5 Tips for Writing a Synopsis that Shines

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Last week some of you commented about your love-hate relationship with writing a synopsis. Some authors say they enjoy it. More often, though, I hear writers express uncertainty. It doesn’t have to be a dreaded task if you pay attention to a few key points.

Some writers create the synopsis before they begin their book, because the exercise of writing it creates a clear road map for the storyline and plot. If you are the type of writer that needs to begin with a framework in order to visualize the restSynopsis_s886321219793739444_p2_i1_w1100 of the book, starting with our synopsis may serve that purpose, not to mention getting it out of the way early. Chances are you’ll have to edit it after your manuscript is complete, but at that point it won’t be like starting from scratch. An added bonus at the end of the long manuscript process.

However, if you are the kind of writer who works best by discovering what happens as you write, you may feel restricted by an early synopsis, needing instead the freedom to flow with the main characters as you get to know them, their conflicts and goals along the way. But a word of caution. By the time you finish your manuscript, you could be creatively drained and might be tempted to rush through the writing of your synopsis. But don’t give in to that temptation. Agents and editors will read it before they get to the manuscript, so it’s important to create a perfect reflection of the quality of your manuscript, drafting, revising, and editing it to make every word count, just as you did for your manuscript.

A good place to begin is with a review of basic construction rules that show you are a writing professional:

  • Present tense
  • Third person
  • Single-spaced in a proposal
  • Use of .5-inch paragraph indents
  • Same style and voice as your book
  • Approximately five pages long for a trade-length book
  • Standard business font such as Times or Times New Roman

Now to the 5 tips for writing a synopsis that shines:

  1. It should be addressed to publishing professionals, not readers. In other words, don’t leave any confusion or unanswered questions, as you would when trying to grab readers’ attention.
  2. Introduce the main characters and describe their conflicts and goals in ways that make agents and editors like and care about what might happen to them. If you can accomplish this in the synopsis, they will be assured you were successful doing so in the book as well.
  3. Stick to the main plot and characters, following their story (emotional arc) and the plot (narrative) chronologically. Again, conveying the emotion in your synopsis shows the agent or editor you can deliver in the book as well. Don’t get sidetracked with sub-plots and secondary characters.
  4. Transitions from paragraph to paragraph should be smooth and easy to follow. This is where I see many synopsis problems. When I have to read the manuscript in order to understand the synopsis, it defeats the purpose and reflects negatively on the writer.
  5. Tell the ending. Agents and editors need to see quickly that you are able to bring all the conflicts to final, satisfying resolution.

What pitfalls can you identify in your current synopsis? How can yo remedy them as a result of these tips?

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62 Comments

  • Writing a synopsis is simple. It’s like giving a detailed description to the question from your spouse – “How was your day?”

    (You left-brain guys who think that “Fine” is a sufficient answer, please step outside. We’ll deal with YOU later.)

    The synopsis is just a narrative that describes the important action in your book; just like a narrative that describes your day. You wouldn’t leave ‘cliffhangers; concerning what you ate for lunch, so you can leave them out of the synopsis, too.

    Here are some things I’ve learned, to make the process easier. It’s a bit lengthy, but the development of a good synopsis in some ways stands in direct opposition to the way in which a novel is written. This calls for the mobilization of a different mindset, and the process outlined below can help you develop it.

    First, prep work:

    1 – Read the manuscript so it’s fresh in your mind; don’t take a week or so after reading it, figuring that you know it well enough. You need the detail and nuance that comes with a fresh reading.

    2 – Write a quick bio of each main character

    3 – Write a timeline for the action

    4 – Document scene changes, and key them to the timeline

    5 – Write brief chapter notes (i.e., “Chapter 4 – Jonah was swallowed by a whale”) and reference them to the timeline and location log (“mid-June – Mediterranean”).

    6 – Write down the moral of your story in one sentence – “Crime does not pay”, or “Riding bicycles in traffic while blindfolded is a life-changing experience”.

    7 – Read a single-spaced page – not from your MS – aloud. This will give you the approximate time you’ll need to ‘tell the tale’ verbally in five pages. (You’re not doing it from your MS because you want to distance yourself when producing the synopsis – it’s a professional document, without the intensely personal nature of your MS. This is where you start the process of stepping back.)

    Now that this exercise is done, you can move on to developing the synopsis itself:

    1 – Using your notes, tell the story, and record it. On the first pass, don’t watch the clock as you’re telling it.

    2 – Listen to what you’ve recorded. Is it coherent? Did you want to stay awake to find out what would happen? How long did it take? How does the length compare with your baseline ‘minutes per page’ calculated above?

    3 – Do it again, adjusting for content, to make it better, and to make sure that you didn’t omit anything important (or add anything superfluous to the purpose of the synopsis).

    4 – Once content’s there, record again, adjusting for time.

    5 – When you have content and length where you want them, either transcribe or use voice-recognition software to produce a hard copy (or use one of your kids…or call in a favor from your spouse).

    6 – Edit the hard copy to your heart’s delight.

    7 – Record the edited synopsis, and see if it still holds your attention…or, at this point, “(you’d) rather drive a truck” (tip of the hat to the late Rick Nelson).

    8 – Re-edit until finished, or attend a truck-driving school.

    See? Easy as…well, it’s easier that working with Bessel functions. That’s something, anyway.

    For the left-brainers who were asked to step out earlier, think of the synopsis as a tech manual that describes a set of actions specific to accomplishing a certain task.

    Say, changing the oil in your car. What steps do you take? What has to happen at each step? How would you describe it so that it could be accomplished by someone who has never seen your car, and who has only the haziest idea of what ‘changing the oil’ really means?

    Do this to describe your manuscript, and you’ll be a long way down Synopsis Lane.

    (For those who have gotten this far without narcolepsy, a Bessel function is the ‘family’ of equations used to describe drumhead motion. Why does it matter? Because I brought it up earlier, and to leave it lay would have been a loose end and an assumption of a priori knowledge – bad form in a synopsis.)

    • Anne Love says:

      Thanks Mary, and Andrew. To me a synopsis is akin to stuffing an oversized octopus into a small box.

      Andrew, I love the left-brained comments, but have to say, they aren’t just reserved for men. My day job is my left-brained job. My crit partner often points out when my MS writing lapses into too much left-brained habit. I love writing the MS with a loose structure and letting my right-brain free. Before or after a long day at work, the writing process is freeing. Yet, here, at the synopsis writing, I have to jump back and forth between the two sides of my brain without dropping the “voice and feeling” of the story that Mary stressed. I think I tend to sound more “report-like” and risk losing my voice. I like it that your process involves oral dictation. I think this might help me keep my “voice” during this ambi-brainiac (as opposed to ambidextrous) of jumping back and forth between the two sides of my brain.

    • Thanks for these extra tips, Andrew!

    • Andrew, wow! Your brain must never sleep.

      Thanks for the tips!

    • Jim Lupis says:

      Could you repeat that, Andrew?…Only kidding!
      As always, wonderful clear and concise information! Thank you.

    • Anita Mae says:

      Andrew, your Prep Work #7 “Tell the tale” is one of the key points I need to remember when writing a synopsis. The urge to ‘show not tell’ was a struggle to learn/am learning in the first place, so when I switch to a synopsis, I need to switch brain gears to ‘tell not show’. A synopsis isn’t for descriptive words and phrasing, it’s the bare, hard facts of your story. That’s not to say they can’t be used, but if you need to write a one-page synopsis, there usually isn’t room anyway.

      And thanks for your list. It’s a great addition to Mary’s post.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for offering your great process steps, Andrew. And for the reminder that reading and recording is as helpful for the synopsis as it is for one’s manuscript, especially when it comes to those smooth transitions. Your steps demonstrate, too, the thorough work that needs to go into a stellar synopsis.

    • Dude, I can do the Bessel function in 12 parsecs. So there.

  • Another “save to folder” post for reference! Thanks, Mary!

  • Thanks for this, Mary! I’m pinning this post for future reference. :)

  • Hmmm…my current synopsis? Fitting everything in is my problem. The last several times I’ve had a proposal requested they wanted a one page synopsis…argh!

    • Agreed, Kristen. The Genesis contest requires a one-page synopsis. At least it’s single-spaced, but it’s a killer to fit in just the right plot points. On the upside, it’s an incredible exercise in tight writing. Every subject and verb counts.

  • rachel m says:

    Sarah Thomas had a really awesome idea for synopsis writing that really helped me and that was to go through the book chapter by chapter and summarize a sentence or two of each. that way you are sewing up little patches like a quilt :)

  • Mary, thanks for the reminders!

    I’ve found a method that works great for me and it makes the process seem less overwhelming. I use inexpensive 3×5 index cards (secured with a ring and easy to flip) to jot story details on as I work. Though I’m one of those who waits to flesh out a synopsis until my novel’s completed, this makes it so much easier. I find I can whittle down the bigger picture in a shorter amount of time, and it’s not as intimidating as it might be starting my synopsis from scratch. In other words, using my index cards is like the precursor to the main event.

    (And… at my favorite office supply store, index cards come in various fun shapes and prints–even chocolate-scented ones. Just a piece of trivia.) :)

  • Mary, I am definitely a plotter, so I use the synopsis as the beginning of a detailed outline. I love having the basics of it done when I finish the ms, but I’ve found the hardest part is the transition between plot points, like you said. “And then” just doesn’t work that many times. :) What about referencing the passage of time? For example, “Two days later….” Would that smooth it out? Thanks for the great suggestions.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, Meghan, short phrases that clarify time or place (meanwhile, back at…) are helpful when there isn’t a natural transitional flow from one paragraph to the next. But be careful not to over use that method. Read your synopsis draft aloud. If you hear yourself repeating time/place phrases too often, you’ll know you need to find different transitions for some of those occurrences.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Thank you for showing me exactly what I need for a strong synopsis, Mary. I am currently preparing a proposal and this information couldn’t be more timely.

    One quick question. In my synopsis I wasn’t going to reveal my ending, but I see that you say I should. Is it always best to describe the ending?

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Definitely yes, Jim. When writing back cover copy or promotional materials, you’d want to withhold the ending as a teaser to make readers want to buy your book to find out what happens. But the purpose of a synopsis is to tell agents and editors the storyline following the main plot and how you resolve the main characters’ struggles and conflicts at the end. They need to see you are able to do this satisfactorily.

  • This was a helpful post, Mary. I think the biggest challenge I have is the transitions between paragraphs. As Meghan mentioned above, writing a one page synopsis for a contest is very challenging. I tend to get dinged on how well I convey the ending of the story. I’m usually about out of words or/and space by the time I get to that point! It’s something I am working on.

    I always appreciate hearing how agents/editors view these aspects of the proposal/publishing process. Thank you for sharing this! It’s a keeper post!

  • Susan Mathis says:

    Thanks, Mary, and Andrew!

  • I’m constantly gathering people’s information and piecing it together for an article. But piecing my own story together for a synopsis is difficult. It does help you learn your characters better … maybe things you didn’t notice before … and makes it easier to verbally share with others what your story is about. Good but hard.

    Thank you, Mary.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      True,Shelli. I think one of the hardest things is switching gears from showing, as you would in your manuscript, to telling in the synopsis, which Anita commented on above, while maintaining the voice and including the emotion. This and the transitions. Andrew’s idea to record and play it back might be helpful with those.

    • I used to have a 450 word limit for my newspaper articles, and WOW, that was either super hard to condense everything, or super hard to stretch a boring subject out! (We were given subjects, such fun)

  • Anita Mae says:

    Before I found my wonderful agent (waving to Mary), I dreaded the synopsis process because I did it after the book was written. I was a seat-of-the-pants writer, and attempting to write the synopsis and create plotting charts before I started writing stifled my creativity.

    Now that I am able to submit proposals before writing the actual story, I’m finding it less stressful to create the synopsis. It leads me in the direction I want the story to go, but it’s vague enough to allow me leeway.

    As Mary said in her post, changes can be made to a synopsis to reflect changes in your story after it’s written.

    Yet, if someone had told me 3 yrs ago that I’d feel like this, I would have refuted them with vehemence. Funny, eh.

  • Pitfalls? Yeah, because after reading Andrew’s *slightly* spot on advice, I think I might just never, ever get mine right. But, maybe I’ll go back and look at it, but, I have a feeling I won’t want to see how bad it is.

    And oddly enough, this thought just came into my head…bummer we couldn’t translate our synopsis into “surfer”.

    “Dude, it was like, whoa, so I went right out there and it was like, whoa! And after that, I mean, duuude, whoa. So I got on my board and I was like, WHOA and bam, and I was totally smokin and then I saw him and I was all, whoa, and I told him to chill and he didn’t, so I was like, chill! But he didn’t, so I nailed him. And then I saw her and we got a Coke, and she was all, whoaaa.”

    No? Are you sure?

  • In case anyone is curious, I just cleaned my bathtub and toilet in order to avoid looking at my synopsis. At this rate, I may just paint my house.

  • The process of writing a synopsis can be jarring especially since I write historical suspense, and make a habit of hiding secrets on a regular basis in my story.
    I found it challenging to switch from the 1st person POV in my novel, to 3rd person present tense in the synopsis. But this different perspective has helped me fine tune the story arc.

  • Elysabeth says:

    Mary, this email post came at an appropriate time for me. I’m in the process of shopping my 50-state mystery series around (having been published once by a small press and then self-published) and was struggling with the synopsis. Since the stories are short and each story will be a different state, I know the synopsis is for the whole series. But making it work, especially since I only can do a one or two-paragraph synopsis is difficult. I’ve got my hook, my bio but now need the synopsis – lol. I appreciate the timing of this posting – E :)

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author
    FINALLY HOME, a Kelly Watson, YA, paranormal mystery
    http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Mary, for these excellent tips.

    A couple of months ago, I had to write a synopsis of my novel to have the plot critiqued by an agent (a service offered by Writer’s Digest). The thing I found most challenging was that the synopsis could only be two pages long double-spaced. Since my WIP is a fantasy, I feel a need to do some world-building in the synopsis just as in the novel, obviously not to the same extent, but enough to keep the agent / editor from being confused. That takes up page space and leaves less room in which to tell the plot.

    Writing the synopsis for the plot critique was a great exercise in that it made me decide what absolutely had to be there and wasn’t essential to an understanding of the plot and my main character. The critique also was helpful because I discovered where I failed to communicate. The agent said that I had a “winning plot,” but she suggested that I eliminate the romance between my main character (who’s a faerie) and a human. She called the relationship “gratuitous,” and said that it should only be in the plot if it makes the main character grow or change in someway. I was shocked when I read that she felt the relationship was gratuitous. It does impact the main character, causing her to grow in several positive ways, and the breaking of the relationship when he discovers she’s magical is the inciting force that sends her into the third act and into a life-threatening situation. I realized in re-reading my synopsis that I had given the relationship short shrift in the synopsis (one paragraph that essentially said, “Also, while she’s in the human world, she meets a human guy, they have a romantic relationship, he breaks her heart, and she goes back to the faerie world).

    When I rewrite the synopsis, I know I have to spend more time weaving this story into the telling and demonstrate the ways the relationship affects the main character.

    I hope, however, that most agents will be like you and accept a five-page synopsis. Every word will still have to count, but there will be more space to make the picture clearer.

    Blessings!

  • Thanks, Mary. I started to add this to my synopsis folder, and found where I’d saved another post from you. I appreciate your willingness to help.

    Thanks again!

  • I use Carnuba Literary wax with a lint free cloth to make my Synopsis shine.
    Warning: Never wax your Synopsis without first doing a spell check.

  • Love these tips, Mary. I definitely have a hard time writing a synopsis. I used to have the same trouble outlining chapters in school. I simply was afraid I would miss something important and would always end up with too much information.

  • Thanks for this advice. It has pointed me in the right direction as so many of your post do.

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