How to Write a Synopsis

A (one-page) plot synopsis of a novel manuscript is often enclosed as part of the query process. An editor reads a synopsis when he or she is deciding whether or not to request your complete manuscript.

What a Plot Synopsis Is

A (one-page) plot synopsis follows your story arc, and contains all the major plot-points in your novel, from beginning to middle to end.  It contains the major story conflicts, the important characters, such as the main character and the antagonist.

What a Plot Synopsis Isn’t

A plot synopsis is not intended to be a teaser.  It is not a logline, for example, which is a very brief hook for your story.  It is not a short story, nor does it contain extraneous dialog or full character descriptions. It is not a means to introduce every character in the novel.  It is usually not more than one to three pages in length.

Here is an example of a logline for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

Four obnoxious children and winsome Charlie Bucket win a tour of mysterious Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Notice that the logline is merely a hook.  You don’t know what happens in the middle of the story.  You get a sense of conflict from the word choices – “obnoxious children” compared to “winsome Charlie Bucket” but you don’t know what will happen because of the conflict.  You also don’t know how the story ends.  This is an important difference between a logline and a synopsis.  There is completeness to a synopsis.

Beginning the Synopsis

A good way to begin is to see if you can write a brief 25-50 word plot summary.  This summary should answer the basic questions:

  •   “What is my story about?”
  •   “What is the story’s conflict?”
  •   “How does the story end?”

Here is an example 25 word plot summary for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

Four obnoxious children and winsome Charlie Bucket win a Golden Ticket tour of mysterious Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  Charlie alone overcomes obstacles, becoming Wonka’s heir. 

The twenty-five word summary is quite sparse, as you can see.  However, you get the gist of the story mechanics: Charlie Bucket is the protagonist.  He and four awful children (antagonists) have won something  – a tour of the chocolate factory.  They face obstacles of some sort that only Charlie overcomes.  At the end of the story, Charlie becomes Wonka’s heir.

 Developing the Synopsis

Now that you have an idea about the beginning, middle, and end of your story, it is helpful to make a list of all the major plot-points in your story, in the order that they occur.  Follow the protagonist’s journey, his emotional arc.  This will help you keep the events in order.  Once you have your list, go over it to ensure that they are indeed plot points, and not asides, devices for character development, or back-story.

Be certain that you’ve identified conflicts – conflicts are major plot points. Remember that the protagonist’s emotional arc is defined and moved forward by conflict.

Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. This is generally the accepted format and it puts the reader in the center of the story, and gives the reader a sense of immediacy.

Select words with impact.  This will help bring the story’s theme into view without having to explicitly state it.  For example, you would not want to write, “Charlie Bucket is the only child with true goodness, and goodness always wins out over greed and contempt.”   However, you might want to write, “When spoiled Veruca Salt tries to take one of Wonka’s trained nut-cracking squirrels, she is overcome by them, and is sent down the garbage chute as a bad nut.”

Try to keep your synopsis to one page, double-spaced.  You can go to two, but it’s a good exercise to see how concisely you can synopsize.  Brevity is also important when considering that editors review hundreds of book synopses a month.

Keep the voice of your story in the forefront.  Even a synopsis must have a sense of the voice of your story.  One device that may be worth trying is to write the synopsis in first person, present tense, from the perspective of the main character, assuming of course that your novel is written in first person. (Keep in mind, however, that most synopses aren’t written in first person.) Another technique to try is to use short sentences with active verbs to increase pace and tension. Where your story has tension, so should your synopsis.

Don’t forget to include the ending.  The most common mistake in writing a synopsis is to exclude the story ending.  A synopsis never ends with a hook.  The editor needs to see how you wrap up the story, if it is a logical and satisfying conclusion, if your characters are engaging to the very end.

Examples

Wikipedia.com and imdb.com are full of examples of story synopses.  If you need practice writing synopses, try synopsizing favorite tv show episodes for imdb.com.  Any registered user may add a synopsis or two.  The more practice you have at writing synopses, the better you will become over time.

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