Copyright April 2005, Meredith Bond
A synopsis should be the easiest thing in the world
to write, no? I mean, what is it? Just a summary of the
book you’ve already written (or are about to write).
You know what the book’s about. You know every little
detail of every character and everything that they do.
So what’s so hard about writing a summary of it?
Well, the problem is that you know too much. You
know all of those nitty-gritty little detail and YOU
CAN’T PUT THEM INTO YOUR SYNOPSIS! What?
Well, no, otherwise, you’d be writing the book all over
again. The trick in writing a synopsis is what to leave
out, and, I’m sorry, it’s going to be most of it.
All of those fabulous scenes filled with passion or
tension or humor – they’ve all got to be left right where
they are, in your manuscript. The synopsis is not the
place for them. The only part of them that you need to include in your synopsis is
the FEELING of them. How they make the reader feel, that you’ve got to include. So,
if your book is funny, your synopsis should be funny. If your book is romantic, your
synopsis should be romantic. And so on.
So, if you don’t include those great scenes, what do you put in there? Well, here it
is broken down in a very simple form.
You absolutely, positively must start with a great hook that will draw in your
reader (an editor or agent who has forty-nine more of these to read today). If you
don’t grab them right off with a compelling hook, they’re not going to take the time
to read the rest of it, so grab them by their eyeballs and don’t let go. This is your
If you have a character driven story, at this point you want to include a paragraph
about each of your major characters. If you’re writing a romance, you would have
one about each your hero and your heroine and possibly one about your villain if
you have one who plays a major role in your story. For these paragraphs, we want
to know what their internal and external goal, motivation and conflicts are (see Deb
Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation and Conflict for more on this). Just include this and
nothing else unless it is vital to understanding your story. Also, be sure to keep
these paragraphs short and sweet – that’s the whole goal here.
Now from here you can go one of two ways:
You can write an inductive synopsis (like a newspaper article) where you start
out with the big picture and then work your way to the details. If you have a plot
driven novel, this may be a good way to go. First you want to determine what your
story question is – what are your characters trying to do or figure out throughout
your story: Will Dorothy ever get home from the magical land of Oz? (The Wizard of
Oz) Will Robert Landon be able to decipher the riddle left by the dead Louvre
curator and the clues in the works of Leonardo DaVinci? (The DaVinci Code).
Now, notice that these are pretty specific questions. They are not “Will Mary ever
find true love?” or “Will the detective ever find the killer?” You’ve got to include more
story detail in your question.
So, in an inductive synopsis, in the next paragraph if you haven’t already done
this in your first paragraph, you ask your story question introducing your main
character(s) who are going to be the one(s) finding the answer. The rest of the
synopsis is the major events through which your characters will find the answer to
Your second option is a deductive synopsis, that would be writing top-down, from
the beginning of your story right through to the end. But you have to be careful here.
You don’t want a laundry list of this happened and then that. That’s boring. You
need to infuse these events with emotion and excitement without being wordy (that’
s the trick).
Finally, you conclude your synopsis with, yes, the conclusion of your book. You
give it all away, even if it’s a murder mystery you have to tell who did it. Editors and
agents want to know how it ends. Do not leave them hanging.
Now the hardest part of all this is deciding what to include and what to leave out.
To help do that, I use this handy-dandy outline which is a combination of a three act
structure, a four part structure and Michael Hauge’s story structure. Only the big
turning points that you write down here are what should go into your synopsis.
0% Inciting Event:
25% Plot point 1 (TP1: Opportunity):
Pinch 1 (TP2:Change of plans):
50% Midpoint (TP3:Point of no return):
Complications & Higher Stakes:
75% Turning Point 2 (Black moment/TP4: Major Setback):
100% Resolution (Climax):
Last, but certainly not least, there are some basic rules which all synopsis must
- Don’t make your synopsis too long. Ideal is 2-3 pages, fine is 5 pages,
pushing it, but still ok is 10 pages. Any longer than that and you’ll
probably lose your reader before they get to the end – these are busy
people who don’t have a lot of time to spend reading just one
- Write in the present tense, no matter how your book is written.
- Write in the third person.
- Try to get the voice and flavor of your novel into your synopsis. If your story
is dark, make the synopsis dark; if it’s light and funny, so should your
synopsis be light and funny.
- Don’t include secondary plots or too many characters. We only want the
- Don’t put in empty rhetorical questions, they’re useless and try your
- Make your first three paragraphs fabulous and enticing. Many editors and
agents won’t read past the first three paragraphs (or the bottom of the
first page), make yours so compelling they’re forced to read on.
- Remember that this is a marketing tool. You are selling a book here.
Write this in such a way that your reader can’t wait to read the whole