Editor's Note: Illustrations in this article were provided by Jason Williams.
Tales of a powerful writing creature have long been told around the publishing campfire. It has the capacity to shape story ideas, assist in revision, provide essential book-marketing aid. Yet despite its magical properties, the mere mention of this brute has been known to drive some authors to tears, and induce spasms of terror in others.
Dare I utter its name? Ladies and gentlemen, please brace yourselves for: The Synopsis.
No, wait! Don’t run away! I know we’re speaking of a beast of legend, and there is much talk of sharp fangs and slavering jaws.
But I promise, with a little bit of savvy and know-how, you can take that monster from foe to friend. Still not convinced? Allow me to explain how to write a synopsis.
How to Write a Synopsis from the Ground Up
The prospect of drafting a synopsis can often feel more overwhelming than the entire book that led up to it. This step-by-step process will help you along the way. Each progression not only provides you with a completed version of a synopsis—along with practical tips for its use—but also moves you along the path toward a fulllength document. By the end of these exercises, you should have a robust synopsis arsenal at your disposal for every occasion.
Step 1: The One-Sentence Pitch
Begin by seeing if off the top of your head you can refine your novel into a single compelling sentence. At this length, you have no choice but to keep it ultra-brief—who, what, why. Imagine a friend asking what your book is about. Your answer should provide the bedrock for this one-sentence summary.
Don’t worry if what you come up with doesn’t feel exactly right at first. Keep working on it and refining it over time. Practicing the pitch aloud can help you hone it based on others’ reactions—revealing what elements draw the most interest, what feels comfortable, what you most like the sound of.
Ready to get a bit more technical? Combine the following elements into a new, single sentence:
- Your main character
- Their driving want or need
- The primary hindrance keeping them from satisfying that want or need.
Now, take a look at your two separate pitches. How do they compare? Which do you prefer? Can you combine the best elements of each into a single, jaw-dropping one-sentence synopsis?
Here’s an example, from my newest novel: “The Train of Lost Things is the story of a boy who loses his most precious possession, and goes on a magical adventure in hopes of getting it back.”
Take time to bond with this sentence. From here on out it will be your best buddy, your answer to the first question everyone asks when they hear you’re writing a book, and a foundation to build upon.
Step 2: The One-Paragraph Pitch
Now, take your single sentence and round it out to a full-paragraph, slightly expanded summary. You’re still focused on thinking brief, but now providing a wider view of the characters, conflict, and story itself. Think about incorporating some (not necessarily all) of the below:
- Character’s age range
- Main antagonist
- Love interest
- Details on conflict, difficulty, or challenge.
Consider this example: “The Train of Lost Things tells the story of 11-year-old Marty, who loses a jean jacket given to him by his terminally ill father. Having heard of a magical train that gathers up the precious lost things of children, Marty goes searching for it—in hopes of finding not only the lost jacket, but a way to save his father as well.”
This single-paragraph blurb might be your most valuable tool of all. You will use it in crafting your query letter, describing your book to others, and, once the book is sold, as information for marketing and publicity events (possibly even as the copy on your back cover).
Step 3: The One-Page Synopsis
The expansion continues, this time from a paragraph to a page. (Note: Synopses are typically single-spaced.)
This stage is where you touch on secondary characters; Stay succinct—one page is not long. Limit yourself to naming just two or three characters. In this form, you’re still aiming to capture the heart of your story, not its every nuance. Look for spots in which to add voice and flavor, giving the reader a feel for your narrative style within the book. Remember, overly detailed synopses only lead to questions. Your goal is to keep your readers on the edge of their seats, not scratching their heads in puzzlement.
Here’s my example (first paragraph only, for brevity’s sake):
“Four months ago, Marty’s dad gave him a special gift for his 11th birthday: a jean jacket, along with a few badges and pins depicting special events the two of them have shared. The very next day, Marty was devastated to learn that his dad has terminal cancer. Since then, the two of them have sought out and collected many more pins, each one linked to a shared memory. Then one day, on his way home from a trip, Marty loses the jacket—right as his dad’s health takes a turn for the worse. Marty is devastated.” (And the synopsis goes on from here.)
As with the one-paragraph pitch, this one-page synopsis can be useful in writing your query letter. Also, some agents or editors like to see a single-page synopsis in advance of, or along with, the query. It’s a robust, all-purpose tool that will serve you well along the writing journey.
Step 4: Long-Form Synopsis
The final step takes you from one page to a full, multi-page synopsis. How long, exactly? Generally, aim for about one single-spaced synopsis page per 10,000 words of finished manuscript. This ratio may change if you have an extra-long novel, as in an epic fantasy. As an agent, I typically see full synopses of five to eight pages. Once you get writing, you’ll likely sense how long it should be based on how the story flows.
Again, my example (first paragraph only):
“Marty Teufel is a sensitive, anxious, observant child. He listens more than he speaks, and he cares deeply about everything that goes on around him. His most precious possession is the jean jacket he got for his 11th birthday, four months ago. His dad bought it for him on a special outing—the last time Dad was out and about before his sickness took a turn for the worse. Since his birthday, Marty has been spending all his pocket money seeking out and buying little pins to add to the collection on the front of his jacket; each of the 29 pins is connected to a special memory and story shared with his dad. The jacket is irreplaceable.”
(And the synopsis goes on from here.)
A long-form synopsis is sometimes requested by interested agents or editors. Post-publication, it can be a useful marketing tool or can be made available to interested subrights parties. Lastly, a full-length synopsis can be useful when revising—as described below.
An Invaluable Revision Tool
Another way a synopsis holds value is as a device to help with revision. Writing a detailed synopsis is an excellent way to analyze your plot turns and test how they work within the story framework. Because it’s a prose retelling, you can evaluate how the story holds together as you write it out. Boiling down your entire novel to a handful of pages allows you to spot plot holes and story weaknesses that can get lost in the larger shuffle. Such a format also allows you to more easily hold the whole story in your mind, with all its threads, when you are looking at it through this narrowed lens. After writing your synopsis, give it a fresh read-through (perhaps after setting it aside for a few days) and ask yourself:
- What else does this story need?
- What is missing that could better tie the story elements together?
- How can I improve the flow, the tension, the pacing?
Now, like a skilled matador, you should feel ready to face The Synopsis with a steady gaze. I promise, not only does the beast not bite but with a little care and feeding, it can become your closest companion—and a true writing partner.