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, 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?Pin It