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February 12, 2013

Recipe for a Successful Synopsis

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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48 Comments on "Recipe for a Successful Synopsis"

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Carradee

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. 🙂

Melissa Sugar
Melissa Sugar

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.

Joanna Aislinn
Joanna Aislinn

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? 😉

Ray

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!

Shelley Munro

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.

Serena
Serena

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.

Melissa Maygrove

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!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

Diana Beebe

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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Buffy Armstrong

Hey Jami!

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

Buffy Armstrong

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

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Anne R. Allen

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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Sara Litchfield

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 🙂

Gry Ranfelt

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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Bethany Wiggins

Wow! What a great post. Thank you!

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