Posted On May 28, 2010 by Print This Post

CTW: How to Write a Synopsis Without Losing Your Mind

Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! RU Readers are in for a real treat today. Urban Fantasy writer C.J. Redwine switches gears to discuss the art of synopsis writing. If you’re a regular at RU, then you already know how gifted C.J. is at writing query letters. New to RU? Do a search on C.J. Redwine or query letters and browse through her query letter critiques. You won’t be disappointed. I’m convinced C.J.’s critique of my query letter helped me nab not only my dream agent, but my fantastic editor. High-five, C.J.!

Read on for C.J.’s fab thoughts on synopsis writing!

If you’re anything like me, the thought of condensing my 90k novel of fabulosity into a 2-5 page synopsis was about as thrilling a prospect as getting hit by a bus. I stared my manuscript down and felt intimidated enough to worry that while every other writer could summarize their books, I alone could not. Failure, however, was not an option. I needed a synopsis for many of the agents I queried. After I signed with my agent, I needed a synopsis for some of the editors on our list. And when I start a new project, my agent needs to see a general idea of what I think that project will entail. I quickly realized writing a killer synopsis was a skill I had to master.

There are several rules to writing a good synopsis. You’ll be grateful to know avoiding pans of brownies isn’t one of them. No one has proven conclusively that brownie consumption aids in summarizing one’s plot, but then again, no one has proven otherwise either. So, grab a brownie (trust me, it helps) and hang on for a quick crash course in what makes an excellent synopsis and how to go about writing one.

What a synopsis is:

  • It’s a narrative summary of your book written in the Voice of your manuscript.
  • It’s written in present tense. (“Jack goes to the library.” Not “Jack went to the library.”)
  • It’s written in third person.
  • It introduces only your main characters, main conflict, and basic emotional arc.
  • It delivers major plot twists and your ending. No cliffhangers allowed. Your synopsis must show that your plot has layers and hangs together until the end.
  • It mimics the pacing of your novel. It’s like your novel’s Mini Me.

What a synopsis is NOT:

  • It’s not a blow by blow summary of every single plot point in your book.
  • It’s not a backstory dump. That way lies Synopsis Death.
  • It doesn’t introduce every secondary character.
  • It’s not a dry list of events; it’s a skillful weaving of your characters, the stakes, and the major plot events that hurtle them from beginning to end.

How to format a synopsis:

  • Use the same font as your novel. (Times New Roman or Courier New. I prefer Times New Roman because more words fit on a page.)
  • Double space any synopsis over 1 page in length.
  • Make sure your novel’s title and your name are in the upper left hand corner.
  • You may indent every paragraph, or choose to only indent after you’ve written your main character’s intro paragraphs.
  • Introduce your main characters in the beginning paragraph(s) and set up the story there as well.

How long is a synopsis supposed to be?

  • There’s no hard and fast answer to this. Some agents want 1-2 pages, some want 5, some don’t care. I write a 5 page and then condense (rather viciously … cue brownie consumption) to 2 pages so that I have one of each.
  • If you need to condense, try these tricks: Give your main characters a one sentence intro (including story set up) rather than a paragraph, combine major plot elements into three paragraphs, one for each third of the book, change your font from 12 pt to 11 pt. And have a brownie.

Now that you’re familiar with the basics, how do you summarize your plot? What goes in? What stays out? At its heart, each book has three major sections. I suggest jotting notes beneath each heading and then turning that into a paragraph (or three, depending on the length of the synopsis you’re writing).

  • The Precipitating Event: What starts your hero or heroine on their journey? What happens to push them into taking action? What takes them irrevocably from where they were at the beginning of the novel to where they’ll end up when they’re finished?
  • The Road of Trials and Tribulations: The middle of your novel is full of bumps and jolts as your hero or heroine works his/her way through the escalating conflict and toward the conclusion. Not all of these trials and tribulations need to make it into your synopsis, but the major ones–the ones that push the emotional arc and the conflict escalation– should.
  • The Ultimate Triumph: This starts when the hero/heroine finally confronts the major conflict (the book’s climax) and carries through to their victory, redemption, and resolution. In a shorter synopsis, we don’t need a blow by blow, but we need to know what happens and that it makes sense.

Synopsis writing, like query writing, is a specialized skill that you can learn. It might feel like pulling teeth the first time or two, but it will get easier. Especially with a pan of brownies by your side. Summarize, condense, revise, and then do it all over again until you’re happy with the results. Happy synopsis writing! *hands you a double-fudge tiramisu brownie and a notebook* Now, get to work.

* * *

Thanks, C.J.!

RU Readers, do you have any questions for C.J.? How about any pros and cons you’ve found along the way?

Check back next Monday when  author Victoria Gray reflects on history as a muse – how a heartthrob turned infamous villain, spies in corsets, and a lovestruck senator’s daughter became the inspiration of a trio of Civil War historical romances.

C.J.’s Bio:

C.J. Redwine writes urban fantasy novels and is repped by Holly Root of Waxman Literary. To learn more about synopsis writing, and to get an in-depth critique of your synopsis, check out her June synopsis workshop at http://queryworkshop.blogspot.com

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56 Responses to “CTW: How to Write a Synopsis Without Losing Your Mind”

  1. Hi C.J–

    Thanks for the fabulous post! What I found the hardest about writing a synopsis was picking out the “main” events. In my synopsis, I also made sure to show where the H/H’s relationship changed–kissed, made love, etc., which might be the emotional arc you referred to.

    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | May 28, 2010, 5:34 am
  2. CJ –

    Do you ever write your synopsis before you write the book? I’m assuming so if you have to give an overview of upcoming projects :).

    Can you give us a feel for your brownie-induced scribblings before you actually write the synopsis.

    Thanks, as always, CJ! We’re so fortunate to have you at RU!
    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | May 28, 2010, 7:29 am
    • I do write a synopsis before writing the book. My agent understands my writing style enough to know the synopsis is a list of POSSIBILITIES that are SUBJECT TO CHANGE. 🙂 I’ve found it a helpful tool, however, because I can see where the plot lags, or arcs drop out of sight, or pacing runs afoul and I know where I need to fix things, even if I’m not exactly sure of the fix until I actually get into the story itself.

      For the book I’ve just started, I took a piece of notebook paper and wrote a list of every single idea I had for the story. Some ideas sparked other ideas and I wrote those down too. An unedited stream of consciousness where I threw every single possibility at the page. At the end, I had a page and a half of stuff. I then went through, crossed out what I’d decided wouldn’t work and numbered the others in order of how I feel they happen in the story. Then I wrote that into a synopsis.

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 28, 2010, 10:13 am
  3. Morning CJ!

    Oh, the dreaded synopsis writing. I’ve tried twice now, and managed to condense my first ms into a one page synopsis for a contest, but it wasn’t pretty. And even though they said the synopsis wasn’t judged, they did comment on it. And that wasn’t pretty either. Wish I’d thought of the brownies. Darnit.

    I’ll follow up Adrienne’s question of do you write a synopsis before and how on earth can you plan all of that out in advance? What if you’re a pantser? And my final question is – plural of synopsis…is it synopsis or synopsii?

    you can tell I got a lot of sleep last night…lol…coming up with the tough questions this morning!

    Thanks for posting CJ!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 28, 2010, 8:18 am
    • I’m actually a Pantser as well, so finding out I could write a (subject to change!) synopsis before beginning a project was a revelation to me as well. 😉 Look back up at the comment I left before this one to see how I did it.

      And the plural of “synopsis” is “headaches.” (I usually say synopsises but I honestly have no idea if that’s right.)

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 28, 2010, 10:17 am
  4. C.J., when you say writing a synopsis is akin to getting hit by a bus — heck, that sounds FUN compared to writing a synopsis!

    The hardest part was learning what to throw out — which was usually my “favorite” parts. LOL I’ve tried to do what Tracy says, which is follow the important things on the emotional arc, showing the things that change the characters. I also prefer the “write big then condense” method.

    No matter what, it’s challenging. But hey, if it means I have to eat brownies, I’ll just have to deal with it!

    Posted by Donna Cummings | May 28, 2010, 8:25 am
  5. CJ, how do you decide what details are important enough to include in the synopsis? I know you can’t include every important peak and valley from your story (otherwise, the synopsis would be almost as long as the book), so how do you decide which points are the most important?
    Margay

    Posted by Margay | May 28, 2010, 9:15 am
    • You need the basic story set up (Who are these characters? What is their current situation?), the event(s) that hurtle them into the conflict, the MAJOR pivotal points in the middle that escalate the conflict and/or their relationship with each other, and the climax and resolution. Don’t be afraid to summarize a few major pivotal points in one paragraph.

      i.e. “But Lilli doesn’t have time to worry about her boss’s secret agenda. Her cheating ex has turned into a Prince Charming. Her mother won’t stop interfering in her (nearly non-existent) love life with disastrous results. And there’s a very real chance that in solving her first case she may have stolen a flock of chickens.”

      This is a paragraph from the synopsis I wrote for the mss I just turned in to my agent last month. I have three paragraphs covering pivotal events and they all sum up several in one shot. The ex and the mother stuff actually ebbs and flows through the entire mss, so I didn’t worry about keeping it exactly in order, I just referred to it in a generalized sense and moved on. Hope that helps. *hands you a brownie*

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 28, 2010, 10:27 am
  6. C. J., thanks for the great post. :mrgreen:

    I was able to condense my last ms down to a one page synopsis after the book was complete. What a task! 😮

    Right now I’m working on a synopsis for a book that isn’t written yet. Holy! What a mess. lol Any advice?

    Kim

    Posted by Kim Cresswell | May 28, 2010, 10:09 am
    • Throw every single idea you have (don’t edit yourself) on a piece of paper. List them in the order they come to you. Write until you haven’t got a single idea left for that story. Then go back through and cross out those you now know won’t work. Then number the rest in the order you feel works best for your story and write it out. 🙂 I’m a pantser, and that method works for me. You may find a different method works for you.

      I also give myself permission to change things once I’m actually knee-deep in the story itself.

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 28, 2010, 10:30 am
  7. Okay, CJ, great hook there…I’m referring to your title, because we all know the very notion is impossible.

    Murphy (who’d be leaning more toward your last name 😉 than the brownies, to get her though the dreaded synopsis odyssey)

    Posted by Murphy | May 28, 2010, 10:23 am
  8. Hi, CJ. Thank you for a great post.

    I always dread the synopsis. I tried a new approach with my most recent synopsis. I listed my major plot points and pinches and then filled in. I found it a lot easier this time and having the major points right in front of me as a guide helped to keep me focused. That being said, I have no idea if the synopsis is any good, LOL, but it is much easier starting with some bullet points.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 28, 2010, 10:38 am
    • It’s absolutely easier to start with major bullet points since those are what you truly need to include. Plus, as you said, it keeps you on track. I’m a huge fan of lists. I don’t do outlines because my brain sort of breaks when I try that, but lists I can handle. lol

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 28, 2010, 10:41 am
  9. Great post, CJ. This is one of the best articles on synopsis writing I’ve seen. I’m printing it out.

    Posted by Keli Gwyn | May 28, 2010, 10:55 am
  10. All this talk of brownies… I just stuffed a humungous chocolate chip cookie into my mouth. Now for some red wine to wash it down…

    Great lecture. I especially loved the part about dividing the story up into three parts and listing the highlights under each. That seems doable.

    Only, I’m terrified that as soon as I try to put the bullet points down my entire story will come rushing out in long impossible jangles of sentences. Aaargh.

    I’ve done synopsises for scripts before and the way I approached that was to act like I’m telling my best friend what my story is about and putting that down.

    With my first MS I’m just frozen with terror. More cookies/brownies/wine will be necessary.

    -Sonali

    Posted by Sonali | May 28, 2010, 11:27 am
  11. Thanks C.J.,

    This is a great article. I find it much easier to write a synopsis before the story is done. Once you have a whole novel in front of you, I think it’s harder to separate the big plot points from the details. (I found that out the hard way.) From now on, I’ll have my plotter-side write the synopsis upfront and my pantser-side take over from there. 🙂

    For those that have been asking about what plot elements to include, maybe think of your storyline backwards. What does the reader need to know about the lead up to the climax to understand the climax. What does the reader need to know about the middle part of the story to understand the pre-climax, etc. If you can pick out those points that make the plot flow make sense, you have your major arc.

    Hope that helps!
    Jami G.

    P.S. The plural of synopsis is synopses (‘sis’ like ‘sister’ vs. ‘ses’ like ‘sees’), just like ellipsis and ellipses. 🙂 (and the over-achieving perfectionist strikes again… LOL!)

    Posted by Jami G | May 28, 2010, 11:40 am
  12. Thanks, C.J.-

    Great job.

    I suck at writing synopsis, and I’m always looking for tips on making my synopsis the best it can be.

    Posted by Connie Gillam | May 28, 2010, 12:17 pm
  13. WOW…what an excellent post, C.J.! In a nutshell, you’ve beautifully outlined a synopsis. Great job……I’ve learned so much. This lil’ Pixie thanks you.
    😀
    Cindy

    Posted by Cindy Nord | May 28, 2010, 12:59 pm
  14. cj. where were you three months ago. This is an awesome post. Im printing it—and stapling it to my forehead–erm corkboard.

    ronna rae

    Posted by rr smythe | May 28, 2010, 2:58 pm
  15. What a timely post. I just finished a two week intensive synopsis workshop and managed to condense my 100,00+ words into a short synopsis of 500 words. It wasn’t easy! Ugh! I think there were only six of us left in the class at the end. If there was one thing I learned was making sure the “cold reader” could follow the plot and emotional arc of the characters and that meant using better word choices and restructuring sentences.

    Looking back, I think it would be easier to write the synopsis first before I start my next manuscript.

    Thanks, CJ. I always look forward to reading your columns.

    Jen

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 28, 2010, 6:23 pm
  16. C.J.: Thank you for the tip on putting the 3 acts of the book into the synopsis. I use the 3 act structure to plot so it makes sense that I should use it in the synopsis! Why didn’t I think of that?
    Rae Ann

    Posted by Rae Ann Parker | May 28, 2010, 8:17 pm
  17. Great advice CJ – I’m going to be doing this in a few weeks so I’m bookmarking this site! Glad I followed over from your blog – this is a great site 🙂

    Posted by Jemi Fraser | May 28, 2010, 9:45 pm
    • Jemi –

      Glad you like Romance University, and we hope you’ll be back for more! Let us know if there are topics you’d like to see covered here.

      Best,
      Kelsey

      Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 29, 2010, 11:21 am
    • Jemi,

      When you say you’re going to be doing this in a few weeks, does that mean I get to have you in my June synopsis workshop? I can’t recall off the top of my head if I saw you on my registration list…

      If so, YAY!! If not, I wish you the best in your synopsis writing efforts and am glad you like RU. It’s an awesome site run by some truly wonderful women. 🙂

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 29, 2010, 5:55 pm
  18. WHAT WORKSHOP? I want in please? Even without the brownies.

    Truly this is making me think of the dreaded S word in a different light. I’m going to get (yes, not make) brownies tomorrow and make it an event to look forward to – as opposed to the ‘root-canal’ expectations. 😀

    Jami, that actually makes sense to go in reverse, just like in line edits as you can’t have ‘expectations’ get in your way. Do you know, they teach people that they CAN draw by making them do it upside down. NO not standing on their heads. I know this is loosing something in the translation!..

    So, when and where is the class?

    😕

    Posted by kathy bremner | May 29, 2010, 11:05 pm
    • I teach an in-depth synopsis writing workshop (includes a critique) a few times a year. The workshop is run online, lessons are emailed via a private loop, and I do the critique privately within 3 weeks of the workshop. Details are here: http://queryworkshop.blogspot.com

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 29, 2010, 11:26 pm
    • Hm. I replied to this comment once, but apparently RU was hungry and decided my comment looked tasty.

      I run an in-depth synopsis writing workshop (includes 1 critique) a few times a year. The lessons are emailed via a private class loop and I do the critiques within 3 weeks of finishing the course. For more details, go to queryworkshop (dot) blogspot (dot) com.

      I’ve just decided RU ate my comment because I tried to leave an active link and it disapproves. lol I’ll trick it this time with my clever use of (dot).

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | May 29, 2010, 11:31 pm
  19. thanks!

    Posted by kathy bremner | May 30, 2010, 12:20 am
  20. Thanks, I’m in! 😀

    Posted by kathy bremner | May 30, 2010, 12:27 am

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