I HATE WRITING SYNOPSES!!!
Is there anything more difficult than reducing a 50-100K manuscript down to 3-6 pages or so? Even single-spaced, that’s maybe 5K or less.
But now that you’ve written like crazy during Speedbo and you’re closer than ever to typing “the end,” the time will soon arrive when you’ll start thinking about submitting the manuscript. Maybe you’ll begin with a contest, or maybe you’re ready to go for an agent or an editor.
Or, if you’re an established author, maybe you’re at the point where you can sell a novel based on a proposal with a brief synopsis or synopsis and three chapters.
Wherever you are on your writing journey, at some point you’ll need to write a solid, well-developed story synopsis. So here are my tips for making the process as painless as possible. Which, frankly, isn’t saying much.
Start early! If you’re a plotter, you will have already done the prewriting work of getting to know your characters and defining the story’s major turning points. That may be enough to write an effective short synopsis (one page or less), but for a full synopsis you need to plan out in greater detail exactly how you’ll get the characters from point A to point B, etc., all the way to the climax and conclusion. You also have to consider their emotional reactions along the way. How you do this . . . well, I’m a pantser, so I have no idea! You plotters are on your own for this part!
Pantsers, you know how it goes. Sometimes we have to get a sizable chunk of the first draft written before we have any clue where the story will take us. So my technique is to jot a quick summary of events as I draft each major scene. What happens in this scene? What is each character’s goal in this scene, and what obstacles do they face? How do the characters react, both emotionally and physically? What is the outcome, and what changes or new problems will these events lead to?
Now, with your character sketches and plot outline or scene notes at hand, you’re ready to start writing the synopsis.
Central character setup. Use the first two or three paragraphs to briefly summarize the central characters’ backstory and suggest their main story goal. Here are the opening paragraphs of my synopsis of A Horseman’s Heart (Heartsong Presents, August 2011):
Kip Lorimer’s mother destroyed his trust some sixteen years ago when she walked out on him and his rodeo-riding father. Unknown to Kip, his mother was pregnant with his baby sister when she left. Even as an adult, he bears the bitterness of abandonment but has managed to make a decent life for himself, drawing on everything he learned as a kid growing up on the rodeo circuit. Kip has earned an enviable reputation as a skilled horse trainer, and his side business as a custom saddle maker supplements his bank account while feeding his artist’s spirit.
Sheridan Cross grew up on Cross Roads Farm, just outside Kingsley, North Carolina, a small community near Charlotte. The farm has been in her father’s family for many years, and his dream was to help other children experience the same healing and hope he found growing up with horses in his life. He and Sheridan’s mother eventually established the farm as an accredited equine therapy center, but Sheridan’s father died a year ago and now her mother keeps the center running.
With her father gone, Sheridan can’t bear the idea of her mother living at the farm by herself—not after the ordeal they both went through when Sheridan was just twelve years old. Ernie and Dell Finston, the couple her parents had hired as on-premise stable managers, turned out to be less than trustworthy. One weekend, while Sheridan’s father and her younger brother, Nathan, were away, the Finstons enticed Sheridan into their cottage, then bound her with duct tape and tied her to the bed. After subduing Sheridan’s mother in the main house, they cleaned out everything of value and took off. The trauma of that long, frightening weekend, trapped for almost two days before her father and brother came home and freed them, has never left Sheridan. Nor has her lack of trust for strangers.
Summarize your plot. Now pull out your plot outline or scene notes and look for the overarching storyline. You won’t have room to include much if anything about subplots, so focus on what happens to your main characters. Address the central conflict and 3-4 major turning points. What are your characters’ goals as the story begins, and how do these goals evolve during the course of events? What is the point of no return, the darkest moment when it appears all hope is lost? How does the story resolve?
Here’s how I described the black moment in my synopsis of A Horseman’s Heart:
Just as life seems about as good as it can get, Kip awakens one morning to find his pickup and horse trailer gone. He rushes into the barn to see if anything is missing there, and finds Grace’s favorite therapy horse is not in his stall. When he finds certain other supplies missing, he realizes Grace must have run away with the horse. He knows she won’t get far, though, because of a low-water crossing that flooded during a recent heavy rain. He saddles Jet and rides out to find Grace.
Sheridan awakens later to discover Kip, Grace, and not one but two horses missing—plus the money from both her purse and her mother’s. Heartbroken and angry, she relives the Finstons’ betrayal all over again. Was Kip’s love a lie? Did he and his sister plan this from the beginning? Though Sheridan’s mother tries to get her to think rationally, Sheridan can sense a glimmer of doubt. They call the sheriff’s department and then drive out hoping to find Kip and praying to prove their suspicions wrong.
Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. Though some writers successfully vary from this standard, you’ll be safest staying with third person, present tense. Generally, dialogue is not included, unless a specific line would best convey the emotion of the scene.
Go for dramatic impact. Think of your synopsis as a very short novel. Forget the dry recitation of plot points and strive instead for the same emotional and dramatic impact you developed in your complete manuscript.
Use action verbs. Write in a language and tone to reflect your story’s mood (humorous, serious?) and era (contemporary, historical, fantasy?). Here’s a paragraph from the synopsis of my novel When the Clouds Roll By, a historical romance coming next September from Abingdon Press:
One autumn day, as Annmarie admires the beautifully glazed and fired vase she has worked so hard to create, her father bursts into the pottery factory workroom. Startled, she drops the vase, cringing in horror as it shatters at her feet. But when her father announces the armistice has been signed ending the Great War, resentment quickly turns to thanksgiving, and a broken vase becomes meaningless. The only cloud hanging over this otherwise joyful day is concern for Annemarie’s wounded fiancé, Lieutenant Gilbert Ballard. Though he expects to be home by Christmas, his letters have grown less and less affectionate and personal. Annemarie fears the war has changed him and that his love for her has dimmed.
Review, revise, and tighten. Once you’ve drafted your synopsis, review it to be sure you’ve clearly and compellingly conveyed the most important aspects of the story in as few words as necessary.
- Central characters’ needs, dreams, and goals--are they clear?
- Motivation for your characters’ actions--is it believable?
- Opposition--what obstacles stand in your characters’ way?
- Dramatic impact--strong verbs, characters’ emotional responses?
- Appropriate language and tone--does the synopsis reflect the finished manuscript?
- Tight writing--did you eliminate “weedy words” and repetition?
- Black moment and climax--clearly described, no important details omitted?
- Conclusion--does it satisfy while suggesting how the characters have grown and changed?
Ten years later finds Valerie and Healy happily married and anxiously awaiting the decision of a judge in another courtroom. Their entire family sits behind them, including their four adopted special-needs children—miraculous evidence of answered prayer and exhaustive efforts to convince adoption authorities of Healy’s complete turnaround after his criminal conviction. The judge praises Healy for the fine life he has made for his family as she finalizes the adoption of their fifth child. Healy draws everyone together and offers a prayer of thanksgiving, to which Pastor Henke adds, “Amen indeed. ‘Be glad, O people of Zion’!”
For extra help writing your synopsis, check out the following resources:
Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach, by Pam McCutcheon
Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract, by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook
The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, by Elizabeth Lyon
Join in the discussion today, mention your interest in your choice of the above craft books on writing synopses, and one of you just might be the lucky winner!