Friday, January 16

The Sum of the Parts: Writing a Synopsis

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Aside from queries--and maybe electronic hotel card keys--few things are as frustrating as writing a synopsis. Condensing an entire novel to just a few pages means some things are going to be minimized or even excluded. I've found that approaching a synopsis similarly to how I approach outlining my novel helps me narrow down what to include.

The Basics

A synopsis is written in third person present tense, even if the novel is not. The goal is to show an agent or editor that you know how to plot, and you have a novel that does what a novel should do. Grab a reader, build on conflicts and stakes, and resolve the conflict in a satisfying way. You want to show your story and make it active, but a certain amount of telling is going to happen just due to the nature of synopses. Don't fret too much if it sounds that way. If it sounds boring, then worry, but as long as the story sounds like something someone would want to read, you're okay.

You also want to convey a sense of building doom and escalating trouble, and encourage readers to wonder what happens next. A fun test here is to read it to someone paragraph by paragraph, stopping each time and asking if your listener feels compelled to know what happens.

There are usually a half dozen or so major moments in a novel--the set pieces. The elements that makes up the turning points of the story. Those usually unfold like this:
  • Opening scene
  • Inciting event
  • Act one problem
  • Act two choice
  • Midpoint reversal
  • Act two disaster
  • Act three plan
  • Climax
  • Wrap up

Opening Scene

In the book: The opening scene is, of course, the way the book opens. It introduces the protagonist and the world and gives a taste of why this person is different or special enough to ask someone to read about them.

In the synopsis: One paragraph usually covers this, summarizing the key points a reader needs to know to understand the character, world, and situation. Without these details, someone couldn't understand the synopsis. Like if the protagonist happens to have a magical ability to shift pain.

The Inciting Event

In the book: The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion. It's usually what the query hook is based on, and what you'd find on the back of a cover jacket.

In the synopsis: Another paragraph covers this event and why it matters. Motivation is very important in a synopsis, as that shows the story drive and why these events are important. Don't forget to tell the why as well as the what and how (this goes for the whole synopsis, not just the beginning).

Act One Problem

In the book: This is when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your protagonist has just discovered she has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is what happened when she tried to deal with whatever she encountered in the inciting event.

In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs on what happens and why it's important. Don't forget your stakes, since this will show how the story problems escalate. She had problem A, but now it's worse and she has to do B.

Act Two Choice

In the book: The protagonist has done some digging and found out things are not what they seem. A secret is revealed that makes it clear she's in a bit over her head, but she has no choice but to go on. Or else. (Never forget the or else.) She has to make a tough decision on what to do next.

In the synopsis: Unless it's a complicated plot, you can usually get away with one paragraph here. Show how the protagonist is stuck between a rock and hard place, and has to make a difficult choice. Up the stakes yet again. Don't forget why they need to do this.

Midpoint Reversal

In the book: Something happens to send the story sideways and gives readers something they weren't expecting. The reader thinks they know where the story is going, but wait! Suddenly it all changes.

In the synopsis: One paragraph here that summarizes the protagonist's world being turned upside down and forcing her to act in a way she swore she never would. Or thought she couldn't. Or sends her off to face the unexpected or unknown.

Act Two Disaster

In the book: This is when it all goes wrong for the protagonist and she has the darkest moment of her life. Her plans have failed, everything looks hopeless, and she probably wants to give up.

In the synopsis: One paragraph that shows the event and how the stakes have been raised yet again. This is a good spot to show how the protagonist feels about it all as well, since this will usually show what they're willing to risk to win. It's also a common major step and/or trigger in the character arc.

Act Three Plan

In the book: The protagonist has dragged herself up by sheer will (or encouragement from friends) and is ready (or forced) to face the antagonist. She comes up with a plan to do so. This leads directly into the climax of the novel.

In the synopsis: One paragraph usually covers this moment, showing what the climax is going to focus on, what the protagonist expects to happen, and how the stakes are raised again.


In the book: The final showdown with the big bad guy. The protagonist has to face off with who or whatever has been making her life miserable for 400 pages, and because she's learned XYZ over the course of the book, she wins by a truly stunning and surprising ploy.

In the synopsis: One to two paragraphs that summarize this ending. Don't hold back on the details trying to save it for the novel. You want to show the agent or editor that you can deliver a solid and satisfying ending. 

Wrap Up

In the book: The happily ever after. Or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing. What the protagonist is going to do now that she's saved the day.

In the synopsis: One paragraph that ties it all up. If there's a moral or something the protagonist was supposed to learn in the story, this is a good spot to mention it. "Bob learns that trying to out do Jack in tequila shots was a bad idea indeed."

This format will give you a one- to two-page synopsis. For a longer synopsis, simply expand on these points, possibly adding in the major subplots as well. A common rule of thumb is to give the same ratio of space to the events in the synopsis as you do the book. So if the opening takes up 5% of the novel, it'll take up 5% of the synopsis. That can show the pacing and flow of the novel.

For the first pass, don't try to limit yourself too much to fit those one or two paragraph recommendations. Just write it, even if it's bad, so you know what details you want to include. The goal of the first pass is to get the basic information down, then see how much you have and edit to fit the synopsis size you need.

After you get it all down, then start tweaking. This is where all that practice you did cutting out weak verbs and adverbs comes in handy. You have to say a lot in a limited space, so every sentence needs to be as tight as possible.

Once you're done, find someone you trust who knows nothing about the story and have them read it. Have them mark where they got confused or didn't understand something. You want readers to be able to follow the story, even if some of the details are unclear. For example, they might not know what a Vexon capacitor is, but they know the bad guy uses it to blow up the hero's home world.

Oh, that reminds me...names. The human brain can only remember so much, so be wary about naming everything and everyone. You want the key players mentioned (protagonist, antagonist, major supporting characters), but you want to be wary about throwing in so much it all starts to blend together.

Some advice says to use all caps for names the first time they're used, some says all caps for just POV characters, some says don't use all caps at all. This varies by taste, so do what feels right to you, or what the person you're sending the synopsis to prefers (many agents and editors state a preference online). No one is going to reject you for picking one over the other, unless maybe you use all caps for every instance of every single name.

It's a good idea to let your synopsis sit between readings. Just like your manuscript, time away gives you perspective and lets you spot those awkward sentences you gloss over when you've been reading it over and over.

How do you feel about writing a synopsis? Love them? Hate them?

Looking for more tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Thanks for this! Much appreciated.

    Though I wanted to know, what if you had more than one protag?

  2. Most welcome.

    Same basic set up, but you'd weave in the multiple POVs. Chances are they're both doing something that moves the plot, so you can often do a back and forth thing. Bob does this, and back at the ranch, Jack does that. The set pieces are probably the same amount, just different POVs will be present at each. (As in, you probably wouldn't have two complete novel arcs for each POV, even if they do have their own story arcs)

    My very first novel had seven POVs (yeah, I was a loon) and trying to do that synopsis was impossible. LOL. There's a reason it never got anything but rejections!

  3. Fantastic post (probably the best blog post I've read on the subject).

    Do you mind if I link to this on my own blog?

  4. Seriously awesome post. A great breakdown and I agree w/ Kathleen, probably best post I've read on the subject. Thanks!

  5. Thanks! Link away, Kathleen. Blags are meant to be shared :)

  6. This is great Janice! It is so nice of you to make posts to hep others get published! I am actually going through the publishsing process for a YA Fantasy novel and I adore the advice you gave! Thanks again :)

  7. This may be a very lame question, but are there any word count guidelines for synopses? The closest I've come to any quantification so far is 2 single-spaced pages, or one page for each 35 of writing ...

  8. None that's I've seen. My understanding is that anything under two pages is single spaced with paragraph indents. Three or more pages is double spaced with paragraph indents. (the longer it is the harder it is to read single spaced)

    Size will vary depending on who is asking for it. One to two pages is pretty common is the basic submission package (query, synopsis, sample pages). Sometimes someone will ask for a longer more detailed one.

  9. What exactly is the difference between synopsis and outlining?

    I was taught to start with a synopsis, as that is = outlining.

  10. Hans, a synopsis is an overview of the story in a narrative format. Like a summary. An outline is more like the plot points of story broken down into individual pieces, often by chapter. The goal of a synopsis is to give someone the basics of the plot and the tone of the book. The outline is more often a plotting tool used to write the book.

    Of course, there is also the non-fiction outline, which is an overview, usually by chapter or section, of a non-fiction book. This is used when you send a proposal to an agent/editor.

    Sometimes you do hear these terms used interchangeably, but those are the basic differences.

  11. Nice job! I like the way you've given your readers the main points to consider. Like I tell people, those plot points the bones of your story; the synopsis puts flesh on them. But you have to remember to keep it lean...

    Great blog! :)

  12. Exactly! Submission tools are also great plotting tools. I love to use the query and the synopsis to help plan my novels.

  13. Yes, Wonderful!!! I like what you did with the book then the synopsis. It made it easy to understand. Thank You. I read somewhere, one page of synopsis to every chapter. What do you think?

  14. Robert: Thanks! I came up with this when I was trying to write one myself and kept going long, and then rambling, and then making a mess. But once I figured out how to break it down the synopsis was so much easier to write. I've read that too, but I think that's for a longer detailed outline. I have heard one paragraph per chapter though. But that still can make it long. 1-3 pages is about all most agents ask for these days.

  15. Wow, I'm bookmarking this page. Thank you!

  16. Great post. Also bookmarking. Thanks

  17. Julie and Regge: Most welcome :) Glad you found it helpful

  18. Thank you, thankyou, THANK YOU! I've been trying to get clarity ont his suubject for months!

  19. Anon: Glad I was able to shed some light on it ;)

  20. Hi Janice, I hope you don't mind, but I've written a little bit about this on my blog and posted your link. What a wonderful article for you to post. I know, for one thing, it will help me.

  21. Not at all and thanks for the link! These posts are there to help other writers so link away :)

  22. this was so wonderfully clear and detailed. I wish I'd read this before I sent out my last synopsis, but I'll use it to revise, and to write my syn for book #2. Thank you!

  23. Most welcome! I used to drive myself nuts with synopses, so I finally took the time to figure out a template to make my life easier. Glad to see it also helps others.

  24. Very informative, thank you so much. Question about language in synopses and queries: is it better to write in terms of what the protagonist "must do" or what she actually does. Example:
    "When a band of Indians attacks, she must defend herself with her karate moves," versus, "When a band of Indians attacks, she defends herself" etc.
    Thank you!

  25. Stacy Lee, it varies, but I'll do "must do" when it's a goals/stakes issue (like she "must save" her sister when that's the story goal of the novel) and "she does" when it's something she does in the course of the novel.

    I state the action if it's something she does that affects something else, state the goal if this is something driving her to act.

    The "must do" tends to indicate what the story is about or where the conflicts come from. The "she does" tends to show more of the inciting event/trigger actions.

    Does that make sense?

  26. How'd I miss this one? Very informative and useful! Thank you, Janice. I've read lots of advice on these two terms, but you've laid it out in a clear manner - not I'm off to deal with my synopsis. :)

  27. Most welcome! These things drove me crazy for so long, I had to figure out an easy way to write them. Glad to see it's working for others as well.

  28. Thank you, Janice! I've dreaded writing my first novel's synopsis for so long; this breakdown makes it much simpler. And from how you said to "make it as long as you need, then pare down to the main points"--paraphrasing mine--makes more sense in that light, especially w/ a complicated plot like my book has. Appreciate this so much, and I'm looking forward to working on this.