I admit it, I’m a freak.

I kind of like writing synopses.

I hate writing blurbs, but synopses don’t bother me. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s the big picture storyteller in me. Writing the story itself is nothing but detail after detail. It’s storytelling on a microscopic scale. But a synopsis is big, broad strokes! I love those.

I run a monthly writer’s group at my local library for all kinds of writers – fiction and non-fiction, plus the occasional poet or screenwriter – and they’re mostly beginners. I may not know a lot, but I can at least say I’ve been around this game for a good, long time. And if I don’t know the answer, I know someone who does. Not to mention, my Google-fu is super strong. I can research like nobody’s business.

This month, the topic was Writing a Synopsis. I decided to start there because we’re doing Query Letters next month.

First, what is this creature?

It’s a selling tool. Approach it that way. This is you taking off your word-spattered creative artist smock and putting on your most tastefully sexy business suit. Because you’re done being all “Wheeee!” It’s down to getting paid now.

You’ve written your genius query letter to your dream agent/editor, and they’ve responded with, “Sure! Send the first three chapters, plus a synopsis!”

After you’ve sacrificed the appropriate snow white goat to thank the writing gods, you go to your computer and immediately freak out. Because how are you going to fully wow the agent/editor with your brilliantly crafted tome in just … how many pages? They tend to come in two lengths. Either cram it all onto one page (eek!) or deliver a three to five page synopsis.

How do you cram 90K of awesome into 500 words?

You tell the story.

How many times have you heard everyone else say, “Show, don’t tell!”

Forget it. When it comes to the synopsis, tell, tell, tell.

Marissa Meyer, the author of the Luna Chronicles YA series, wrote a blog post a couple of years ago about writing synopses at http://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/6-steps-for-writing-a-book-synopsis/ . I think it covers pretty much all the bases.

This is just an overview of her post, and I HIGHLY recommend clicking over and reading the entire thing.

Step 1: Skim through the manuscript, noting the important events of each chapter.

 Step 2. Embellish the beginning.

Step 3: String your short chapter summaries together, using standard synopsis formatting.*

Step 4: Read through, with a focus on plot.

Step 5. Read through, with a focus on character arc.

Step 6. Trim and edit to the appropriate length.

She uses the synopsis she wrote for CINDER as an example. I think you should read the book because it’s made of awesome, but even if you haven’t, her synopsis examples do a great job illustrating a few of the big moments – not only about the plot, but about Cinder’s character arc. But read the book anyway.

If you need a differing viewpoint, try boiling down your story to these steps from Andy Rayne. He’s not talking synopses in this post, but a synopsis is honestly just distilling your story down to its basic structure.

5 Essential Parts


And if we’re going to talk about story structure, there’s no one better at it than Michael Hauge. If you follow his 6 Stage Plot Structure, then you can slim down your story into those Outer and Inner Journey stages.

Michael Hauge's Six Stages of Plot Structure, Updated for 2014

It’s pretty simple from there. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. Just tell your story, with a beginning, middle and end.

Good grief, I nearly forgot. Whatever you do, tell them how it ends! Do not tease the agent/editor with “If you want to know how it ends, you’ll have to request the full.”

Auto-bin. Do not screw with these people. Don’t be cute, be professional. Remember, you’re wearing your business suit, not a babydoll negligee.

Here’s a bit that is occasionally debated. Do you write your synopsis in your voice, or are you giving just the facts, ma’am? I’m personally a proponent of the synopsis with voice. They’re more fun to write, and, presumably, to read. As long as you’re getting all the information in there, why not make it interesting? My personal tip for writing your synopsis in your voice – as soon as you write The End, write the synopsis. You’ve already got the story in your head, so go ahead and scribble it all down. Yes, it’ll suck. That’s why the good Lord invented editing. But if you already have it down in your voice, it’ll be easier to maintain that style as you edit.

Of course, if you’re writing a police procedural, a la Dragnet, maybe “Just the facts, ma’am” is just the style you’re looking for!

Definitely have someone look over your synopsis before you send it to make sure you haven’t left anything out. Plot holes = bad. And you know your story so well that it’s hard to tell if you’ve left out something important. Someone who hasn’t read your work will wonder how Frodo hooked up with Strider if you forget to include a sentence about the Prancing Pony, yeah? (And if you didn’t get that reference, go sacrifice twelve hours of your life to Lord of the Rings, then get back to me.)

If I remember, I’ll write up my Query Letter presentation next month. But, umm, don’t hold your breath. 😉


*Notes on formatting your synopsis:

Single spaced, if 1 page. Double space anything longer.

1” margins all around.

Indent paragraphs, or add space between paragraphs, but not both.

3rd person, present tense. No matter what person or tense you wrote the story in, write the synopsis in 3rd present.

Capitalize the name of each major character the first time they’re introduced. (Only include major characters and important secondaries – don’t clutter up your synopsis with everyone who happens along the way.)

  1. Sela – I’m honored that you’d include my approach to structure in your article. And I agree with everything you’ve said about synopses (although I must admit, I never considered wearing a babydoll negligee to write one). I began my career in Hollywood as a reader, and wrote synopses and comments for hundreds of generally awful screenplays. That taught me an immense amount about story and structure, and what works and doesn’t work in a synopsis. So I might add one more suggestion for your followers: devote the first 2/3 of your synopsis to the first 1/3 of your novel (or script). So many of the essential elements of Setup, Opportunity, Goal, Conflict, Character Arc, Primary Characters and Theme occur in the early chapters or scenes of a story, give yourself time to reveal those. Then in the final third, accelerate the pace with more of the pared down essentials of story and conflict as you hurtle your readers to the climax. I hope that helps. And thanks again!
    – Michael

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