How to Write a Synopsis

Jul
2011

If you’re querying agents or publishers about your book, chances are you might be asked for a synopsis. But what is a synopsis, and how do you write it? Thankfully, writer Margaret Yang is here with a definitive synopsis how-to. Margaret is the author of Good Fences, and her ebook Fate’s Mirror comes out July 15. Take it away, Margaret!

Writing a novel synopsis is a something that every writer needs to know how to do. Even if your agent does not ask for a synopsis, your editor will require one at some point, either for her own use, or for the marketing and art departments. But self-publishers are not off the hook. You will need a synopsis to give to your cover artist (if you’re hiring one) or for your own reference as you write your flap copy.

An ideal synopsis is six paragraphs long. The format should be single-spaced text with double spacing between paragraphs. There are older how-to books that tell you to write a synopsis of four, eight, or even twenty double-spaced pages. This is outdated advice. Modern editors want a synopsis that fits on one page.

An entire novel on one page? Yes, one page! The trick is to tell only the main story, focusing on the main characters and big turning points. I’ve used The Wizard of Oz (movie version) as my example, since it’s a story nearly everyone knows.

1. A paragraph that introduces the main problem. You’ll need a tiny bit of backstory and setting in order for the main conflict to make sense, but you don’t need as much as you think you do. Write as little as you can get away with to make the reader understand the stakes (external conflict) of the story.

Example: Dorothy Gale never intended to kill a witch. When a tornado uproots her house and drops it on a wicked witch, she is lauded as a hero and rewarded with magic ruby slippers. The same tornado has trapped her in a magic land called Oz. Dorothy desperately wants to get home to her family, but the only one who can help her is a wizard who lives a long and dangerous journey away. She must find the Wizard of Oz before the witch’s evil sister finds her first.

2. A paragraph that introduces the protagonist. What kind of person is she? Why is she the only one who can solve this problem? What is going on inside her (internal conflict) that she’ll have to overcome in order to have a happy ending?

Example: Dorothy Gale is a farm girl from Kansas. An orphan, she lives with her aunt and uncle. With no siblings or friends nearby, her only playmates are the busy farm hands and her beloved dog, Toto. A dreamy girl, Dorothy longs for adventures that seem to be just out of reach, somewhere over the next rainbow.

3. What is the first turning point of the story? This is sometimes called the inciting incident, plot point one, or the point of no return. It happens somewhere in the first quarter of the book, preferably in the first 30 pages, and it thrusts the protagonist into the main journey of the book. Although it’s called a “point,” it’s a scene or a series of scenes.

Example: When she finds herself trapped in Oz, Dorothy may be getting more adventure than she wished for. With the ruby slippers on her feet the only protection from the Wicked Witch, she sets out for the Emerald City to find the Wizard. She is soon befriended by a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion, who respectively lack a brain, a heart, and courage. The three decide to accompany Dorothy in hopes that the Wizard will also fulfill their desires, although they demonstrate along the way that they already have the qualities they believe they lack—the Scarecrow has several good ideas, the Tin Man is kind and sympathetic, and the Lion, though terrified, is ready to face danger.

4. Midpoint. This is the big scene in the middle of the novel, where something important happens and emotions run high. This is (or should be) a huge scene where your hero does important things. There’s often a reversal of some kind, as the hero’s fortunes rise or fall.

Example: In the Emerald City, the four friends are given an audience with the Wizard of Oz, who appears as a terrifying disembodied head of smoke. He demands that Dorothy bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch before he will send her home. The friends are devastated that they are still so far from achieving their quest, but they resolve to do as the Wizard asks.

5. Climax. Every story has a climatic scene. Briefly describe what leads up to it, and then describe the scene itself. Remember, your syonpsis tells the complete story, so you can’t leave the climax out. The main problem (external stakes) is solved in this paragraph.

Example: On the way to the witch’s castle, Dorothy and Toto are trapped by the Wicked Witch. The Witch threatens to drown Toto, so Dorothy agrees to give her the slippers, but the Witch can’t remove them without killing Dorothy. Toto escapes and leads Dorothy’s companions to the castle. After overpowering some of the Witch’s guards, they free Dorothy. During the battle, the Witch sets the Scarecrow’s arm ablaze. Dorothy throws water on her friend and accidentally splashes the Witch, causing her to melt.

6. Resolution. How has the protagonist changed as a result of this adventure? How has he solved his emotional/mental/spiritual problems through the journey he went on in this story? In other words, how have the internal stakes been solved?

Example: The four friends return to the Emerald City in triumph, but the Wizard still won’t grant them their wishes. He can’t—he’s not a wizard at all but an ordinary man. He explains that Dorothy’s companions already possessed what they had been seeking all along, and agrees to take Dorothy home in a hot air balloon. Toto jumps out of the balloon basket and as Dorothy goes after him, the Wizard takes off without her. Just as she despairs of ever getting home, the power of her desire—coupled with the power of the slippers—sends her back to Kansas. Dorothy wakes up in her own bed surrounded by family and friends, and tells them of her journey. Dorothy promises that she will never leave home again, because she loves them all…and because there’s no place like home.

This formula is like the pirate code: more guidelines than actual rules. If you need two paragraphs to describe the midpoint, write them. If your climax and resolution can be written in a single paragraph, do it. If your book is more literary, focusing on internal turning points, write about those. The only absolute rule is to tell the complete story in one page.

Always use present tense, no matter the tense of the novel. Always use third person, no matter the POV of the novel. Always tell your story chronologically, even if there are flashbacks.

If your book has multiple points of view, pick the main character and just tell her story. Leave out subplots and minor characters. (In the example above, Glinda the Good Witch is not mentioned.)

Tell the plot, but don’t forget about motivation and emotion. Without them, the syonpsis seems disjointed. Don’t ignore cause and effect.

Leave out self-praise, even subtle self-praise. In an exciting twist, Joe pulls a gun on his former partner. Leave out the words “exciting twist” and just tell what happens. In a heartbreaking scene, Mary and her mother are reunited. Leave out the words “heartbreaking scene.” If you’ve written a vivid synopsis, the reader will know it’s heartbreaking.

Take your time. A syonpsis isn’t easy. Revise your first draft, have your betas look at it, and revise again. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when someone who has never read your novel likes your synopsis and asks to read the whole book!

22 Comments

    Kirsten
    July 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Excellent advice! You make even the hardest manageable. Thanks for the ruby writing slippers!

    July 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Margaret, I’m book marking this post. Not only will I be referring to it when I have to write my own dreaded synopses, but I’ll be pointing other people toward this as well! It’s wonderful!

    Now…perhaps you’d like to tackle writing blurbs? ;)

      July 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Bronwyn. And thanks for helping to spread the word.

    lisa orchard
    July 7, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Excellent!! I will remember this when it’s time for a synopsis!

    July 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Margaret,

    Many thanks for invaluable advice gleaned by someone who’s obviously ‘been there,done that, bought the T-shirt’
    I’m about to send off Synopsi(??pl??) of at least 3 different books [3 different genre] so your advice is extremely timely!
    Bookmarked for future reference!!

    Andee
    July 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks for the easy-to-follow formula and the info on current editor/agent preferences. A blurb/pitch post would be appreciated! :-) Any way you could make that easy, too?

    July 7, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Thanks for all the comments! I’m glad that everyone found this helpful. We writers need to stick together!

    Leslie Burkhammer
    July 7, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I too will be bookmarking this! Great insight to the hairpulling, mind boggling synopsis! Thanks.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    This has been a huge help and has answered many questions.

    Thank you!

    July 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Great post. I abhor writing a synopsis but now I won’t run screaming in the other direction. Maybe now my betas won’t run when I ask them to read it…
    Wendy
    W.S. Gager

    July 8, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Thanks for the great advice, Margaret. Can’t wait to meet you at our October conference!

    Theresa Grant
    July 9, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks, Margaret! I was thinking I’d shoot for a 3 pager to submit this next book but the thought of a 1 pager sounds better to me. Less is more!

    Shanti Thirumalai
    July 10, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Hi Margaret,
    This is excellent. Wizard of Oz is a great example, and you have deconstructed it without stealing from its magic.
    Shanti

    Shelley Schanfield
    July 13, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Very cogent and useful outline.

    susannah
    August 4, 2011 at 2:23 am

    This is weeks after the fact, but I just pounded out 2 synopses in a row and could not have done it without this. Thanks for cutting through all the BS and providing a genuinely helpful template for getting through this.

    Laura Bailey
    August 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    After a long hiatus from HelpForWriters I am so happy to be back reading all this great content! Margaret this is a great article on synopsis, and really filled with detail. Thank you!

    Bandita Dihingia
    January 24, 2012 at 7:51 am

    A huge help for me.Thanks a lot.

    September 18, 2012 at 8:49 am

    this blog is amazing gave me so much information its awesome thanks

    Rita
    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    I’m so glad I found this amazing post through CBI Clubhouse. Thanks for giving such wonderful examples that clearly show how to get a synopsis done.

    Maeva Edwards
    November 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you so much!

    June 5, 2013 at 1:22 am

    thanks sooooooooooooo much

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5 Trackbacks

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    [...] week, the lovely Margaret Yang taught us all how to write a wonderful one-page synopsis. This week, she tackles why we writers need to just write the synopsis already and stop complaining [...]

  • By Coming Up For Air — or Not « My Random Muse on August 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    [...] post that helped with that a great deal came to me via Twitter from the awesome Margaret Yang.   How to Write a Synopsis suggests breaking the beast into 6 paragraphs and includes a wonderful example using The Wizard of [...]

  • By Writing a Synopsis | allbettsareoff on May 31, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    [...] Writing a novel synopsis is a something that every writer needs to know how to do. Even if your agent does not ask for a synopsis, your editor will require one at some point, either for her own use, or for the marketing and art departments. But self-publishers are not off the hook. You will need a synopsis to give to your cover artist (if you’re hiring one) or for your own reference as you write your flap copy. Click here to read the rest of this article. [...]

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    [...] Writing a novel synopsis is a something that every writer needs to know how to do. Even if your agent does not ask for a synopsis, your editor will require one at some point, either for her own use, or for the marketing and art departments. But self-publishers are not off the hook. You will need a synopsis to give to your cover artist (if you’re hiring one) or for your own reference as you write your flap copy. Click here to read more. [...]

  • [...] Writing a novel synopsis is a something that every writer needs to know how to do. Even if your agent does not ask for a synopsis, your editor will require one at some point, either for her own use, or for the marketing and art departments. But self-publishers are not off the hook. You will need a synopsis to give to your cover artist (if you’re hiring one) or for your own reference as you write your flap copy. Click here to read more of this great article. [...]

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