Friday, January 17, 2014

The Synopsis – The Grim Reaper of the Writing World

If there’s one thing in the world that writers despise, it’s the synopsis? Why because they are the spawn of Satan. They are soul sucking torture that just might kill you! And you know what? I love them! Okay well not love, I have a love/hate relationship with them, but I really do enjoy whacking and hacking with my magical editing axe until I get it down to the one page limit.

What exactly is a synopsis, do you ask? And why does it make writers cower in fear? It’s typically a one page single spaced (see agent guidelines for length) piece that explains what happens in your book. It spoils the whole thing from beginning to end. YES SPOILS. This is not a back cover jacket, or a query letter, this is a synopsis. You put in all the major twists and turns and let whoever is reading know EXACTLY what happens in this book.

But how do you fit an entire book’s worth of stuff into one page? The short answer, very carefully. The long answer well here goes…

There are many approaches to writing a synopsis. When I first started tackling them, I tried to write it from beginning to end and see how long it was. Then I attempted to edit it down to the limit. You know what? I failed miserably! I didn’t know what to cut and what to keep and I got lost in details I thought were super important. Guess what? They weren’t.

So where do you go from there? There are a couple of things you can try. There’s not one right or wrong way to write a synopsis so try one out and see what works for you.

If you outline start there. Look at each chapter and write one sentence that summarizes the entire chapter. What big thing happened? Why is this chapter so important? And if you can’t answer that question, maybe consider re-evaluating that chapter.
  1. Once you have those sentences you will need to string them together in a cohesive manner so one item flows into the next.
  2. From there identify the main arcs of the story and tighten the threads down to focus on those main points.
If you don’t outline or your outlines are very detailed you may want to try breaking your book into acts. Or grouping your chapters.
  1. Once you have your story broken into pieces, again try to write a sentence or two that summarizes the big plot points, and arc of the story.
  2. Once you have the main points outlined, string them together in a cohesive way so everything flows.
  3. Tighten the threads down to the bare minimum.
In general the big areas to focus on in your synopsis are: the inciting incident, the rise to action/conflict, the point of no return, the climax, and the outcome. The reader needs to know the character’s journey as well as the villain. What are their motivations for acting as they do and how do this progress the story along.

But even doing that, it’s tough to boil an entire manuscript down to one page. So here’s some other things to look out for when cutting and polishing your synopsis.
  • Start with the main character and what they want. Set the story up immediately so you grab the reader’s attention. Then you can ultimately show how the character does or doesn’t get that by the end of the synopsis and how things change.
  • With each sentence ask yourself if this is the simplest way you can say this idea. While it’s nice to have some voice in your synopsis it isn’t always required. You want to get as much information out there as cleanly as possible. If you have to sacrifice some voice to do it that’s okay. The purpose of a synopsis is to tell the reader what your book is about start to finish. It’s to show you have a complete character arc and story. To prove your book doesn’t have holes in it and to show where things go. You don’t have to reel the reader in like you do with a query.
  • Ask yourself if each sentence is carrying the story/plot forward. When you write the book, each sentence of a synopsis should carry the reader to next time, place and/or incident that drives the plot and character arc. The same should happen in a synopsis only on a tighter scale.
  • Say what happens. When you write/edit you try to eliminate the X saw, heard, felt, etc. All those sense words you can show without saying the character turned and saw something or heard something because you are already following them or in their head. As you would make something happen in your story, do the same in your synopsis. Make it happen don’t say X heard Y, or A saw B do this, just say B did it.
  • Make sure the synopsis shows how the character changes, or if they don’t change what they learned and why they decided to stay the same. Synopsis should show what changes over the course of the story.
  • Subplots. You will have some subplots in your synopsis but limit it to one or two that really compliment or add to the main arc in some way. More than that and you start getting bogged down in details.
  • Keep travel to a minimum. In most cases, unless it affects your plot/conflict we don’t need to know how the characters got from point A to point B just that they are there and something happens.
  • Keep mentions of time passage to a minimum. Phrases like two weeks later, and the next day are empty in a synopsis. They offer nothing. Show what’s happening. In the synopsis it’s usually not important to know how long it took, just that it happened or is happening at that point in the story.
  • Don’t repeat. If you’ve already said something don’t bring it up again or rephrase. It’s not necessary and it takes up precious space.
  • Realize the reader doesn’t need to know everything. Give enough to eliminate confusion and help them connect the dots from point A to point B. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • Use active verbs. This will help you move the story along quickly and concisely. It really helps show what’s happening. It also helps the voice of your synopsis. In most cases you shouldn’t need to be verbs in a synopsis because you’re telling what happens not what is.
  • Avoid descriptions. In most cases in a synopsis we don’t need to know what the character looks like or what a place looks like. Unless it’s critical to the plot/conflict cut it.
  • Avoid filler words and adverbs. This cuts out on a lot of space, words like that, just, even etc. aren’t necessary. Most adverbs aren’t either.
  • Cut back story and setup. You don’t want to info dump in your manuscript and you certainly don’t want to do it in your synopsis. Unless the character’s past is critical to the plot or conflict leave it in the past.
  • Avoid clichés. Enough said there I think.
  • For every character you introduce in your synopsis (and it shouldn’t be every character in your book) make sure their motivations are clear. Also make sure they somehow contribute to the overall plot and/or conflict.
  • Avoid the “and then and then and then” syndrome. While a synopsis is telling what happens as the story progresses, you want to avoid saying and then this happens then they go here and then they do that. Try to weave the story as if you were telling it in person to someone who has never read it. If you just keep saying then this happens you’re going to lose their attention, so make it interesting.
  • Transitions are key! They can make or break your synopsis. Just as you don’t want to say and then over and over again you want to make sure your synopsis has flow. It eliminates confusion and it shows how the story is progressing.
  • Get feedback. Both from people who have read and haven’t read your book. It should be clear to someone who hasn’t read your manuscript what is going on. Likewise for someone who has, they should be able to pinpoint anything major you left out. Both types of critiquers should be able to help you identify things you don’t need in your synopsis.

By this point hopefully you are seeing a pattern in the tips. If it doesn’t contribute to the plot and/or conflict, it has no business in your synopsis. That’s how you determine what’s critical and what’s not. Simplify Simplify Simplify.

Do you have synopsis tips and tricks you want to share? Please post them in the comments!


  1. Real writers know that a synopsis is best written by marketers, not us. A proper synopsis omits the real meat of the story while telling it all at the same time. It's too painful for us.
    My best tip is to have the synopsis read by a beta reader who has not (or not yet) read the manuscript. Their feedback is the most helpful as to whether it is not only coherent, but captures the voice, and generates eagerness to read the real thing.

    Your tips, too, are solid how-to advice. Thumbs up!

    1. yes I agree. Feedback is crucial to determining if things are coherent and accurate.

      Thanks for the comment :)

  2. Thanks for this! I have a two paragraph synopsis for a query but haven't managed to write a decent, longer one yet. Do you think starting out the longer synopsis the same way as the query synopsis is taboo? (For agents who want both a query letter and a synopsis, do you think they'll consider it laziness if they both start the same way?)

    1. I think a synopsis and a query serve different purposes. A query is to entice and tease a bit like a back cover jacket, while a synopsis more or less a one page outline of everything that happens. So while some of the information will be the same in both, the synopsis covers everything. My synopsis and queries look different.