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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.