“Write-by-number” Synopsis Recipe


Hey everyone! Kalayna here subbing for Faith (I’ll be here all month, folks, so don’t be shy–only my characters bite, promise). I had a post planned about the upcoming SC Book Festival that Faith and I will be presenting at this Saturday in Columbia, SC (yes, that’s a plug) but  Stuart’s post on writing the short synopsis reminded me of a 2 page synopsis formula I worked out a couple years back and I just had to share my “write-by-number” synopsis recipe.

Several years ago one of my critique partners was attempting to write her very first synopsis. The key word in that sentence is attempting–there was more headdesking than anything else. To prevent her from ripping out all her hair, the critique group spent a day or two trying to help her boil down her plot. Anyone who has ever whittled 100k words down to a two pages synopsis can surely understand the frustration involved, and as Stuart pointed out, it is impossible for a synopsis to capture the full story. There are many different ways to approach a synopsis, but at some point in the process, I realized that my critique partner was (is) just enough on this side of OCD that a formula with set ‘rules’ would help her.

So I made up some rules.

I’m not saying this is the best way to write a synopsis–in fact, it’s too rigid for me–but it helped her and a few others, so I thought it would be a great thing to share here on Magical Words. Interested? Okay, on to the formula. (As I think everyone is familiar with Disney’s Cinderella, I will be using that story for my examples as I work through the steps.)

Step one: Prep work

-Write one sentence introducing the main character and where that character is in the beginning of the story.
Most genre fiction is character driven, so just like you want the reader to identify with the character as soon as possible in the book, you also want them to instantly know whose story is being told in the synopsis. By “where that character is” , I obviously don’t mean a physical location, but who the character is and what is their situation. This is main protagonist only. If you’re writing romance (as in the main plot is a romance, not that you just have romantic elements) you get an extra sentence so that you can introduce both hero and heroine. The character sentence doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t spend a lot of time polishing it right now, but do try to hit on what makes your character unique.
Example sentence: The kind and beautiful Cinderella is treated as a servant in the home of her stepmother and two wicked step sisters.

-Summarize the conclusion of the plot in no more than two sentences.
These sentences need not be epic–just write a sentence or two about how the main plot is resolved. These concluding sentences should make it clear how the situation has changed for the character you introduced in the first sentence.  (Don’t worry about anything in the middle. This is just the end of the book.)
Example sentence: The glass slipper fits, proving Cinderella is Prince Charming’s mysterious dreamgirl. He whisks her away and they live happily ever after.

-Write one sentence each for the five most important parts of the plot.
You might think of these sentences as the inciting incident, the first turning point, the mid point, second turning point, and the black moment/climax. If you’re not sure what those terms mean, or what those points are, you can just pick out the five most important scenes. (They will probably end up being the same.) Limit these sentences to the main plot and keep them simple. The goal is to capture the plot progression.
-An invitation arrives inviting every eligible lady in the kingdom to attend a royal ball.
-Cinderella’s fairy godmother provides Cinderella with a gown and transportation fit for a princesses so that she may attend the ball.
-Cinderella shares an enchanting dance with the prince, but when the spell begins to break she is forced to flee the ball  and in her haste loses one of her glass slippers.
-Having fallen in love with Cinderella but not knowing her name, the prince declares that he will marry the woman whose foot fits in the lost glass slipper.
-Realizing Cinderella is the prince’s dreamgirl, Cinderella’s evil stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic while the wicked stepsisters attempt to force their feet into the glass slipper.

Okay, the prep work is done! If you struggled while deciding which five points are most important to your story I promise that you are not alone. (Even with a story as simple as Cinderella I had to weigh the points.) The good news is, with those five sentences, you just finished the hardest part. Now on to writing the actual synopsis.

Step two: The Synopsis

Character is who/what the reader latches onto, so copy that line you used to introduce him/her and make that the first line of the synopsis. It might not be the snazziest line, but we can fix it later. Next use a line or two to kick off the story. Don’t go into a lot of detail, just write a sentence or two. By the end of the second sentence you should have reached (or already described) the event mentioned in the first of your five plot point sentences. If you didn’t, you either picked an initial plot point too late in the story or your synopsis is starting too slow. Try to get the inciting incident (that point that kicks off the story and starts the character on the path that takes her out of her ‘ordinary world’ and into the thick of trouble with the plot) in those first two sentences.
Got it? Good. Moving on.
Look at the second plot point you listed and write two to three sentences to get to that point. (Don’t cheat on these sentences. You have three at most and they shouldn’t be crazy two hundred word run-ons.) Once you reach the second plot point you can expand that sentence to add a little more depth, but don’t go overboard. You shouldn’t use more than three sentences on expanding any of the five plot points. Once you are done with that point, move to the next in the same way. Once you reach plot point five (which should be the black moment/climax, you know, when your hero is faced with odds that look impossible/the final battle/ ect.)  spend several sentences expanding on that and then tack on to the conclusion you prepared earlier.

You should now have a very rough synopsis of about two pages. It is probably choppy and the word choice isn’t the best, but the major points of the main plot are  on the page. Now go back through and look for leaps in logic. You will probably have a couple extra characters you need to explain and some small things here and there between the steps. Try to do each of these in only a sentence or two. So far you’ve only focused on the main plot, but at this point, if you have room, you can gently weave in subplots. (Save before trying to add in subplots. If adding in subplots makes the synopsis explode, stop and back up to just the major plot.)

(With the example of Cinderella, I would use the “linking sentences” (those two to three sentences between the five major plot points) to quickly add information like the fact Cinderella was told she’d have to finish all her chores and have a presentable dress before attending the ball and that the step sisters destroyed her first dress. I’d only add in sentences about the mice and birds making the dress for her if, once finished with the first draft of the synopsis, I saw that I still had a lot of room to embellish because while those details are cute and make the movie memorable, they are not mandatory to communicate the plot.)

Once the synopsis reads logically, begin your micro edit. Focus on using active verbs, varying your sentences, and all those other good writing tips you use in your novel writing. Also, look for places the voice from your book can shine through in the synopsis.

And that’s it. If you stick to the formula, you will have a synopsis shorter than this blog post. Will this recipe work for everyone? Of course not. But I do hope it helps some of you.

Anyone else have tips/tricks/or formulas for writing a short synopsis?


11 comments to “Write-by-number” Synopsis Recipe

  • Interesting, Kalayna, thanks. Just to complicate things, my queries tend to be less plot specific, I think. Having established the hook, main character and core conflict they tend to focus more on ideas, themes, issues than on story specifics. Is that significantly different, do you think? Unusual? Disastrous?

  • This is one area of novel writing that I think the Snowflake Method helps. I don’t use the Snowflake from start to finish, but the method used to get a synopsis is pretty straight forward.

    1) Write a paragraph glimpse of your novel. Use the first sentence to setup the story. Then use a sentence to list each major disaster (plotwise for the protag) of your story. Then use the last sentence to tell the ending.

    EX: Intro>> Disaster 1>> Disaster 2>> Disaster 3>> Ending

    2) Then expand each sentence of the above paragraph into new paragraphs.

    Tada! Instant Synopsis… theoretically of course.

  • I suck at writing synopses, so I love this formula. Thanks, Kalayna. And I have to say that I like Mark’s approach, too, and that, like A.J., I would probably like my synopses to have a slightly more thematic approach. [Furiously scribbling notes….]

  • Queries and synopses are the two areas I’ve had the least amount of practice. I have a one-page for Rogue 5 and one I’m still working on getting down to two pages (I’m a paragraph too long). The one-page feels very sketchy though and I’ve never felt happy with it. I also feel like I’m cheating on them because the paragraphs aren’t split up by a space, but set up with tabs (don’t know if that’s an issue or not, I’ve seen examples of both). I might give this method a shot and see how it turns out.

  • We say at MW that there’s no one way to do any of this, and when it comes to synopses, I think that’s more true than at any other time. Examples of synopses run the whole spectrum from all plot to all character to how-did-that-ever-work-as-a-synopsis! I think for a lot of writers, your breakdown and simple steps will work wonderfully. Thanks for continuing the whole synopsis dialogue!

  • Deb S

    Kalayna, I like your micro-edits tips. A good synopsis will sell your story as opposed to merely telling it. The things that make a novel shine — voice, pacing, interesting characters, etc.– will do the same for a synopsis.

    Rather than thinking of a synopsis as a book report, some agent (can’t remember who) said to think of it as a novel in miniature and write it that way.

    In other words, when writing a synopsis:
    Hook the reader at the start
    Make sure events follow logically upon one another
    Build suspense, character goals and motivation
    Hit the climax with a bang, showing
    Close with the denouement

  • Awful doesn’t even come close to how bad I am at writing a synopsis. I’ll take any formula I can get! Thanks Kalayna for writing this post, and to everyone for commenting with different ways to write them.

  • I suspect writing synopses is like writing much of anything else: everybody has their own way of doing it, everybody has things that work for them and things that don’t. There are a bunch of hings in here that I can’t ever imagine doing myself, and a bunch of things in here I never thought of and can’t wait to try out. Funny old world, ain’t it?

  • Kalayna, this is great! I have a terrible time writing synopses, because I find myself wanting to include everything. I’m definitely trying out your system for the next time.

  • Oooh. Interesting idea, Kalayna. So many choices … thank you. 😀

  • Jumping in why I have power. Storm did a lto of damage around here!

    One more thing you can do to make a killer synposis — once all the plot points are in, write in the main character’s voice! I’ve tried this a few times and the editors adored it.