Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How to Write a Sizzling, Scintillating Synopsis

By Suzanne Purvis

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Just the idea of writing a synopsis sends many a writer into distress. If you're one of them, Suzanna Purvis has some great tips on making the process easier. Please help me give her a warm welcome.
Suzanne Purvis is a transplanted Canadian living in the Deep South, where she traded “eh” for “y’all.” An author of long, short, flash fiction for both children and adults, she has won several awards including those sponsored by the University of Toronto, RWA, Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable, and Women Who Write. You can find her work in print anthologies, magazines, ezines, and ebooks on her website.

She leads workshops at Lawson Writer’s Academy and for Romance Writers of America, including her popular Sizzling, Scintillating Synopsis. She also works individually with writers on any aspect of their writing they are looking to improve. Feel free to email her at and be added to her mailing list for upcoming classes.

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Take it away Suzanne...

I’m honored to be here at Fiction University.

Janice and her words of wisdom, plus the great gurus of writing who guest on her blog, never fail to inspire.

I’m thrilled to be asked to share some of my accumulated wisdom regarding. . .

How to Write a Sizzling, Scintillating Synopsis.

I can hear the moans and groans through cyberspace at the mere mention of the word S-Y-N-O-P-S-I-S.

And I must tell you, I’ve had participants in my synopsis class scoff, okay, maybe not quite scoff, but suggest strongly that sizzling, scintillating synopsis is either. . .

1. an oxymoron
2. a marketing ploy

But I’m happy to report at the end of class, these same scoffing writers were astonished when their own synopsis was indeed sizzling and scintillating. Like Kathy Cummings who participated in my Synopsis class and received a contract in April.

I’m not going to lie; it takes some work to get to the Sizzling and Scintillating. But we all know writing, and especially submitting, isn’t for the weak.

Stay strong.

There is hope.

Just as a quick reminder, I’d like to share a checklist of what a synopsis is not and what a synopsis is.

What a synopsis is NOT:

1. It is not a blow-by-blow summary of every single plot point in your book.

2. It is not a back cover blurb.

3. It is not a backstory dump.

4. It does not introduce every secondary character.

5. It is not your main character’s resume.

6. It is not a dry list of events.

7. It doesn’t include dialogue or paragraphs from your manuscript.

What is a synopsis?

1. It is a narrative summary of your book written in the voice of your manuscript.

2. Its primary purpose is to summarize your story in a way that makes the reader and agent or editor want to read the whole text.

3. It is written in present tense.

4. It is written in third person–even if your book is written in first.

5. It is written in active voice.

6. It is told in chronological order from beginning to end, no flashbacks.

7. It introduces only your main characters, main conflict, and basic emotional arc.

8. It delivers major plot twists and your ending. No cliffhangers allowed.

9. It is a skillful weaving of your characters, the stakes, and the major plot events that move your characters from beginning to end.

10. It shows the pacing of your novel.

11. It should be in the same tone as your novel.

An ideal synopsis should be like reading a mini version of your book filled with your voice, emotion, intrigue, and all your exceptional and magical writing talent.

And here’s another brief checklist for a synopsis that’s on its way to sizzling and scintillating.

Synopsis Checklist

  • shares character descriptors which may explain their beginning conflicts and motivations.
  • the story setting is clear and grounds the reader.
  • provides goals, conflict, and motivation enough to make characters believable and easy to relate to.
  • goals are strong enough for characters to keep going with the odds stacked against them.
  • identifies major conflicts, both external and internal.
  • identifies major turning points.
  • synopsis is well-paced.
  • voice shines through.
  • tone reflects that of the manuscript.
  • writing is clear and tight.
  • adequately resolves all major conflicts.
  • avoids grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. uses standard industry-accepted formatting.

Now onto the fun part.

Okay, I hear a few more groans and moans. But believe me, building a synopsis can be fun. :-)

My favorite part of any synopsis is the introduction of the POV character(s). To me, character(s) are the most important part of your book, your query, and your synopsis.

I often suggest that the first sentence of your synopsis be devoted to your main character.

Let’s look at how to make your characters shine with intrigue and interest while at the same time keeping the writing tight (synopses have to be) but must also hook your synopsis reader (agent/editor/contest judge).

How to do this. . .

Give your character's name (which in itself can be intriguing) and add 1, 2 or 3 intriguing descriptive words that differentiate your character from any boy, girl, woman, man, animal, alien to have come before. And hopefully you can show why this character is the perfect character to tell your story and maybe even hint at conflict.

Let’s look at some examples:

From Becky Rawsley's synopsis for her YA Fantasy Merlin's Children. The introduction to her two POV characters.
TESS BOWDEN, a seventeen-year-old student from northern England, is a self-confessed science-nerd and magic-skeptic. She yearns for normality, but has the unwelcome ability to see demons.

CALE COILLTEAR is a young warrior from an alternate reality – TALMAIN. He’s cursed with gheas—massively strong magical abilities—in a society where magic carries a death sentence.
I think you can clearly see how Tess has conflict. She believes in science, not magic, but she sees demons. And then she will meet and come into conflict with Cale, from an alternate reality. And his conflict, again with magic, is life-threatening.

Here’s an introduction to one of the POV characters in Caren Gallimore’s historical romance Wanted.
Danger dogs Dakota Cabe’s every step. He's a wanted man with a $3000 bounty on his head; and staying ahead of the law, and staying alive, is his sole goal. Then he passes through Bisweak, Colorado and runs full-tilt into Caitlyn Daniels caught up in a shoot-out.
Here’s an example from Sandra Tilley’s synopsis for her work-in-progress Dead Man Falling.
Guilt and regret torture FBI agent, Mark Penrose. He and the Agency share dual responsibility for exploiting his ex-wife's medical expertise, but he’s solely accountable for breaking Sydney's heart. Now he’s willing to risk his job and his life for a second chance.
Sandra uses strong, powerful words. Do you see and feel the emotion for her conflicted FBI agent? Guilt, regret, torture. Wow.

Here’s the introduction to Kathy Cumming’s main character in her historical romance (the one that got a contract last month)
  • Tenacious SAMANTHA WARD (SAM) may have been taken in by the Sisters of St. Joseph when she was just twelve years old because the good citizens of Boston declared her drunken, card-cheating cowboy of a father unfit, but she never gave up on him. Eight years later, street-smart and saloon savvy, she hops aboard a westbound train leaving the nuns behind to rescue her dad somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
I hope these examples of character introduction within a synopsis help show a synopsis can be sizzling and scintillating.

And you too can write a synopsis that catches the eye of agents, editors, and contest judges.

If you’re interested in my next synopsis class, check out Lawson Writers Academy here.

And if the timing isn’t quite right, I also offer private editing and synopsis building. Just email me at .

I wish you the best in all your writing, but especially in building your synopsis so you can go forth and submit.

Feel free to share your woes or concerns or tips and strategies for synopses in the comments, and I’ll chime in.

Next Sizzling Scintillating Synopsis Class will begin June 1st, 2017 at LWA.


  1. I really enjoyed your post. I see your class is starting next week. What type of setting will be used to instruct? Forum? Loop? Something else?

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Maggie. The class is run in a forum on LWA with lots of participation, feedback, critique and help from me. Class begins Monday June 5th. Hope to see you there.

  2. Suzanne's class has helped me take my story to the next level. You need a great Synopsis when an agent requests your pages.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Robbin and for the kind words. And you're right, synopsis building is a great tool for plotting and planning and pushing your story to new depths.

  3. There's some GREAT advice in this post! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Carlene. I'm happy you found the info helpful.

  4. I am SO glad I took this class. Suzanne maps out the sequential steps necessary for building your synopsis. When you finish, you'll have a great synopsis; and you'll have developed a skill.
    For a personal, hands-on class, this is it.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Sandra and for your kind words about my class.

  5. Suzanne's synopsis class helped me gradually tighten my synopsis, and also gave me the opportunity to focus on my plot. So for me it was two classes in one.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Lori. You're so right, tightening a synopsis to an oh-so-low word count can be a challenge. I'm glad the class helped you in more ways than one. :)

  6. Great article ... although I have to disagree with you about writing synopsis ever being fun! I've written dozens of them, and although they've gotten better, they never get easier.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Mark. Okay, maybe I'm a little on the strange side, I find building a synopsis can be fun. I try to make it like a mini version of the book complete with voice and tension and emotion.

    2. It gives you a real advantage, though!

  7. Great advice! I love the checklist. Synopsis is part of what we teach at Novel in Progress Bookcamp every spring, and then go to a slush pile read with agents and publishers who go over them in front of the group. They're all so biased!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Lisa. I'm glad you like the checklist. That sounds amazing, but stressful having the agents and publishers go over the synopsis in a public forum. Yikes!