In Summary… The Synopsis

Ciao! Staci here again. I’m wrapping up my WIP and about to start another. That — plus the fact that more than one person has asked me about this lately — made me think it might be the perfect time to discuss the synopsis.

How to Build Your Synopsis

Why is this the perfect time? (I mean, other than people asking.) Well, a synopsis is a useful tool in planning a new story, so I could write one for book two. And, now that book one is done, I might want to revise an existing synopsis to give to the publisher (for accurate blurb writing and marketing materials).

What is a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a brief retelling of the narrative arc of your novel, including the ending.

Note: I said including the ending. That’s not a mistake. This document should not be confused with the book blurb on your back cover or with any marketing materials. Those don’t include the endings. Those are all about hooking the reader then leaving them wanting more. The synopsis is to tell the agent, publisher, or other industry expert exactly what’s in your masterpiece.

That’s it. Nothing fancy, nothing scary. It should be pretty simple, right? Yet, people fear it. Dread it. Agonize over it for days without writing a word.

Let’s make it as simple as it should be, shall we?

The Narrative Arc

This may or may not be a term you’ve heard before. If not, don’t let it scare you off. If you write novels, you understand the narrative arc.

In a nutshell, the narrative arc covers:

  • the full plot
  • character’s motivations
  • setting
  • theme
  • structure

Ah, wait a minute. Isn’t that just the novel? Yeah, pretty much. Consider this the abridged version.

The good news is, once you’ve written your synopsis, you’ll easily be able to find issues, such as:

  • plot holes
  • out of character reactions
  • structure problems

When Do I Write My Synopsis?

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I’ve made reference to writing the synopsis both before and after the novel is done. Why is that? And which is right?

First of all, there is no “right” in fiction. Remember, for every rule, there’s a way to break it that makes sense. (And plenty of ways to break them that don’t work, but we’re not here to discuss that today.) If your agent or publisher has requirements regarding the synopsis, FOLLOW THEM. This is not the time to stand out as a rule-breaker. Otherwise, do what works for you.

Synopsis Before You Write

Some authors chose to write their synopsis first. Doing so essentially gives you an outline in paragraph form. You know where you’re starting, what’s going to happen, and how you’re ending. But if you’re like most writers I know, even the ones with detailed outlines, you will veer off the beaten path along the way. So the synopsis written before the novel is a good blueprint but probably won’t be 100% accurate once the novel’s finished.

Synopsis After You Write

Some authors choose not to write their synopsis until after the novel is finished. And that’s fine. If you wait, you can be sure the synopsis will be 100% accurate from the first draft and not require massive edits. On the downside, however, and this is especially true for pantsers, you won’t have a blueprint in your mind for writing your novel, and consequently, you may find it takes longer to write and longer to revise.

My Recommendation

Do both. Write it before you write your novel, but let it be a living document. As you finetune your story, make the necessary adjustments to your synopsis. Then, when your novel is finished, your synopsis will be 100% accurate. You’ll just have to polish it before submitting it.

How to Write a Synopsis

There are about as many formulas for writing a synopsis as there are authors who write them. What I detail here is an amalgam of what publishers and agents have asked me for over the years as well as what the publishing houses I’ve worked for have required. Is it the “right” way? Like I said earlier, there are no rules other than what industry experts require for the document. So use this as a springboard, but make the necessary changes based on what has been mandated by the organization receiving it.

Length: 500 words (1 page single-spaced or 2 pages double-spaced)

POV: Third person

Tense: Present tense

Opening Paragraph: A summary of the storyworld or series. This is especially helpful for sci-fi or fantasy. Don’t use jargon specific to your world, though (like words in a made-up language), because readers aren’t familiar with it yet.

Second Paragraph: Introduce the main character. Include the setting, the goal, and the conflict. This is not the place for character description or purple prose. Include just enough for readers to meet and empathize the hero.

Subsequent Paragraphs: Now you have a decision to make. How many characters do you include? Do you name them all? How deep into subplots do you go? My advice is that simple is best. Only the major characters get names, the Uber driver in chapter seven doesn’t need one. Subplots don’t need to be explored. Perhaps you mention it in your conclusion, if you feel it’s relevant or helps sell the story. (But really, if it’s that good a subplot, shouldn’t it be the main plot?) Here are the points you want to be sure you hit:

  • the beginning (status quo and the hook)
  • plot point 1 (the inciting incident)
  • pinch point 1 (first encounter with villain)
  • midpoint (turning point in the hero’s attitude from reactive to proactive)
  • pinch point 2 (second, and worse, encounter with villain)
  • plot point 2 (the dark moment just before the climax)
  • climax (the high point of the action where the hero wins)
  • ending (the denouement and the HEA—or the not-so-happily ever after)

This is roughly where you can expect to find these milestones in your story’s timeline.

Main Points to Cover in a Synopsis
Last Paragraph: This is where you explain the resolution and answer any questions you think might still be lingering.

Things to Consider

There are a few things to keep in mind when you write your synopsis.

  • Avoid writing it like a list of plot points. Novels are carried by the characters. Try to infuse some of the character’s emotions into the synopsis to get reader buy-in.
  • Be concise. In many documents, transitions are necessary, but in a synopsis, space is at a premium. You don’t need connectors like “in the dark moment” or “at the climax.” The synopsis should read like a story.
  • Use value-added words. “Stunning” carries a lot more weight and takes up a lot less space than “very pretty” (and that’s true in the novel, too).
  • Don’t include backstory, dialogue, minor characters, or flashbacks.
  • Don’t ask leading questions. Or any questions. Save those for marketing. (“Will Dorothy ever get back to Kansas?” is fine for a book blurb but has no place in a synopsis.)
  • The first time you mention a primary character or location, consider writing the name in all caps or bold. It’s kind of an old convention, but it makes it really easy for the reader to see at a glance the most important people and places.

So, that’s the nuts and bolts of a synopsis. If you’d like to look at one, or actually four, I’ll give you this link that I shared before. It’s to an old media kit of mine. In it, among a bunch of other marketing materials, are four synopses for Bleeding Heart. What we discussed today is the long form.

  • Brief: Good for social media.
  • Short: Good for guest posts on blogs.
  • Medium: Good for news releases; journalists often include this when they promote your work.
  • Long: Good for sending to agents and publishers.

I hope this helps. And, as always, if you have any questions, leave a comment below. I’ll do my best to answer them for you.

Staci Troilo Bio

53 thoughts on “In Summary… The Synopsis

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. Thanks for sharing such worthwhile insights and tips, Staci! I’m in the midst of preparing mine for an upcoming release. I find the Synopsis is such a useful tool for locating errors within the MS. I’ll be popping back to read the 4 examples shortly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. May the saints bless you for this! I am so freaking close to writing “the dreaded synopsis” and struggling with the format. I’ve done them before, but have never followed a “proper” format. It’s time for me to learn and tackle the beast.

    This is an awesome post!!! I feel like I’ve struck gold. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Although not used by many of us any more, a synopsis is a perfect way of making sure the plot runs and there are no gaping holes.
    In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you have trouble creating a synopsis for your book, you might need to shelve it and write another one!

    Liked by 2 people

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