Nancy: In Praise of the Brief Synopsis (and How to Write Yours)

Tell me your a few words.

Tell me your story…in a few words.

For most of us writers, there comes a time in our lives when we have to face the music, pull up our big-person pants, and take on a terrible task: writing a brief synopsis of our work. This is not to be confused with the long synopsis (5-10 single-spaced pages). This is the brief synopsis. One to two single-spaced pages. About 500-1,000 words. In which to summarize your 100,00-word work of genius. Yikes.

Today I’m going to discuss how to make the brief synopsis your friend. Okay, friend might be a bit strong. But it’s quite possible it’s going to be a necessary evil at some point in your writing life, if you plan to submit work to agents or editors, or to enter your work in contests. So I’ll share some ‘synopsis hacks’ that can make the process less painful, and possibly even worthwhile. I’m even going to suggest you write one for yourself when you’re ready to work on your manuscript revisions. To those of you saying, ‘nope, not even a little bit, not interested in doing that *#$%)# synopsis until an agent or editor forces it out of me on pain of not publishing’, I say, consider it a tool for seeing the bones of your story, finding the broken ones, and fixing your story structure.

The biggest drawback of the brief synopsis is also its greatest strength. By telling your long, complicated, multi-layered story in so few words, you are forced to KISS (keep it simple, sister). Some of the things that must be in your synopsis: the protagonist, her goal, the antagonist, the conflict, the turning points, and the resolution. See, simple! Things unlikely to be in your synopsis: secondary characters; secondary character arcs; subplots; and long, descriptive passages. In short, there will be no camouflage behind which negative goals, weak conflicts, and passive turning points (i.e., discussions and thoughts as opposed to actions) can hide. If this bare-bones summary is plagued by these weaknesses, thank your new best friend, the 500-1,000-word synopsis, for helping to identify potential problems with your 100,000 work of staggering genius.

And now, a few simple tips to make your journey into the brief synopsis a little less painful.

Follow the Rule of Five. Remember elementary school composition class? That’s where most of us cut our teeth on the five-paragraph essay. Use the first paragraph to write an introduction and state your thesis, the next three paragraphs to expound upon your supporting evidence, and the final paragraph to summarize, restate your thesis, and close the essay. Now we just have to translate that to our synopsis and, easy peasy, we’re done! Er, almost.

Start At Ten-Thousand Feet. For purposes of the synopsis, your ‘thesis’ is your protagonist, her goal, the antagonist, and the conflict. That’s the core of your story, right? For many writers, this is going to look a lot like the idea that got them into this mess gave them the foundation for their book. If you can’t quickly and succinctly capture these elements, you might still be struggling with what your story really is. This is useful, if painful, knowledge to use in your revision. It’s also a sign that if you were writing the synopsis to go with an agent/editor or contest submission, you should probably do more revision before taking that step.

Get Closer to the Ground, But DO NOT Fall Into the Weeds. The weeds are where the flesh of your story lives.  They’re where subplots and well-researched factoids and fanciful turns of phrase find a home. They’re where all the juicy goodness marinates into the fabulous stew that is your book. But this is not your book! This is your book synopsis.

Use paragraphs 2-4 to capture Acts 1-3. That’s what you get. One paragraph for each act. (Yes, I know – if you’ve written 100k words, you probably have Act 4 and possibly 5. That’s coming later.) What are your characters doing at the beginning of the act, what major plot devices/conflicts ensue, what happens to close the act. Keep your voice, but cut away the flesh and fat. Voice and bones. That’s all you can fit into 500-1,00 words.

End Every Paragraph on a Turning Point. If you treat each paragraph as an Act summary and ending each act on a turning point (as you should be doing!), this is going to happen automatically. If it’s not happening, there’s a possibility you’re missing important plot points in your story. You need to find them. And you need to make sure they’re actions. If the last sentence in your paragraph describes a conversation or ‘sittin’ and thinkin” or a revelation and not an action, you’re looking at a weak turning point.

Tell Us How It Ends. You’ve heard this about synopses before, and you’ll hear it again on every blog post you read or workshop you take on the subject. You have to include the spoilers. Tell us the ending. Prove you’ve ‘finished your shit’ but showing how you bring it all home. Restate your thesis by including the final showdown (wrap up the conflict) and revealing the champion (did the protagonist win the goal or did the antagonist block her?). Leave the reader with a warm fuzzy or a ‘why, oh why’ or whatever feeling your ending invokes by closing your synopsis with one sentence to capture the denoument, the state of your story-world post-showdown.

Sounds easy, right? Well, of course not. Writing a brief synopsis is a hard and cruel slog. But it can also be a good exercise for your writer brain, forcing you to see the story in a new way as you study the skeleton that needs to support your entire book. If you have missing, broken, or weak bones, the synopsis can help you identify them and fix them before the rest of the story collapses under its own weight.

What has your experience been with writing synopses? Have you done it? If so, was it under duress, or as part of your writing/revision process?

12 thoughts on “Nancy: In Praise of the Brief Synopsis (and How to Write Yours)

  1. Nancy – this is great information and a good way to take a step back from your story (whether it’s finished or not) and check to see where you are and what story you’re actually telling. I’m going to put “write ‘Nancy’ synopsis” on my list of tasks for this week. I have the full synopsis I wrote for a contest submission but I know it still needs work.

    • I’m glad you found the information helpful. I’ve found that the paragraphs or sentences that are hardest to write represent the parts of my story that need the most work. I’ll be interested to hear how this approach works for you, whether it’s for a ‘submission synopsis’ or for your own story review purposes!

  2. I’ve written them. They are very painful and I’m sure they are horrible. The only feedback I’ve gotten on a synopsis was in the McD program and I must have blocked it because I don’t remember. This is excellent timing for me. I’m almost through the 2nd pass of edits, using the Eight Ladies feedback and my own critique of the 1st draft. I’m still losing the story in places. I need to do this brief synopsis to get the main points worked out and then on to 3rd draft.

    • For me, it has become another tool in the toolbox., and I like a full toolbox :-). I hope it helps you find the bones of your story.

  3. I wrote a short synopsis recently because I needed it for a contest. I wanted to get under five hundred words, but I’m still a little over. I struggled for ages because I tried to start with my four-page version and cut it down. Finally I realised I needed to start with the barest essentials and build it up. So I looked at the work I’d done when I was preparing for my pitch appointment at RWA last year – my attempts to condense the story into a sentence, and two, and three, and a short paragraph. That gave me a good starting point, and from there it was much easier to decide what to add in.

    I’ve felt quite differently about synopses since I did some contest judging. It was amazing how often I’d read ten pages, or twenty, or whatever, and then read the synopsis and discover that the story veered off into territory that bore no relation to the set-up of the opening pages. Used in conjunction with the sample pages, the synopsis really helped me to form a picture of what the whole book might be like and whether I’d want to read it.

    • In something like a synopsis, I find paring down from a longer one harder than building up from scratch. It’s too easy for my mind to get into a ‘must-keep’ loop with every sentence and paragraph.

      Synopses for contests are interesting animals. When they are required but not scored, I, as a judge, am then not sure whether it’s kosher to reference a discrepancy or a glaring problem in the synopsis. In one contest I judged, I did provide the scores and comments on the 25 pages of story, then added a section giving a few pointers about how to strengthen the synopsis, being careful to say, ‘this did not impact your score’. In that case, it was because I thought the writing was really good and I didn’t want her to miss any opportunities based on having a less-than-stellar synopsis to go with them.

  4. Great points. To reinforce the tell-us-how-it-ends point, this is not a cover blurb! You must reveal the end of the story! I think I had a problem with that with my synopsis for class.

    I don’t mind writing synopsises (pl? synopses?) if I know what my story is. I kind of get into a fruity announcer’s voice, like the roll-out-the-barrel advertising blurb voice, but it really gives me a chance to look at the story from the outside, to to speak, by putting on a persona.

    I suspect this would be a useful tool to do every two or three weeks. Just write as much of the story as you know down in a synopsis. It could help me identify what is the gold in the story, and what is the crap. And, by doing it often, it loses some of the scariness (? YMMV?).

    (-: Of course, there are a lot of things I *should* do but don’t. For my WIP, I’ve got a synopsis of sorts for up to Act Three. The last turning point is still a little fuzzy, but that’s OK. (-: I got a vision of the first turning point just yesterday, and it’s clear, and includes a small explosion! Gotta get it down on paper . . . .

  5. I’ve avoided entering most contests because they require a synopsis and I felt I couldn’t write one until I had an ending. Now I’m looking at it as another tool to firm things up.

    This is good stuff, Nancy. It’s on my checklist for this weekend.

    • One of the great things about using it as a tool is you become more used to doing it. Writing them for yourself is kind of a trial run, so when it’s time to write one for a submission, it comes more easily.

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