My Foolish, Yet Fool-Proof Tips for Writing a Synopsis!

Griddle cakesThere should be a “swear jar” for every time a writer says to me, “My proposal is good, but don’t judge it based on the synopsis because I don’t know how to write one.” I could buy a house in the south of France! When I hear this, I don’t feel sympathy. Writing a synopsis is not string theory. I do understand that compared to the ecstasy of writing romance, writing a synopsis is tedious. They aren’t so interesting for editors to read either. But the synopsis is important if you want to submit your work anywhere. Here’s why:

In an industry where a lot of skimming is done, a synopsis is essential. And because many of us have to give a summary to higher ups for approval, we need that synopsis. We don’t pore over them, salivating over each luscious description. We just want the most crucial points given in a matter-of-fact way. But fear not. Just because you hate writing a synopsis–I hate it, too–I’ve developed an almost foolproof way to get it done. For this mission, you will need: 5+ episodes of your favorite show ready to be called up on your watching device, a timer, a bag of Peanut M&Ms (optional) and the will to work in short bursts. Though some editors like longer or shorter synopses, a basic rule is to write five double-spaced pages.

Step One:

Write a sentence saying what your story is about, like a logline: In a daze, after a two-seater plane crash, Mary traveled across the desert to find a rare cactus and discovered true love on the way, but not before single-handedly fighting off desert monsters. My imagination isn’t on fire this morning, but you get the idea. If you can summarize your story in a sentence, you have a good handle on your work. You will use this logline in your query and when you’re in the elevator with an editor.

Make sure your document is 12pt and double spaced. You are ready to go. But first, writing a logline takes a lot of work, so you can reward yourself with a break.

Step Two:

Watch an episode of Game of Thrones or Sherlock or whatever show you’ve chosen. On a day I had to write a synopsis, I watched Season 6 of Mad Men (Poor Peggy).

Step Three:

Set your timer for fifteen minutes and write the first page of your synopsis. You’re introducing the story, the characters, and how you open your book. Sprinkle in a little backstory, if needed. Just write as if you were telling this story to a friend. Push yourself to spill over into the second page. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare (in fact, it shouldn’t be). Then, stop when the timer goes off.

Step Four:

Watch the next episode of your favorite show. Maybe dust a little around the house. Iron some clothes. (aside: My mother irons washcloths. I seem to have caught that gene)

Step Five:

Set the timer for fifteen minutes and blast through the second page of the synopsis, focusing on pivotal details after the opening of the story. Mary’s plane crashed and she’s in the desert. How is she surviving? And how does she meet her prince while searching for the rare cactus? Again, remember that you’re telling this story to your friend, though omit phrases such as, “And then he was, like, no way are you, like, out here without sunblock.” You want to keep your storytelling as factual and spare as possible. No need for flourish, colloquialisms, gimmicks, or every single detail.

Step Six:

Repeat Step Two.

Step Seven:

Timer is set. You’re ready for page three. Delve into the story’s main problem. What struggles does Mary have? Is she dehydrated? Does she feel badly that her pilot died? Does she want Ralph Fiennes to appear out of nowhere to carry her across the desert? What about the desert monsters, much like in The Mummy, who appear out of the sand and come roaring after her. Maybe it’s her imagination. Emphasize here also the protagonist’s ultimate goal. Boy, you’ve accomplished a lot on this page. It’s time to relax.

Step Eight:

Repeat Steps Two, Four, Six. Balance your checkbook. Try knitting socks. If you master this, let me know how you did it because I still have trouble.

Step Nine:

Timer set. On page four, you’ll want to start tying up the loose ends of the story. What is the final conflict, that dark moment where all seems lost? How is your protagonist tested and how does she transform? How does Mary find the cactus and, ultimately, is she able to signal to the plane flying overhead? You’re almost done with your synopsis.  Think about getting yourself something at the bakery. I like Welsh cookies minus the raisins.

Step Ten:

Repeat Step Eight.

Step Eleven:

You’re almost done! Don’t even bother setting a timer because finishing up this synopsis is so easy, you can already see The End. Here, you reveal the very last details of the story. Mary is in the plane with her cactus, and her new husband (she gets married on the plane). They fly to Hawaii for a divine honeymoon and Anderson Cooper interviews her on 360.

You wrote a synopsis and it wasn’t that painful, right? Surely, you can carve out 5 hours out of your day (most of it watching TV). I can’t emphasize enough that the synopsis is an essential component of your proposal. Now that you’ve finished, you can take another break before going back and proofreading, which I recommend doing at least 5 times and then aloud.

I hope this helps those who are synopsis-phobic. It is definitely how I tackle this very painful task.

15 thoughts on “My Foolish, Yet Fool-Proof Tips for Writing a Synopsis!”

  1. These are great suggestions! I’m the oddball. I love to write a synopsis. It’s part of my brainstorming process and shows me if my goal/motivation/conflict is sufficient for each character.

    1. Well, it’s obvious that it works for you because your stories are wonderful. We could learn quite a lot from you, Cheryl!

    2. It’s funny, Cheryl, because I have to write so many synopses for work and sometimes it just comes to me in one fell swoop. I love that it helps you from the beginning.

  2. I also try to write something of a synopsis before writing the book, just so I have an idea of where I’m going and what the focal points of the book are. I actually start by writing something like the blurb on the back of a book, to see if I can sum the story up in about three short paragraphs. (Mind you, this doesn’t mean LIKE writing either.)

    And what is this “iron” thing of which you speak?

    1. That’s a great idea, writing the copy first. We ask for something like this when the author fills out the forms for the covers.

      1. I figure that if I can’t write the copy, I don’t have a good enough handle on the core of what is happening in my book. Also, it is a good way to show my agent where I’m going with it.

  3. Obviously my synopses are too long. I’ll work on that. 😉 But I can do the socks! I was terrified of them for years until one summer my neighbor would come over in the afternoons and we’d sit on the deck and knit, and she did socks without a pattern or even looking at what she was doing. She made it look so easy I vowed I was going to learn no matter what. Now I love them.

    1. Do you have a great pattern you’d like to share? I’m baby-blanketted out and need more interesting projects to work on…

  4. Love this “how-to.” It might just apply to non-fiction, don’t you think? Maybe even history books.

  5. Don’t you have to write a “prospectus,” Mom? Ladies and Gentlemen, Proud Mother is already a master of the written word and teaching, so she’s only asking these questions to get me to do another blog post. She knows everything! Love you, Mom! And it worked.

  6. Former student of your Proud Mother here. She just sent me to this blog post to get some tips on making my prospectus sparkle, as it has not been seducing editors. I’m going to play around with your steps this morning and hopefully something brilliant will emerge! Thanks!

    1. I’m so glad! My mother is my best promoter, I must say. I hope it helps with your prospectus! I’ll try to remember to post more writing tips. Thanks for stopping by, Darcie!

  7. Very nice post!! You seem to have a good process that works for you, and probably others! Sometimes when authors are faced with a synopsis, they think oh wow, I have more than one page, and I can really run with it. But it’s good to remember the agent is looking for specific things, especially in a genre fiction.

    1. Thanks, Anita! I do have my own system, usually developed when I get really stuck. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

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