Synopses: The Nitty and the Gritty


A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my basic take on synopses — what they are, what they aren’t, how they should appear, in either physical or pixel form.  I promised to devote a post to how, exactly, to write one, including step-by-step directions.  Here we go…

Let’s begin with one key fact:  Your synopsis isn’t about the plot of your story.  (I’ll give you a moment to scoff in disbelief, to roll your eyes, to tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Your synopsis is about the character arcs contained within your story.  Your goal, in writing your synopsis, is to tell about your main characters (usually two, possibly more if you have a really complicated, 250K or more epic on your hands).  You are *only* going to tell plot details when you have no other way to describe what happens to your characters, how they change, mature, grow, etc.


Let’s look at how it works, paragraph-by-paragraph.

Paragraph 1:  The Hook.  Tell me about your book in the most abstract way possible.  I want to know the high concept.  The elevator pitch.  The back-of-book copy.  The key to this paragraph is TONE.  Your hook can be dreamy and romantic, or it can be action-packed.  It can be workmanlike or otherworldly.  Just make sure it represents your novel.

Paragraph 2:  Characters.  Introduce each character, defining his/her role in the store.  (Again, you’re ideally presenting two characters, but I can live with three.  You’ll have to really sell me on needing more for a standard, 65K – 100K novel.)  Each character introduction should include the character’s name, his/her motivation, his/her conflict, and his/her goals.  Note that you do not need to provide any physical description of your characters at all (unless that description is vitally central to name, motivation, conflict or goal.)  The key to this paragraph (duh!) is CHARACTER.

Paragraph 3:  Plot.  You’ll repeat this paragraph a few times (but only a few times.)  Start each paragraph with a nice transition (“Meanwhile…”  “Alas…”  “On another planet…”).  Add a sentence describing an action taken by your character.  Add a sentence describing a reaction.  End with a sentence that summarizes the effect of the action and reaction on your character.  Of the three full sentences in each paragraph the most important one, by far, is the last.  Action -> Reaction -> Effect.  The key to this paragraph is DEVELOPMENT. 

Paragraph 3s are the heart of your synopsis.  They’re the most difficult part of the entire project.  Many writers fall into a variety of traps when they write paragraph 3s, including:

  • Vague, flowery, unclear language.  (Every word should say what it means and mean what it says — this is not the place for poetry!)
  • Misdirection about the hero or villain’s identity.  (Your synopsis doesn’t hide the ball in any way, ever.)
  • Excessive detail of plot, without focus on the effect of specific actions and reactions.

Paragraph 4:  Conclusion.  Wrap up your synopsis with a satisfying sentence (or maybe even two) that wraps around specifically to your first paragraph.  Tell us the EFFECT of resolving the hook cast out in Paragraph 1.

Once you’ve written your synopses, you’ll want to polish them.  Again.  Again.  One more time.  Make sure that absolutely every word is essential (Hint:  Use action verbs and specific adjectives.)  Be certain that every word you’ve used is easily comprehensible.  (This is a particular challenge with speculative fiction, because we rely so much on worldbuilding, purposely creating a world that might not be comprehensible to ordinary people.)  Run a grammar check.  Run a spell check.  If you’re submitting your synopsis electronically, save it at 100% view (otherwise, your reader will have to read it in GIANT text or teeny text, which might make them feel very immature or very, very old.)

So.  Sounds easy, huh?

Roll out your questions here.  And next week, I’ll share a synopsis that I wrote recently — it’s far from perfect, so it provides a great jumping off point for discussion.


18 comments to Synopses: The Nitty and the Gritty

  • This does make it sound easy peasy! As I mentioned last time you wrote about synopses, I’m going to use this to get myself re-focused on my main story-line, so the synopsis will be for me at this point. I do have a question–do you have a limit as to how many additional characters can be introduced (briefly) in the plot paragraphs? Is that where the antagonist(s) would be introduced/revealed?

  • Razziecat

    Mindy, this is the best breakdown of a synopsis I’ve ever seen. I can really see the whole picture of what I’m supposed to be doing with this, so thank you! My question is of a technical nature. I always save things in 100% view but what size font should I use? I usually write in 10 point font. Is there a particular size font that’s considered standard? (I assume the manuscript & the synopsis should be in the same size font…)

  • This is awesome! I’m guessing that if you are asked to write a 15 page synopsis, cause this seems good for a 3 page synopsis, you just keep the “paragraph” as sections and end up with multiple paragraphs in each. The longer synopsis details the smaller conflicts, too, right?

  • This is terrific – and saved to my Very Important Stuff folder! Thank you!

  • SiSi – See! I told people they didn’t have to be afraid! Re the antagonist — that’s one of your two or three characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, and maybe one supporting character…) I would not make the synopsis *focus* on more than that. (You can mention other characters, certainly, but they won’t have full character arcs for you to explain.) Does that make sense?

    Razziecat – Yay! Thanks for the compliment! I generally submit my materials in 12 point font. That tends to register as “normal”, without feeling too BIG or too small (wishing I had a teeny font for that word 🙂 ) As for keeping the synopsis and ms font the same, that’s not always necessary — you’ll probably be submitting them at different times. But as a matter of fact, mine *are* the same, because I keep 12 as a standard.

    Pea_Faerie – Yep – if you’re specifically asked for a longer synopsis, then you have the luxury of adding more detail — secondary or even tertiary characters, more highly refined actions and reactions. The idea, though, remains the same, no matter the length of the document.

    Lyn – ooooh! I don’t know that I’ve ever rated VIS before! 🙂

  • sagablessed

    I am so screwed. It sounds so easy the way you spell it out, yet I know I’ll eff it up. Because every synopsis I write sounds so darn lame.

  • ajp88

    This is a wonderful resource! Thank you very much for taking the time.

  • Nathan Elberg

    In all the reading I’ve done, I’ve never seen this approach to a synopsis. I can understand how it can be a powerful tool. I will try it, and see how the result compares to my current plot precis synopsis. Thank you for providing something original

  • Hm. This is way different from the webinar I took a few weeks back. That said, the synopsis for submitting to agents was supposed to be about 5 pages double-spaced. She said to keep it to about 5 characters and mention the all the major plot points. The structure was a bit different. This really gets me thinking. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, but is there something I can distill from all of this?

    (Meanwhile, one of the perks of the webinar was that we’d get to submit a synopsis ourselves and the agent would critique it, reserving the right to ask to see the manuscript. I tailored my submission to what she taught. I’m interested to hear what she has to say.)

  • Saga – I’m sorry that you feel so down. I find, when I feel hopeless about my writing, that the best thing I can do is roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

    ajp88 – Glad I could help!

    Nathan – I’ll be curious to hear how this approach works for you!

    Laura – Well, the first thing to distill from this is that if you’re submitting to the agents who led the webinar, you’d certainly better follow their recommendations for what they want to see! (That’s the advantage of going to conferences, webinars, etc., you get more very specific information about what individuals need and want.)

    Other things that I would conclude… My technique might not work for you at all – that’s always the case that one author’s tools might not work for all other authors. Looking back at my 17 novels, if I’d been required to write a synopsis about 5 characters, I would have been digging for rather minor secondary characters on 11 of them (and definitely secondary characters on all of them). I don’t think that would have helped my cause, alas…

    Good luck with your synopses – and let us know when they seal the deal!

  • I’m terrible at writing synopses and hate doing them (you can probably tell by my response last time). It’s like gouging out teeth with a rusty spoon. Though the last one I did worked out well. I think it was because I went through and listed each pertinent plot point first before I went back and fleshed it out. This seems like a pretty easy method. I might try this and list my points like last time and see what comes of it. Far as questions, I may have some next time after the example. 🙂

  • Daniel – I’ll be curious to hear how your efforts turn out! (And yes, listing pertinent plot points is a big help — to help see where character arcs occur!)

  • This is interesting and I like the format. But I’m wondering how you’d approach writing the synopsis when the antagonist isn’t introduced until about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through the novel. Prior to that point, what the antagonist is doing doesn’t impact the protagonist, but after the two meet, they’re set on a collision course… Would you still intro the antag in the second paragraph? Or wait to intro the antag until s/he actually appears in the story?

  • quillet

    This is so incredibly helpful. I’m with Lyn: this is saved to my Very Important Stuff folder! Thank you!

  • Stephen – I’d question why I was writing a book where the central conflict doesn’t show up till 1/3 of the book has passed; most editors won’t let things linger anywhere near that long. Still, if I had a reason to have a non-conflict first third, I’d still focus on the changes that my characters experience as they learn/change/grow in that first 1/3 of the story. (If you can skip everything that happens until the antagonist appears, then you can likely skip it in the actual novel.)

    Quillet – Yay – glad I could help you!

  • Didn’t say the first third had no conflict – or even that the main conflict wasn’t present yet. There’s plenty (I think) of conflict. It’s just that during the first third of the book, there is no way for the heroine to have met the antagonist, and introducing him earlier without context doesn’t quite feel right for the story.

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