Really you only need to answer thirteen questions to understand what is important in your story. You can do this before you draft or during revision, but you can't write an effective query letter or synopsis until you know what your story is really all about.
  1. Where does your story begin and how does this show or hint at some unhappiness on the part of your character, a secret yearning or problem in his or her world order? Give a one-sentence or brief paragraph description that sets the stage of the world and situation that is "normal" for your character and hints at the problem that makes continuing like that untenable? 
  2. Who is your protagonist and what are the special traits, strengths, and weaknesses that will come to play in the plot? Get down to the core personality characteristics and skills of your character that lead him or her into trouble and back out of it. What is your character clueless about? What's his or her fatal flaw? How does what he or she needs to resolve in his or her world conflict with what, deep down, he or she needs to make him or her whole as a person?
  3. What's the inciting incident? What event tips the scales of the current status quo and makes the character first start to confront what's wrong with his world so that he/she is unable to continue leading his or her current life?
  4. What's the first big decision on which the story turns? What's decision does the protagonist make after the inciting incident that leads him or her out of the normal life and into the action of the story? How does that contribute to his/her self-awareness or outlook about the life he/she has been living?
  5. What happens to the protagonist as a result of that decision? What characters does he/she encounter and how does the situation worsen, endangering him/her physically, mentally, or emotionally?
  6. What's the midpoint twist? What happens that drives the character into an EPIC change of thought, behavior, character, or plot/direction? 
  7. What's the change in the character's emotion? How does the midpoint incident change the protagonist's awareness of self, own character, understanding of other character's or of the circumstances to make them see the world differently than before? How does this lead to a new decision for how to proceed?
  8. How does incomplete understanding the protagonist just gleaned lead to a catastrophe that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? It looks like whatever plan the protagonist concocted is going to work, but there was something wrong with it and just when the protagonist looked like he or she was going to win, something catastrophic happened to make everything go wrong at the last minute. This could be the antagonist out-maneuvering the protagonist, but why didn't the protagonist see that coming?
  9. What does this realization, coupled with the catastrophe, make the protagonist see when searching his or her soul at this darkest moment? The protagonist is utterly defeated, emotionally as well as physically. Not only have things gone pear-shaped, but he or she has to face the truth about something in his or her life or character that makes it seem impossible to continue. 
  10. How does the protagonist pick up the pieces and find the strength to continue? Somehow, the protagonist digs deep and discovers that he or she has to keep going. Not only that, but now fully armed with self-knowledge, he or she makes a decision that will lead up to the final make or break confrontation. This can set him or her up for defeat or victory, and the knowledge doesn't have to be accurate. That all depends on whether you want a happy ending, or whether a happy ending is even possible. : )
  11. What's the final confrontation? How do all the events so far lead to a coming together of the parties where the story question can be decided once and for all? If possible, this should pit not only the antagonist against the protagonist, but also the protagonist against him or herself by forcing a decision that makes him or her give up either what he or she needs to be complete as a person against what he or she needs in order to effect the change in circumstances that needed to be repaired.
  12. How did the final confrontation change or resolve the situation? Tie up all the loose ends and subplots, not just for your main character but for all the main characters, and look for some way to underscore the theme of the book, the lesson that you want the character or the reader to take away.
  13. Where does the story end? Leave the reader with a snapshot that suggests what will happen in the future and shows the change in the characters circumstances and character from the beginning of the book.
If you can answer those questions, you can easily distill the story down to as little or as much information as you need. 

Apart from knowing your story, regardless of whether you are preparing a long synopsis or a short version, there are a few additional things you have to do:
  1. Lead with a hook.
  2. Introduce your setting and main characters.
  3. Clearly define your main plot points, conflicts, turning points, and what's at stake.
  4. Write well and give a sense of the style in your novel.
  5. Weave everything together with smooth narrative.
  6. Make the reader care.
  7. Indent your paragraphs and double space anything over a page.
  8. Avoid extra carriage returns between paragraphs.
  9. Stick to two or three pages for a short synopsis, eight to ten for a long synopsis.
  10. Use third person, present tense.
  11. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
  12. Include the following in the upper left hand corner: 
    Synopsis of "Your Title Here"
    Genre: Your Genre
    Word count: Your Word Count
    By: Your Name
  13. Include your address, phone number, and email in the upper right hand corner .
Happy marketing!


Want to know more? As usual, some of the best advice came from Nathan Bransford's blog, but there is a lot of great information out there. See the links below:

Nathan Bransford on How to Write a Synopis
Literary Lab Synopsis Pointers
Fiction Writers' Synopsis Tips
Guide to Literary Agents on Writing a Novel Synopsis
Publish A Bestseller Synopsis Tips
Susan Dennard's One Page Synopsis Template

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Hi there! I'm a new fan and would like to say that I found this post REALLY helpful! You included many details instead of generalisations. You also included some superb links.
    GREAT POST. Thanks!

  2. I'm starting my synopsis today (as I promised you I would in the Butt In Chair goals). Of course the first place I referred to was this blog, knowing I would find helpful links. And here they are! I've opened each link in a separate tab. Now I'm off to study them... and start writing that darned synopsis.

    If you see me on Twitter or Facebook before 3:00 today, yell at me and tell me to get back to work!

  3. JayceeKaycee, I'm not here. This isn't me. It can't be since I am working on my revisions and defintely NOT blogging. But I just added two links to the synopsis page. Literary Lab had a great synopsis post just today. Good luck!

  4. This is really good advice, however, being four years after self publishing I'm almost demorilised by the completeness of this advice and the hill that I still have to climb.


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