Monday, March 28, 2011

The Short Synopsis

It's conference season again, and for those of you madly putting together marketing materials to use in your follow-ups to agent and editor requests, I thought I'd pull out my notes on writing a short synopsis from last year's PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Associaiton) Conference.  The advice comes from three excellent sources:  two best-selling novelists, Bob Mayer and Robert Dugoni, and an outstanding fiction editor, Elizabeth Lyon.  Dugoni and Mayer made presentations on the subject.  Lyon's suggestions are from her book, A Writer's Guide to Fiction.  Here are their guidelines for assembling your short synopsis:

1.  Main story arc from beginning to end.
2.  Only three names on the page:  protagonist, antagonist and one major supporting character.
3.  Give the ending
4.  Goal:  get the reader to know it's a good story so they want to turn the page to the rest of the submission.  If they don't, your novel will never get seen by them.

Broad Strokes
1.  Don't overpopulate it. Take the main plot and main character and run with that.
2.  Almsot everything relates to the physical journey of the protagonist, but keep in mind the emotional journey and the through-line, as well.
3.  Best way to write it is to use story structure—beginning, middle, end (but use this as a guide, not a rule). Use five main questions (also addressed in query letter) to fill in the story structure:
a) who is the protagonist?
b) what is the protagonist?
c) where is the protagonist?
d) what is the protagonist's goal?
e) what is the protagonist's obstacle?

4.  Beginning:  open with the call to adventure/refusal of the call. What happened? Why does the protagonist resist, but have to do whatever has to be done herself or himself?
5.  Middle:  identify the tests/obstacles that show up—1, 2, 3, 4 or more. these are the sequences of events. They should never be the same or show the same strengths of the protagonist.
6.  End:  the result of it all:  the quest will go beyond whatever the external goal was, and the protagonist may find previously unrealized inner strength as his/her own truths are revealed.

Broad Strokes
1.  Synopsis describes how a plot carries out the story promise (fulfillment of unmet issue of human need) by the protagonist, who is driven by the core issue or need.
2.  One-page, single-spaced when sent with a first query letter.
3.  Use active, strong, evocative verbs and concrete, specific nouns.
4.  Contains the entire story:  beginning, middle, end. Include plot points and emotional turning points. Leave out subplots unless understanding the main plot depends on them, then sketch only.

5.  Open with a statement of the story yearning, such as a narrative hook, or by showing it embedded in action. Include the novel's setting, time period, background and situation. Make this dramatic, colorful and brief.
6.  Introduce main characters with a short sketch, beginning with the protagonist and including his/her goal and what's at stake. Indicate the protagonist's fatal flaws (weaknesses stemming from past trauma) and state the character strength that defines his/her heroism. Show how the protagonist is the driving force of the story. Sketch the antagonist and other main characters or integrate them into a plot summary.
7.  End by showing what the protagonist learns or realizes that supports fulfillment of the story yearning or theme. (Implied here is that the protagonist has overcome his/her weakness.)

Best of luck with this important task!  As Bob Dugoni pointed out, it's the hardest thing of all to write.  If you have a friend who's read your book, have them help.   Here's hoping you get through it with panache and have a great time at conferences meeting and getting to know those agents and editors. And if you're not going to a conference, you'll still have a great synopsis to include with your query letters.

~ Linda


  1. This post comes at a perfect time for me Linda, thank you so much! Just having finished my latest novel I'm now stuck with the horrible task of writing a synopsis. Thank you, this will help a ton!

  2. You're most welcome, Heather. It's a chore. A very important one, but still a chore. Helps to have good guidelines!

  3. Linda, this is an excellent outline how to write a synopsis. I heard one agent say she didn't want to know the ending. Then all the other said yes the did. I thought 2 pages double spaced was the standard, but some want one page single spaced. Recently... PNWA contest... they wanted one page double spaced. This is a challenge. But with this excellent review, we can all write one. Thank you!

  4. It IS a challenge, Karlene, and so many people seem to have different guidelines—one page single spaced, one page double spaced, two pages single or double. Blech! In my opinion, it's something that should be standardized because these different demands require almost totally different documents, and each one is a challenge. Well, at least we learn some new swear words while we're becoming amazing marketers!

  5. Your notes are incredibly helpful. Only now I'm afraid I am just not ready to write a synopsis (yet). I have so much work to do yet, so many holes to fill on my story. I'm saving this post to refer back to. christy

  6. Sounds like a plan, Christy. When you need the synopsis for your submissions, you'll be much more inspired, anyway, and all these notes will make more sense! Have a great time at your conference! (When is it??)

  7. Wonderful suggestions and post, Linda.

    Thanks for all this vital information. I'm not going to a seminar soon, but It's great to have the knowledge.


  8. You're welcome, Michael. Hard as it is to wrench ourselves from the beautiful fictional world of writing the novel, this pragmatic marketing stuff is really valuable. It's like seeing your work from an outsider's perspective all of a sudden. Hope you had a wonderful time in Florida (or are you still there?)

  9. I have a one-page, two-page, four-page, and five-page synopsis already. But they're really dry and I've been told dry is okay - by some people. Others say it's the kiss of death. So I definitely need more tips, thanks!!

  10. Whoa, Erica! You are ahead of the game. Based on what I've heard, I think dry is okay as long as that doesn't mean bores you to tears. The query letter is where you try to peak their interest by giving compelling, back-cover-type snippets, and there it's useful to show the voice of the novel. The synopsis has to lay out the story, but not in an "and then, and then, and then" style. More highlights that show key points and flow. Way easier said than done, in my fingers-worked-to-the-bone opinion! (p.s. if you love writing synopses, you could make a decent living as a free-lancer!)

  11. Clear, succinct, and 100% useful information--a winning post, IMHO! :D

  12. You make it sound very doable. Thanks for posting this. I need it spelled out for me. They are not my forte!

  13. Thanks, Laura. I do hope it helps people *win* bigtime with their efforts. We all work hard as writers; we need a little help here and there with the less writerly stuff!

  14. They are almost no one's forté, Lydia! Thank goodness for guidelines. (I keep searching for people who love to write synopses and are great at it. They could seriously go into business doing just that. . . are you reading this, erica??)

  15. This is very helpful! But one question: if you have a book that interweaves two narratives, how do you handle that? Do you follow the narrative structure of the book, or do you focus on each separately, or just on one with a few lines outlining the other?

    I'm getting conflicting advice on this....

  16. Good question, Kate! If one of the narratives is more like a subplot, definitely focus on the major one, and just do a few lines on the minor one, showing how it relates to the other. If they're of equal or near-equal weight, though, I think you probably have to give them near-equal coverage. The first questions that leap to mind are how do the two narratives relate/affect each other (if they do) and how do they lead to the outcome? I'd be tempted to highlight how the narratives, as different or as connected as they are, weave toward the outcome, and how they make that outcome inevitable. Just my opinion.

    I've noticed that literary agent Jessica Faust sometimes answers writers questions on her blog, It might be worth asking her your question (but you might want to add a little more information, such as the answers to my questions above.) Good luck, and let us know what you decide!