In this post, we look at how you can write your synopsis without losing the essence of your story.
How does one write about a novel’s synopsis without breaking into a sweat? Few of us ever see these mysterious documents that ‘sell’ a book.
While you can find many ways to write a synopsis, in this in-depth article we offer a different approach. We show techniques that will help you lead with character and theme – rather than plot. We also explain the three major elements of a synopsis. You will end up with a synopsis as unique as your novel.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Writing Your Synopsis
The synopsis should be a way to celebrate the book you’ve completed and hope to pitch to an editor or an agent. It’s important to remember this is your first audience, in fact your only audience for the synopsis—the editor or agent.
And it is even more important to remember that even though they are wearing their ‘business hats’, when appraising your work, they are primarily readers and are searching for a damn good story.
What Is A Synopsis?
Some call a synopsis an ‘outline’. But this term is too fuzzy, vague, or even unsubstantial.
It doesn’t do justice to the finished work.
The idea of an outline speaks more to plot than synopsis: it is a ‘to-do list’ for you as author. A synopsis is more of a condensing of a novel. In no way is it diluted—rather, it’s the essence of the story.
Writers go off course in a synopsis if they think of it as an outline. When you sit down to compose or create your synopsis, give your novel its full-throated voice. It’s not a sketch, it’s performance art!
What Do We Mean By This?
Let us look the starts of the synopsis of Macbeth from The Shakespeare Encyclopaedia:
Three Witches plan to meet Macbeth and Banquo, whose military prowess prevents a Norwegian invasion of Scotland. The Witches inform Macbeth that he will become King of Scotland, although Banquo’s heirs will also rule.
Hearing the prediction, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder King Duncan, which he does.
A great example. It is functional and it does the job. But it’s a little clean, even antiseptic.
Now, consider this extract from Marchette Chute’s iconic Stories from Shakespeare as she sets up the same story.
‘Macbeth’ is as swift as night and dark as spilt blood, with death and battle and witchcraft bound together, to tell the story of a man and a woman who destroyed themselves.
Macbeth and his wife wanted the throne of Scotland and they took it. But the act forced them into a murderer’s world of sleepless torment, always struggling to find safety and always sinking deeper into their own terror.
This one is juicy, it gets us excited. It gets its arms around the horror, the primal ambition, and the darkness of the story. It evokes the right emotional response.
If you write a synopsis this way, it will be too long – you’ll never get it all down in one or two pages. However, if you start with this spirit, this rich storytelling voice, you will be on the right track. (You can edit later.)
Find Your Cinderella Moment
Let’s test this approach with another story we all know—Cinderella.
Cinderella is romantic wish fulfilment taken to an insane new level. It’s got everything the escapist reader is addicted to—showing up the mean girls, makeovers, exclusive parties, expensive shoes and, of course, a gorgeous and rich guy who just happens to be a prince. What more could a girl ask for?
The description took a few minutes to write, because I was speaking honestly about what I love about the story.
What do you love about your own story? Who did you write it for? Why do you think they will absolutely love it? Imagine that person in front of you as you write your synopsis.
Keep It Simple
All you really must do in a synopsis is tell us what the story is about. It’s really that ridiculously simple, but let’s add to that sentence:
Tell us what the story is about and don’t leave anything out.
Of course, there are other ways to approach the synopsis. Let us have a look at leading with character and theme.
Your novel is about people. So why not focus on the characters in the story? You really can’t go wrong with this approach. Simply start with telling this character’s story.
Christie is the only female in an-all male diving crew looking for treasure in a 200-year-old wreck off KwaZulu-Natal’s Wild Coast.
She more than holds her own in the testosterone-flooded environment of the ramshackle boat, The Argus. There’s not a man who can drink her under the bar or beat her at arm-wrestling—until sexy, tatted Kyle from Down Under joins the crew at the last minute.
As you can see it’s impossible to write about a character without plot coming into it. It will fall into place quite naturally, so you don’t have to overthink it.
Just follow your character on the page. Trust them to tell their own story. And write your synopsis.
Another way to get your head around writing a synopsis is to filter it through your novel’s theme.
As Paula Munier says in Plot Perfect : ‘Theme-driven plots are the ones that resonate the most with readers — because they strike close to home.’
Let’s take a relatable theme. The idea that ‘money changes people.’ How would that play out in a synopsis?
There’s nothing that can change things like money. Two people in two different cities on either side of the world win a major lottery on the same day. But money changes them in very different ways. Mollie wins it in London and Jake wins it in New York.
One year later, Mollie is suspicious of fortune hunters after a spate of bad romances. Jake has wasted his money on women, cars, and gambling. When they finally meet in Vegas, he is broke and she is broken-hearted.
In just two paragraphs, we’ve tied theme to character and to plot. It gives the premise of the story in a powerful way.
Stick To The Sticking Points
The other problem we sometimes face as writers is length. The shorter the synopsis, the better. What to keep in? And what to leave out?
Don’t try to summarise your scenes or chapters. Focus on the character’s big decisions or major points in the story. In her book Novel Shortcuts Laura Whitcomb calls these story crosshair moments: ‘The crosshairs of a story, like the crosshairs in the scope of a rifle, must be precisely aimed at your target—the most pivotal moment in your plot.’
Give us the spine-tingling, fingernail-biting crosshair moments. Let our hearts beat a bit faster. The editor or agent will fill in the gaps.
What Should You Focus On In Your Synopsis?
1. Focus On The Main Plot
When you write your synopsis, set up and focus on the main storyline. It’s a good idea to start with the inciting incident or the main plot driver.
Jo-Jo moves in with Rebecca after she loses her job. After six weeks of dirty teacups and a messy front room, Rebecca devises a two-point plan to get her pretty but depressed friend out her apartment – find her a job and find her a man.
Plot points outside of the main story can be ‘shorthanded’ or left out. For example, Rebecca may also be up for a promotion at her job, be dealing with a difficult co-worker and so on – but these are not the crux of the novel.
Give us the arc of the story. Keep it lean and crisp on settings and other subplots.
2. Show Rising Conflict And Tension
We can agree that conflict and rising tension is what every editor wants to see in your synopsis.
Keep in mind, the editor hasn’t read your book yet. You must mark out your story’s territory so that it takes hold in their mind and imagination.
Focus on three keep points that drive the plot. Let’s use an example of a cosy mystery to illustrate the point:
- The small village of Kestrel is shocked when a mild-mannered shopkeeper is found murdered in his cottage. Amateur sleuth Agnes Hammett sets about finding the killer.
- Another corpse turns up in the village – only this time it’s Stanley Jenkin, the man Agnes had pegged for the prime suspect in the other killings.
- When she finds Hattie Everett’s earring in the abandoned farrier’s stables, she confronts this rich snob and gets her to reveal the identity of the killer.
Of course, there may be other incidents in the story – but these would be the three ‘crosshair’ moments.
It is vital that you say what is at stake. For the above mystery, you could include a line or two to show what drives the protagonist:
Agnes was fond of the shopkeeper – she sensed in him the same loneliness that she sometimes struggled with. More than that, she must redeem herself in the eyes of the local constable for accusing innocent Stanley Jenkins.
The sense of danger and excitement – and emotion – must come through in your synopsis.
3. Give Character Motivation And Resolution
It is important to know what motivates your characters when you draft your novel. Even more so, it is important to show that motivation in your synopsis.
For example, we could say:
Aisling has a fight with her fiancé Liam after she discovers that he cheated on her. They break up.
We could be more explicit and show psychological insight into the break up:
Liam’s infidelity brings back the hurt Aisling experienced when her dad cheated on her mum. She always vowed she would find the perfect, faithful man. She can’t forgive Liam or take him back. She walks out on him and that part of herself that hasn’t faced up to the wounds of childhood.
You must also show how you will ‘wrap up’ the story. Let’s stay with Aisling and Liam. How would their story end?
When Aisling sees Liam and his mates at the pub, she leaves. No, she hasn’t forgiven him. But she’s forgiven herself for wanting such high standards in a relationship.
In a misty rain, she starts to walk away. Liam calls her name and catches up with her. He tells her his parents miss her at Sunday lunch, his friends miss her prowess at darts, and he misses her too. ‘The point is we’re bound to bump into each other,’ he says. ‘Let’s be friends?’
She tells him she isn’t ready to have lunch with his parents again, but she’s open to drinks or a game of darts. ‘Someday soon,’ she says. ‘Just not today.’ She walks home in the rain.
The above ending is a bit long, yes, but it does create a mood, the character’s state of mind, and a sense of hope. It strikes the right ‘bittersweet’ tone you’d expect on the final page.
Don’t Hide Anything
We should also add in here that you mustn’t ‘hide’ anything from the editor or the agent. You must reveal the twist in the tail. You cannot these vital first readers in the dark.
You must reveal the real culprit or villain:
Lee Anne uncovers security footage that shows the intern, CeeCee, stealing the storyboards for the new ad campaign. She now knows who has framed her.
When the FBI interrogate captured serial killer Elijah Brown-Clark, he admits that he was also responsible for the murder of the 16-year-old hitchhiker – which will give peace to the boy’s parents.
The Last Word
Don’t just sketch the details or outlines of your novel in a synopsis. The editor or agent wants your voice. Make them feel how the characters and plot – and surprises – are just waiting to burst out of your two-or- three-page document. Make them fall in love with your story!
More Posts From Anthony:
- 12 Point Checklist For Your Story Goal
- 5 Myths To Break When Writing A Good Character
- 7 Types Of Narcissists To Use In Your Next Story
- The 5 Pillars Of Action-Adventure
- 5 Ways To Write About Stalkers
- 12 Months, 12 Inspiring Ideas For Writers
- The 4 Pillars Of New Adult Fiction
- How To Write The Outsider In Fiction
- 5 Ways To Find Your Way Back To Creativity & Writing