The Synopsis

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2A synopsis is a short, focused summary of a story’s plot.

A synopsis has two purposes. One is to help a writer focus her plot (“What the hell is this book about anyway?”) and the other is to prove to an editor or an agent that she can plot. So to write a synopsis, you need to pare away everything but the most important plot points: the acts and the turning points.

How To Write a Synopsis, Part One:
• Write numbers from 1 to 10 on a sheet of paper.
• After the number 1, write a one sentence description of your Beginning scene starting with the name of your protagonist: “Jane and her tightrope walker rival Violet argue about the notice of the Circus Queen competition.”
• After the number 3, write a one sentence description of your next turning point, the Wake-up Call, starting with the name of your protagonist: “When Jane is almost knocked from the wire by bats sent by Violet, she saves herself, captures the bats, and defeats Violet for the moment, but now she knows Violet is out to get her.”
• After the number 5, write a one sentence description of your next turning point, the Point of No Return, starting with the name of your protagonist: “When Jane is almost knocked from the wire by the Nopefish sent by Violet, she saves herself, captures the Nopefish, and defeats Violet for the moment, but now she knows Violet will stop at nothing, and she must fight back.”
• After the number 7, write a one sentence description of your next turning point, the Crisis, starting with the name of your protagonist: “”When Jane is knocked from the wire by the bomb sent by Violet, she breaks her leg and is forced to accept that Violet has won and she has lost the crown and may never walk the wire again.”
• After the number 9, write a one sentence description of your next turning point, the Climax, starting with the name of your protagonist: “When Jane is rallied by the creatures she’s saved, she walks the wire and exposes Violet for the homicidal maniac she is.”
• After the number 10, write a one sentence description of the Resolution of the story starting with the name of your protagonist: “Jane is made Queen of the Circus, Violet goes to jail, and the Jane and the Nopefish and The Bats live happily ever after.”

So far, your synopsis looks something like this:

Synopsis 1

How To Write a Synopsis, Part Two:
Now go back to lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 and write no more than five sentences, the first one starting with the name of your protagonist, that sum up the actions she takes in Act One, Two, Three, and Four. Now your synopsis looks like this:

Synopsis 2

Pretty good, huh? No. Now take out all the numbers and reformat the list as paragraphs. Read through it as if it’s a short story. What’s needed to smooth it into a compelling narrative?

Jane’s fear of heights would be good, although not a whole sentence on it, maybe just a modifying phrase: “Jane and her tightrope walker rival Violet see the notice of the Circus Queen competition, and Jane wants to be Queen badly but she knows her fear of heights will keep her from being a champion.”

Then there’s the Nopefish’s subplot. We don’t want whole sentences on the Nopefish, but maybe a modifying phrase:
“But behind her back, Violet is jealous and orders her Nopefish to train the bats in her act to attack, cruelly exploiting his fear of being returned to the pet shop where she found him.”

And what’s with Sven? Does Jane have a romance subplot?
“Violet asks for her help, and [Jane] gives it, even though her best friend, Sven the Strongman, warns her that Violet is up to no good.”

Go through the synopsis and add the phrases that will briefly indicate the motivations and subplots in the story. Then read through it again and rewrite it once more to smooth everything out into a coherent story, this time making sure that your voice as a writer is on the page. The final rewrite should be as short as possible: two pages is excellent; more than ten and people will quit reading. Avoid whole sentences about motivation, psychology, back story, and anything else that is not bodies moving on the page. You’re proving you can plot so anything besides plot is just white noise that obscures your story. And make it an interesting short story on its own so whoever reads it knows you can write.

Now give it to one of your reader critics for feedback, rewrite again, and let it be. It’s a tool, not part of your story. Your finished synopsis might look like this:

Synopsis 3

This still needs some work, definitely a stronger voice, maybe a few more phrases about Jane battling her fear of heights, maybe a little more on the romance, but not enough to push it over two pages. Almost anybody will read two pages of story, and you want an agent or editor to get to the end.

Remember, a synopsis is mainly about plot structure, showing not telling the character arc in the story.

TroubleshootingThe biggest mistake synopsis writers make is making the synopsis too long. The second biggest is writing a ten page synopsis in which the first nine pages are a description of the first act and the last page can be summarized as “Trouble ensues.” If your synopsis is too long, print it out and use a marker to highlight the five turning points. Use those to divide the synopsis into four documents. Then cut each of the four sections down to one page at the most, half a page at best, focusing on action and cutting out all discussions of back story and character psychology and any sentence that is not bodies in motion on the page. Then smooth out the writing and send it out.

For other posts in this unit, see the Structure Unit main post.

16 thoughts on “The Synopsis

  1. This is very timely, since I am working on a novel in which I have 1, 7, 8, 8, and 10, but I’m missing 2-6. Hopefully I can use this model to clarify my thoughts. (Ironically, the proposal/synopsis is fine and accepted already, it is just missing a lot of stuff in the earlier part of the book.)


  2. Most excellent. Love the step-by-step tips. So doable. And the troubleshooting bit is perfect, too.

    Plus, after reading details re Jane V Violet, I’m totally rooting for Jane and hoping Sven will stick around when she gets to be a big star:)


  3. ginjones says:

    For anyone who outlines before writing (not Jenny’s process), it’s useful to note the turning points and acts in the outline, partly for storytelling reasons, but also to make writing the synopsis easy.

    Even with an outline, I write the synopsis last (because the outline changes while I write), but the outline (updated to match what was actually written) gives me everything I need for the synopsis.

    I do it a little more free-form than starting with the turning points and back-filling (I write one sentence per row in my spreadsheet, since I plot by way of a spreadsheet, with columns for goals and clues to the murder), but knowing where the turning points are and how far into the plot I am as I write the synopsis helps with the problem of having the synopsis focused on the first act and skimping on the rest.


    • This is an excellent point. Some people (Bob and Gin) outline ahead of time, and if you’re one of those people (aliens), everything Gin said is a great way to go. It would kill the book for me, I have to fumble blinding in the dark and then see what I’ve come up with, so if you’re not by nature a plan-first-write-second kind of storyteller, don’t try the outline first, but if you can do it, it’s vastly more efficient.


  4. This is the best description of how to write a synopsis I’ve ever encountered. I immediately put it into action. The writing flowed quickly. I’m never this competent with synopses. I was shocked at how easily I produced this one. And – I discovered one of my beats isn’t strong enough and a few things need tweaking. This is great, I’ll use it from now on.

    Will you be teaching a writing retreat/workshop/class/live online class (anything) anytime soon? I’d love to attend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nope. That’s why I’m putting together this book. These posts are the outline for the book, and since I promised to keep posting them here, I’m actually getting this stuff done.

      I’m thrilled that this is helping people. I know what a bitch writing a synopsis can be, and I’m like you: until I actually do this toward the end, I can’t see the weakness in my plots, so it’s good for that, too. So happy that it did that for you.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Peggy Larkin says:

        Ditto, thatbookstoregirl, but I am so grateful, Jenny, for this site! It’s also much easier to follow this than to attend a workshop when one’s wrangling a full-time teaching job and a ten-month-old… this I can do in small chunks (like while my students are taking a quiz… shhhh!).


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