Recipe for a Successful Synopsis

by Jami Gold on February 12, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Index card box with text: Recipe for a Successful Synopsis, Synopsis 101

Whether we’re entering contests or submitting manuscripts to agents or publishers, at some point, most of us need to write a synopsis. Many writers hate writing synopses, but I don’t mind them. At least not anymore.

Synopses no longer intimidate me now that I understand what’s supposed to go into them, and just as importantly, what shouldn’t go into them. I can’t make you the best synopsis writer out there (that description doesn’t apply to me either), but I can share the recipe for a successful synopsis. Successful here is defined as “gets the job done and doesn’t hurt you or your chances.” *smile*

Before Writing Your Synopsis, Gather These Ingredients…

  • Protagonist(s): What do they need (that’s driving the plot), and what’s holding them back from what they really want.
  • Plot Turning Points: First Plot Point/End of the Beginning, Midpoint, Crisis/Black Moment, Climax
  • Resolution: For both the plot arc and the character arc.

Yes, all that means that if you write by the seat of your pants (like I do), you might have to wait to complete the synopsis until after you finish the story. In my “Lost Your Pants?” workshop, I share tools to help pantsers plan these aspects ahead of time, so at least we have a guess about the nature of these plot turning points.

Whether we’re pantsers or plotters, once we finish drafting a story, it’s easy to get wrapped up in our subplots and twists and turns. So those who can plot ahead of time sometimes write the synopsis in advance, before getting lost in the details. But this recipe can help cut through that confusion no matter when we tackle writing the synopsis.

Beware of These Ingredients

We want to keep these ingredients far away from our synopsis. They might be important to our story, but they’re often not as critical to our story as we think they are.

  • Too Many Characters: Provide names for the protagonist(s) (like hero and heroine in a romance) and antagonist. Discuss other characters only if they are critical to the main plot (side-kick, mentor, etc.), and give names only if they’re mentioned more than three times during the synopsis. Otherwise, stick to a description tag (“Her best friend suggests…”).
  • Subplots: This is where many of us get into trouble. We try to include that cool subplot that adds depth to our character, but in summary form, it’s too easy for it to just add confusion. Instead, add depth to characters by including their internal emotional arc.

The Basic Synopsis Recipe

We’re going to use many of the same events as we’d have on a beat sheet and add in some character arc/motivation information. Keep each bullet point to 1-3 sentences for a shorter synopsis. Longer synopses can have 1-3 paragraphs per bullet point. (Susan Dennard shared a great example of this basic recipe with a one-page synopsis for Star Wars.)

  • Specify the Opening Image: Establish the setting and/or premise. For some straightforward stories, this might be optional.
  • Introduce the Protagonist(s): Give some description and what they want (even if they’re not consciously aware of their needs).
  • Inciting Incident: What event/decision/change prompts the protagonist to take action? (Not the same as the First Plot Point.) For some stories, this might be optional.
  • Specify the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point: What choice does the protagonist(s) make and why do they make it? This is often a good point to bring in the protagonist(s) emotional arc to explain their motivations for their choice.
  • Introduce Conflicts: What about their choice (and the “new” world that choice throws them into) causes problems? What antagonistic forces are they dealing with?
  • Specify the Midpoint: What choice does the protagonist(s) make and why do they make it?
  • Specify the Crisis/Black Moment: What makes the protagonist(s) think they can win and what happens to take that away?
  • Specify the Climax: What happens during the big showdown? Don’t shortchange this point to keep secrets in the synopsis. This will often be the longest section of the synopsis. Making this too short or keeping secrets here will only make a synopsis confusing. Agents and editors would assume the story itself is likewise confusing.
  • Wrap up on the Resolution and/or Final Image: Include the ending and give some indication of how the plot wraps up and how the protagonist(s) has changed (what they learned and how they grew).

Blend the Ingredients

Now that we have the basics, we want to make sure everything makes sense:

  • Check that the protagonist(s) has clear goals (“Susie wants…”).
  • Check that every action the protagonist(s) takes has a motivation (“Mad at Jane, Susie does…”).
  • Check that every event has a reaction from the protagonist(s) (“Now hopeful, Susie does…”).
  • Check that every mention of a need or problem is wrapped up.
  • Check that every conflict is wrapped up. (The hanging plot threads in many series would usually be in the subplots and not mentioned in a synopsis.)

Add the Special Sauce

We could just add some transition words and call ourselves done. But we want this synopsis to feel like a mini-version of our story. That’s the “special sauce.”

The special sauce we add will depend on the type of story. For a thriller, we’d want the tone to reflect the story’s tension. For a comedy, the voice and narrative style should be humorous. For a romance, we’d want to make sure we’re not shortchanging the romance arc for the external plot arc.

Admire Your Finished Product

Following this recipe can prevent us from getting lost in the weeds of our stories. Going back to our beat sheet-type plot events forces us to focus on the main plot and not all those subplots that will just look like disconnected tangents in a synopsis. (For more about beat sheets, check my posts about them here, here, here, here, and here.)

I’m by no means perfect at this technique. (Just this past week, I discovered I had shortchanged the romance arc in my novella synopsis. Live and learn.) However, now that I have a structure to follow, I’m certainly better at writing synopses than I was before. Trying to tell the same story, but shorter, doesn’t work so well. *smile*

Do you struggle with synopses? If so, which aspects are difficult for you? Sticking to the right length? Figuring out what to include and what to leave out? Summarizing your story? Will this recipe help you? Do you have any other tips to share?

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40 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee February 12, 2013 at 9:04 am

I struggle with synposes, but I think that’s because I haven’t written many. Also probably doesn’t help that I’m the “Can’t see the forest for the trees” kinda person. I’m getting better at forest-viewing, but I still find it far easier to examine the trees. And my subconscious (a.k.a. “muse”) is getting good about making me trip over tree stumps.

I’m not comfortable writing stage plays, either, but I know I could get comfortable if I sat down and made myself write, oh, probably three in a row. But I’d have a heck of a time coming up with those three, because I don’t naturally think of stories in ways that suit theater. I’d probably be best served by watching or reading several stage plays first.

But I’m in a situation now where I’ll likely have to write a synopsis soon, and your checklist will be quite handy. I’ve bookmarked it to use once I finish the story, and I’ll drop you a line about how things go. :-)

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Jami Gold February 12, 2013 at 11:15 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, that’s how I used to be about synopses–the whole forest/trees thing. Being able to identify those beat sheet turning points made all the difference for me as far as what should go in or stay out.

Good luck with your synopsis! Let me know if you have any questions. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee March 25, 2013 at 10:06 am

…Well, I’ve drafted the synopsis. The story’s a novelette, though, and it’s morphed into the first in a trilogy. O.O So, um… Yeah. A bit odd.

Well, we’ll see if it morphs any more once I start revising the story. First draft’s done, though I’ve already started on story #2. >_>

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Jami Gold March 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Yeah, I know what that’s like when things refuse to be straightforward and “normal.” :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Melissa Sugar February 12, 2013 at 2:25 pm

I used Larry Brooks beat sheet templates to plot my story and it was very helpful. I have read all of his books. I am so glad that I found your blog. You have some really amazing and informative articles. Thanks for breaking the synopsis down into easy to follow ideas. I am writing my synopsis-post revised draft, but in the future, I will write it before my first draft. I can tell that you respect Brooks and his work and I noticed that you used the term “end of the beginning.” I learned that term from Martha Alderson’s book & plot consultations, but I often get confused between the different terms that both authors use to define certain plot points. Sorry, I went off on a tangent there.

This was extremely helpful and couldn’t have come at a better time. I am working on a revised copy of my synopsis so I can take it with me to my first (ever) writer’s conference this week (San Francisco Writers Conference). Thank you for explaining it. I love your blog. I have been reading it for hours today.

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Jami Gold February 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Hi Melissa,

Yes, I like Martha Alderson’s descriptions of plot events as well. They’re all referring to the same thing (End of the Beginning and First Plot Point) and just use different labels. That makes things confusing sometimes, but just know that they all serve the same purpose in the story, so use whoever’s definition makes the most sense to you. :) Good luck on your synopsis writing (and at your first conference!) and thanks for the comment!

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Joanna Aislinn February 12, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Hi Jami,
I tend to write the synopsis after the draft, so the difficulty for me becomes “telling” when I’m in a “showing” mode. What makes that shift even more of a challenge is incorporating some of the “showing” techniques in a summary that by its nature is telling. Did you get all that? ;)

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Jami Gold February 12, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Hi Joanna,

Oh yes, good point! The balance for telling and showing in a synopsis (and query for that matter) is very different than in the story itself (this is my problem whenever I try writing a synopsis in advance–and it leads to a long synopsis–LOL!). A synopsis is a telling format, and yet you want it to feel like a mini-story. Using those first 3 blending techniques (clear goals, motivations, and reactions) helped me show the information in a telling format. Let us know if you have any other tips for that aspect. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Ray February 12, 2013 at 6:57 pm

A fantastic article. Honestly, I’ve struggled with the synopsis mainly due to the intimidation factor. Was refreshing to see it broken down like this. Thanks for doing this and wish me luck with mine!

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Jami Gold February 12, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Hi Ray,

Absolutely! Glad I could help. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Shelley Munro February 13, 2013 at 2:01 am

Very helpful. I always write my synopsis after I finish the book (another non-plotter). Seeing the process broken down like this definitely makes a synopsis less scary.

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

Hi Shelley,

Yes, every time I try writing my synopsis ahead of time, it get unwieldy so I’ve stopped trying. But going back to the beat sheets I develop for revision time helps me see the big plot picture to focus on. Then I know to allude to the other plot developments only as they relate to the goals, motivations, and reactions.

I hope this helps your synopsis writing! :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena February 13, 2013 at 7:04 am

Hey! This makes more sense to me as I’ve seen your Treasured Claim blurb. However, you didn’t really mean to tell the reader the ending, right? (I’m pretty sure you didn’t.) The “resolution” section seemed to imply this.

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 9:27 am

Hi Serena,

Great question!

In a query, you don’t tell the ending. In fact, you often stop any type of plot description at around the 1/4 to 1/3 mark because you don’t want queries to be too plotty. You then wrap up the query with a choice that has clear stakes. That choice could be what they face at the end of the beginning, the midpoint, or the climax. Use whichever choice makes sense for the story. Sometimes, a character might face the same (or a similar) choice at all three places, and they just have to keep re-evaluating their choice as the circumstances change (get more dangerous, risky, etc.).

However, in a synopsis, you do give away the ending. And you give it all away–no just wrapping it up with a “then she defeats the bad guy and lives happily ever after.” ;) Nope, as I said above, you don’t shortchange and you don’t keep secrets here. You have to give the specifics of how she defeats the bad guy.

Here’s why… The number one purpose of a synopsis is proving to the agent or editor that you can tell a good story–including the ending. Too many writers might start off great, the characters look like they’re backed into a “no escape” corner…and then the author can’t figure out how to make them escape. :) The synopsis will reflect this lame ending. Our synopses must prove we don’t have one of those lame endings.

When agents and editors are intrigued by queries or partials, they’ll often skip to the synopsis to see if the rest of the story will hang together as well as the beginning. Specifically, they’ll be looking at the ending. Does it follow what came before (no deus ex machina)? Does it make sense? Does it fit the genre? Does it fulfill the promise of the story? Etc., etc. The second thing they’ll be looking for is story development–those goals, motivations, and secret sauce aspects.

So yes, giving away the ending in a synopsis is actually the most important thing you can do. That’s the main point of why agents and editors ask for them and our main goal in writing them. :) I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the great question and the comment!

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Serena Yung February 14, 2013 at 7:17 am

Oh I was probably thinking about the query/ blurb, not the synopsis, haha. Because I’ve never seen the backcover of a book give away the ending before–and I wouldn’t be motivated to read it if they already tell me how it ends. Also when I looked at your query, you didn’t tell us the ending either, so that’s why I was kind of confused when your post mentioned “resolution”. ^^

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Jami Gold February 14, 2013 at 8:51 am

Hi Serena,

No worries! I was a good opportunity to talk about the similarities and differences and the purpose behind the synopsis. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melissa Maygrove February 13, 2013 at 7:07 am

You always have the best stuff on your blog, Jami. I think this is the best article on synopses I’ve ever read. Thank you, and kudos!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 9:30 am

Hi Melissa,

Aww, thanks! I hope it’s helpful. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc February 13, 2013 at 7:45 am

Since I’m beginning my synopsis today for book two of my series, I’m thrilled I stopped by. You class gave me soooo much info and I already have all my printouts from it in front of me. This will help immensely as well!
Thank you for your wisdom and teaching, jami.
Have a great wednesday :)

Tamara

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 9:32 am

Hi Tamara,

Yes, I thought after the class that this would be an easy post–just take that page from the class handout and paste. Nope, it turned out I had a lot more to say. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Diana Beebe February 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm

This is so timely for me. I have to rewrite my synopsis because it is horrible and boring (so I’ve been told and I don’t doubt it), and I’ve been struggling with it. Thank you!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Hi Diana,

Yay! I hope this helps. The reason most synopses are boring is because they strictly list the plot events in a “and then this happened” way. Instead, if you use those goals, motivations, and reactions as transitions, it should read more like a mini-story. Good luck and thanks for the comment! :)

P.S. No worries–I fixed that typo you mentioned. :)

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Diana Beebe February 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Much appreciated! ;-)
BTW–I’m finding your modified Beat Sheet spreadsheet extremely helpful. You ROCK!

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Jami Gold February 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Hi Diana,

Aww, thanks! :)

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Buffy Armstrong February 15, 2013 at 10:36 am

Hey Jami!

Great post. And very timely. I’m tackling a synopsis this weekend. Wish me luck!

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Jami Gold February 15, 2013 at 11:42 am

Hi Buffy,

Good luck! I’m one of those who hates letting my beta readers see the synopsis before they read the story, so I have to make my synopsis good enough to make sense without beta editing. Uh yeah, I make things more difficult than necessary sometimes. :D If you’d rather not follow my insane example, I’d be happy to check yours over. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins February 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

Go figure, Jami, I didn’t know you feel the same way I do regarding feedback on the synopsis versus the actual book.

As much as I get why we have to write them, nothing’s a true substitute to reading or writing the actual book, that’s something I feel people far more compliant with writing ABOUT their book than me don’t always get.

The main reason I don’t like synopsis writing is because of
I’m always afraid the ending sounds trite because I don’t typically go in for the tragic or unresolved , and t

Unlike you, I have to workshop the synopsis no less than anything else, and it’s easier when beta-reader has read the story before I show it to them, I’m not the kind of writer who likes to write the synopsis before writing the story.

I can only do that (At this point) with query letters, and in part it’s because I’m not forced to give away the ending.

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Jami Gold February 26, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yes, I can’t get the voice or tone right in a synopsis until the story is done. So I don’t show the synopsis to anyone until much later in the process. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong February 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Thanks, Jami! I’ll send it your way when it’s done.

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Anne R. Allen March 17, 2013 at 11:25 am

Just found this. I’m way behind on my blog reading. Great, in-depth how-to. Really useful. I’ll bookmark it and refer people here.

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Jami Gold March 17, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Hi Anne,

Thanks for stopping by and passing the word around. I’m happy to help. :) Thanks for the comment too!

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Sara Litchfield January 11, 2014 at 3:30 am

Have to write an unexpected synopsis and knew it would be a good idea to search ‘synopsis’ on your site!!! Thanks for a wonderful guide :)

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Jami Gold January 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

Hi Sara,

LOL! I do the same thing. I’m happy to help. :)

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Gry Ranfelt February 23, 2014 at 3:10 am

How long should it be? With my pitch it’s 1,5 pages for me, 1 distance between lines and times new roman size 12.

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Jami Gold February 23, 2014 at 10:05 am

Hi Gry,

Great question! Unfortunately, there’s no one set length for synopses. Generally, 1-3 pages seems to be most common, with some contests and agents/publishers specifying up to 5 pages. If they don’t specify, anything 3 pages or under wouldn’t be a problem and would prevent us from bringing in confusing subplots. :) (That subplot problem has been my issue every time I try to go longer than 3 pages–my preferred length. LOL!)

And yes, they should be double-spaced unless the agent/publisher specifies otherwise. Sometimes 1-page synopses will be single-spaced, but that makes it hard to read, so many agents/publishers will prefer 2 or 3 pages double-spaced instead.

I hope that helps! :) Thanks for the comment!

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