Writing a Synopsis: Some Things I’ve Learned

We all know about four-letter dirty words, but only writers know about the eight-letter dirty word – SYNOPSIS.

A synopsis is a summary of a novel’s main plot points and characters, from the beginning right through to the end. Most agents and editors like to see one when assessing your manuscript for possible publication, so it’s something almost all writers have to do at some point. I’ve noticed many publishing professionals request a ‘brief synopsis’, which I take to mean about one or two pages at the most. Others may ask for a more detailed five or six page synopsis. But this is something many writer’s struggle with, me included.

How can you possibly take a 300-400 page story and explain it in only one or two pages?

I don’t claim to be an expert on this (far from it, although I do my best!), but here are some things I’ve learned while writing my own synopses. I’ve called it ‘The Russian Doll Method’!

Open your manuscript and summarise all the main plot points, as though you’re giving someone a running commentary on a TV show or movie they can’t see. Use present tense. Don’t worry about length at first, just get the main plot points down (big Russian doll), and add in a taste of your voice, so if it’s humorous, show some of the humour, if it’s suspenseful, add that element to the synopsis too, as long as you don’t leave any questions unanswered. A synopsis’ purpose is to tell a potential agent or editor/publisher what the book is about and what happens throughout the story, including the ending.

Once you’ve written the summary, go through and highlight the most important events affecting the main character/s in yellow. Then highlight the slightly less important events, but still a required part of the story, in another colour such as grey (just one shade, not fifty. Sorry, couldn’t resist;)). You might find that some events can be left out of the synopsis, for the sake of brevity.

Now start again, writing the synopsis focusing on the highlighted parts, and tightening up the sentences (smaller Russian doll). Check the length to see if you need to cut further, and if so, go through the highlighting process again (even smaller Russian doll). Also, see if some plot events can be combined into one sentence as an overall summary of the situation, so rather than:

John arrives at his grandma’s house and notices the door is unlocked. He searches all the rooms in the house, but finds them empty, so he walks out the back door and through the overgrown garden. She isn’t there either. He goes back inside and stands in the kitchen, scratching his head, then notices a half-eaten toasted sandwich resting on the table. He picks it up and finds it is still warm. Thinking his grandma might have been abducted only moments ago, John immediately calls the police. (forgive the crappy writing, this is just an example!)

Using the highlighted parts (which I’ve underlined instead because I don’t know how to highlight on this blog!), the paragraph could be changed as follows:

When John arrives at his grandma’s house it is empty, and her half eaten lunch is still warm. Terrified something bad has happened to her only moments before his arrival, John calls the police.

And if you had to cut it even further it could be changed to:

John calls the police on finding his grandma’s house empty.

Sometimes it’s easier to work this way, starting with a long synopsis and gradually breaking it down. If you end up trying this process, I’d love to hear how it goes for you – let me know!

How do you go about writing a synopsis, are there any valuable tips you’ve learned through the process?

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About Juliet Madison

Humorous & Heartwarming Fiction ~ Experience the magic of life and love...

Posted on July 9, 2012, in General, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I think part of the reason I haven’t finished polishing my manuscript is because I’m terrified of having to write the synopsis….

    • That’s understandable, Michelle! Even though a novel takes a lot longer to write, it’s much more fun than a synopsis. But once the synopsis is done, phew… what a relief!

  2. Great post, Juliet.
    Worse still, when the synopsis is meant to be 200 words. As to tips I’ve learned… does drinking and crying count? :p

  3. thanks for this! i like your russian doll approach. it makes it sound slightly less scary. i just can’t bring myself to do this, but hoping you just inspired me to get it over with.

    • Thanks Bolton. The Russian Doll thing came to me when i was trying to find a picture to go with the blog post, I was looking for something that becomes smaller, and then ‘Aha! Russian Dolls!’
      I wish you all the best with getting your synopsis done, once it’s done it’s done. 😉

  4. I thought your example about John and the empty house illustrated the point perfectly. Less is more!

    I kind of go the opposite way when writing synopses. I think of the three biggest events (first turning point, midpoint, climax) and then fill in what leads up to, and away from them. Add a few sentences of character description and setting and ta-da! A synopsis.

    I wrote a more detailed blog post about it here, using The Wizard of Oz as my example. http://www.help4writers.com/blog/?p=374

    Hope it’s okay if I put a link in your comments. I just think it’s so interesting how each writer does things differently.

    • Hi Margaret, thanks – I’m glad you found my example a good one!

      That’s interesting how you approach your synopsis, I might give that a try and see how it goes for me. Thanks for sharing the link 🙂

  5. Great plan Juliet – I’ll give it a try!

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