Nancy: Surviving the Synopsis


If you are a fiction writer who hopes to become published, chances are you’re going to have to write a synopsis of your story. In fact, since many published writers sell their next book/books to their editors via a synopsis, chances are, if you stay in this game long enough, you’re going to have to write a lot of synopses of a lot of stories.

You can let this fact drive you to distraction or madness or drinking, or you can choose to make peace with the synopsis process, which tells you something about how I’ve spent my writing time this past week. First, as I’ve been heads down in one manuscript for so long, I needed a little refresher about synopsis best practices, so of course I turned to the InterWebs. And was immediately inundated with Way. Too. Much. Information. So, next, I dug through some old notebooks and rediscovered some sources I’d found helpful in the past, including guidance for writing a one-page synopsis on Pub(lishing) Crawl and some really good do’s and don’ts to remember from Jane Friedman.

But somehow, I was still stuck. I’m an outline kind of girl. Anytime I’m writing non-fiction (which I consider a synopsis, because it is a description of a piece of fiction, ergo, not fiction in and of itself), I start with a skeleton. So while the do’s and don’ts are helpful reminders to check once I’ve completed the synopsis, they’re not so helpful with the set-up, which was where I’d stalled. The Pub(lishing) Crawl guidance was much more my speed, with a list from beginning to end of what to include. Except it’s based on the hero’s journey approach to fiction. While, yes, my hero has a journey which I could (mostly) stuff into this format, it’s not how I planned or framed my story, so it’s not a good fit.

As so often happens, when I took a step back from the problem – in this case, to visit with family and eat too much turkey – I had that aha moment. I wasn’t comfortable building my synopsis around the hero’s journey because that wasn’t the story structure I’d used. I had used an escalating 4-act structure, with the turning point at the end of each act propelling the story into the next act, until the final climactic showdown followed by a brief (kind of fifth act) denoument. Five acts. Five paragraphs. Five paragraphs, which would likely fit on my target of one page.

Like many writers, I cut my compositional teeth on five-paragraph essays, so this put me in familiar territory. I opened paragraph one with my thesis statement (overall theme of the book, in this case women’s friendships), used paragraphs 1-4 to summarize what happens in each act, and closed my ‘essay’ with a summing up (tying up loose ends with the denoument). With a solid structure and summary in place, I could then go back and layer in all those ‘do’s’and edit out the ‘don’ts’. And then edit again. And I’ll have to edit yet AGAIN, as I have some long paragraphs so am still trying to trim that puppy down to a one-page, single-spaced document that does justice to my nearly 400-page manuscript.

Have you written a synopsis for your WIP? Are you at that dreaded point of knowing it has to get done? What are your tips for boiling down your 100k+ masterpiece to a 1-2 page synopsis?

6 thoughts on “Nancy: Surviving the Synopsis

  1. I haven’t written a synopsis in a while, but need to shortly for my second manuscript that I plan to submit for a contest. It follows the act structure, too, so your method should work well for me. It so is a Dreaded Synopsis. I agree with that label because they are very hard to write so that they include the enough detail in such a short space – summarizing 400 pages to 1.

  2. Good luck! I recommend writing it and then walking away from it (for at least a day) and coming back to it with fresh eyes. Doing that, I found so many important things I’d missed, and also was able to see some things I could cut. My first pass was nearly two single-spaced pages long (those were five long paragraphs!)…grrr!

  3. Mine is currently three double-spaced pages. I’m not touching it again until I’m finished with my rewrite. I don’t love it, have to keep reminding myself that the synopsis is a tool to show that I can construct a plot. The sample pages will show whether I can tell a story.

    I like the method we tried at McD: one sentence for the inciting incident, each turning point, climax, resolution, and one sentence in between each one to join the dots. Every sentence to be a physical action, not ‘feels’ or ‘realises’. It’s a good starting point, makes sure you concentrate on the main plot, not sub-plots, and helps to ensure your synopsis covers the whole story in a balanced fashion.

    • The pages are definitely more important than the synopsis, and it’s important to keep that in perspective. I also like the bare bones approach we used during the McD classes, but it didn’t work as well for my story as I had hoped. My approach is similar, but with a little more meat on the bones. I still don’t quite have it, but I’m getting close!

  4. I was going to say, I thought our synopsises for class were much shorter than five paragraphs. Perhaps it would help to do one sentence for each act, then go through the whole thing again for each subplot, and then see what you can combine into easy-to-read sentences. Thank goodness for the pages, right?

  5. That’s a weird bit of synchronicity in my RSS feed… Your post came just after (before, chronologically) the synopsis posts over on BookEnds LLC. I have no idea if they’ll be a help to you, but you might want to go look if you haven’t already seen them: – I really liked this one.

    I also like Howard Taylor’s advice from Writing Excuses: write the first draft like a 10 year old telling someone about a movie they saw. All the best bits, “and then THIS happened, and causes THAT to blow up, which makes THE OTHER THING so awesome!” Go back through and make it more professional and polished later, try to capture your love for the work on the first draft.

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