How to Write a Synopsis of your Novel, Movie or Play.
Synopsis writing is essential but dreaded. How can you explain your whole story in a short summary? Recently, I had to drop everything and write a one page outline for my new novel. This is for reasons that will either turn out to be bloody brilliant or will be forgotten, consigned to history and never spoken of again. But whichever way it works out, getting the synopsis right was important. So why is it such a hard job? And how do you do it well?
What is a synopsis?
A synopsis is a brief summary or general overview. You may be asked to write one for an agent, for a competition judge, or for a publisher. It usually accompanies a sample from your manuscript, to help the reader see how the sample fits into the larger story. Your synopsis gives them the detail necessary to understand your book.
I will mostly say “book” in this article, but the same rules apply for any long piece of creative fiction.
A synopsis is different from a planning outline. Some writers prepare an outline before their first draft. It describes characters, breaks down the story scene by scene, and identifies plot threads. But outlines are functional, technical and often long documents. A synopsis should be elegant and concise.
A synopsis is also different from a pitch. The main purpose of the pitch is to get the audience to read a sample of your manuscript. It should indicate the central concept of the story and entice the audience. But anyone reading your synopsis has already requested a sample. The synopsis and the sample must work in harmony, a roadmap rather than an invitation.
What are the chief problems writing a synopsis?
I trained as a barrister and I’ve written plenty of precis. But a novel synopsis is particularly difficult for three reasons.
- Everything in your book is important: You have been working on this project for a long time, probably for years. Anything in your book that isn’t important has already been cut, right? Picking the essential parts feels like picking out the chocolate from an enormous pile of chocolate. How can you possibly justify leaving all this chocolate behind?
- Spoiling the story feels like heresy: A good summary tells you how the story ends, and the essential twists and turns that get you there. There is a special place in hell for people who spoil stories like this. You want everyone to feel the surprise when Missy turns out the be The Master. Spoiling your own story feels unnatural and wrong.
- You really, really want them to like your book: …And a functional synopsis doesn’t isn’t a very exciting way for them to read a story you have worked so hard to get right.
How to write your synopsis
How do you get over these problems? The key is to remember the purpose of the synopsis. It is not or an ordinary reader. It is for a literary professional. The synopsis helps the agent, publisher or judge understand the context of your sample, get an idea of the whole story, and see how the end joins up with the beginning. They want to be able to see if this is the sort of book that they and more particularly their clients will enjoy. I think the best approach is a five paragraph structure.
- Who is the protagonist? Pick your protagonist. Say who, what, where and when they are, and the problem that disrupts their ordinary lives (keeping in mind ordinary life might mean ordinary life of a Navy Seal, Emperor of Mars or sentient anthropomorphic cockroach).
- How do they first deal with the problem? Take us as quickly as possible to the midpoint of your story: the big, cataclysmic event where the protagonist attempts to deal with this new threat to their ordinary lives (be that alien invasion of high-school crush).
- How do their choices end up making things worse? Obviously the mid-point doesn’t resolve the story, or it would be then end. Why do things go wrong, what new problem emerges, and how does this escalate the stakes?
- What new challenge does this force them to face? What is the climax of your story? Tell us about the final battle against the big bad, or the interrupted wedding before they kiss in the rain.
- How do things end, and how are they different from the start? Demonstrate the coherence of the story by showing how the end links to the beginning, so that when they read your sample they can see the seeds of the climax. How has your protagonist’s world changed since the first paragraph?
Did you notice that describing the five paragraphs took up almost a full page? A page is around 500 words, so you get a hundred words a paragraph. That’s all. Use them wisely.
Wait a minute, that’s just a three act structure
Yep, pretty much. Person meets problem they make worse due to a character flaw, then has to overcome that character flaw to meet the final challenge. It’s clear, it’s understandable, it provides a thread through a story. Seeing how that thread works out helps the reader of your synopsis understand your writing sample. Cut everything else. They’ll get the clever stuff when they read your book.
But my story is way more complex than your narrow minded conflict based rubbish!
Great, well done you! Your book should be more interesting and involved than your outline. But even if you have written a non-linear exploration of post-character literature, your synopsis will be clearer if you phrase it in terms of person-meets-problem. Pick out one character or group and describe how striving to overcome events forces them to change.
That which is original and engaging about your writing will emerge in the sample. The purpose of the synopsis is to give the reader an idea of how everything fits together. The clearest way to do that is show the elements of traditional story arc within your book. There are other ways, but this is the one that will seem most familiar to the reader. Remember, the synopsis is only there to help them read the sample, and it is the sample the sells the manuscript.
Things you should do
1) Stick to the point: You don’t have space in one page for your sub-plots or beautiful digressions..
2) Spoilers sweetie: Tell the big twist, show the best bits. The reader of a synopsis is a professional. You need to show them that cool stuff happens in your story. They don’t have time to take it on faith.
3) Trim to the bone: The synopsis is not the book, and that’s ok. The first book of A Song of Ice and Fire is told from the PoV of eight different major characters, but if you described all their arcs in a one page summary it would rob them of their force and you would end up with a muddle. Better to focus on one key arc and make reference to the others as appropriate.
Things you should not do
1) Commentary: Don’t tell them how great your work is. Don’t tell them how they should feel about stuff or what stuff means. Concentrate on giving a clean, clear description of what happens in the story and let them decide for themselves.
2) Floweriness: The synopsis probably isn’t the place for clever metaphor or flashy rhetorical technique. I’m not saying write badly. But your sample will illustrate your talent for advanced assonance. Make your synopsis simple.
The Process of Writing your Synopsis
OK, so you’ve read the proposed structure. Now put it to one side and start writing.
- Get a rough draft as quickly as you can. Write without thinking too much. A synopsis is an intimidating thing to write, and if you fuss over it you’ll waste time on things you won’t keep. Just get everything you think is interesting about the story down on the page.
- Find the most important parts and cut everything else. My first draft was seven pages long. I despaired. But that draft enabled me to take a highlighter and pick out my five key elements: the introduction of the protagonist, the first challenge, how failure escalates the problems, the climax, and how things end. I then dropped everything else and reorganised into five paragraphs. Trying to do that in your head, without a first draft, will just give you a headache.
- Winnow to one page. Once I had my rough five sections my outline was now two and a half pages long. Way too long. Thus began the winnowing. Anything non-essential must go. Find the most simple and effective way to express your ideas. You will feel you have eliminated everything you love from the story. Deal with it, you’re a writer, suffering is your metier.
- Correct your grammar and spelling. The reader looks at your synopsis for indication of the time and care you put into your manuscript. Poor proofreading makes it look like you don’t care. If you don’t care, they won’t either. Yes, this is deeply unfair to all us dyslexics, but suck it up.
- Get someone to look at it. When you trim a document as aggressively as this, it is easy to make mistakes and lose the sense. Find someone who has read your book and ask them if the synopsis captures the story. Then ask them to check for typos.
- Don’t cheat. If they ask for one page of 12 point Times New Roman with standard margins, don’t give them one and a bit pages of 11 point courier with woggled margins. They will notice and throw your synopsis in the bin (or they would if they read synopses like I used to mark student scripts). Even if they are nicer people than I, you are still giving yourself an unnecessary black mark. Be certain your document follows the submission guidelines.
- And…. Stop. After all this work, remember that the sample is the most important part of your submission. The synopsis doesn’t need to be Proust. Don’t kill yourself over this. Get one page of clear, correct writing down, then do something less boring instead.
And there it is, a guide to writing synopses that is hopefully longer than your synopsis. This skill is a necessary evil, but master the art of explaining your work in terms of person-meets-problem and you will get more people reading your work. Good luck, and if you have more suggestions for writing better synopses then please leave them in the comments.