Writing a Synopsis, Pt. 1

Writing a synopsis for your book can be one of the hardest things you ever attempt! People are always asking me how to do this, so today I’m deferring to my client Gordon Carroll, who has written a helpful article on writing the pitch sentence, the paragraph, and the one-page synopsis. I’ve divided it into two parts for today and tomorrow.

So take it away, Gordon.

Okay, I’ve finally found something more horrible than having to write query letters. WRITING A SYNOPSIS! Argh! I’ve sat in the audience of several agent and editor panels and they make this sound so easy. I find it not to be so. It’s hard. About as distant from the free flowing joy of writing fiction as you can get. Still, it’s the way it is, and if we want to be famous, rich authors with published masterpieces that thrill the world, then we have to put in the work. There are lots and lots of ways to write a synopsis, but I will share what’s worked best for me.

Important note: All synopses are told in omniscient present tense. There are no exceptions to this rule.

What’s a synopsis? It’s a brief summary of your story. It should consist of a bird’s eye view of the plot, as if from a mile above. A synopsis is a breakdown of the central plot and storyline, and it should introduce the main characters.

The real difficulty in writing the synopsis is what to put in and what to leave out. Personally the easiest way I have found to do this is to start with The Simple Sentence.

Let’s try it.

Keep it simple. Like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. Let’s try Bambi.

What is the story about?

→ Bambi is a story about wildlife.

Hmm. True but boring and uninformative. Still, it’s a start to get your juices flowing. What is it about Bambi that makes it more interesting than just a story about wildlife?

→ Bambi is about a newborn deer, who will one day be king of the forest.

Ahh. Better. Let’s flesh it out a little more.

→ Bambi tells of the challenges facing a deer born to royalty but hunted by man.

Now we have conflict and the beginnings of a story. Time for the Pitch Line or How to Describe Your Story in 25 Words or Less.

Think about your reader. A synopsis usually is for an agent, editor, or publisher. You need to capture his or her attention, while still getting the main thrust of the story.

→ Bambi is the story of a deer, born to be king, facing the dangers of man, fire and the loss of his mother.

Only 22 words. Is it the best? Probably not, but it’s a pretty good hook.

I think it’s good to start your synopsis with a Pitch Line type of statement that describes your story in 25 words or less. You can go over 25 if you have to, but try and keep it right around there. It will help you stick to the main aspects of your story.

As for those main aspects, we need to look at them to write our full synopsis.

Okay, so we have a Simple Sentence, now it’s time to move to the next stage. Writing the Simple Paragraph.

Here are some things to think about for the simple paragraph:
-How many main characters, and how important to the story are they?
-What is the motivating force driving your character(s)?
-What is the true climax of the story?
-How did your hero(s) grow?

Okay, let’s bring Bambi back:

→Bambi is the story of newborn deer raised in the shadow of his father, king and protector of the forest. Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter, leaving him with a fear of man and his weapons. The young prince grows in strength and stature, and feels the first stirrings of love as he approaches adulthood. An older male attempts to steal Bambi’s girlfriend and Bambi must save her, both from the older buck and from a raging fire that sweeps through the forest. Bambi saves her and rescues his animal friends proving he has grown into the king he was born to be.

Here I’ve kept the characters to a minimum (I suppose I could have left out the intruding buck and Bambi’s girlfriend, but I like the love story element). I’ve also kept names to a minimum, using only Bambi’s actual name.

I’ve shown the motivating force, Bambi’s need to take his father’s place, as well as the minor forces that help push him toward the climax and achievement of his goals. There are plenty of underlying motivations here such as the feelings of inferiority every boy feels toward his father and the overwhelming desire to live up to his expectations. But in this simple paragraph, there’s no need to try and spell it all out.

We also show how Bambi grew by fighting for his girl and saving his friends while risking his own life, proving that he is truly worthy to be king. We’ve actually said a lot and it’s barely over 100 words.

Now you have the pitch sentence and the pitch paragraph. Tomorrow I’ll finish with the complete 1-page synopsis.

Gordon Carroll is a novelist who has worked as a Deputy Sheriff in Colorado for more than 20 years, the last 13 as the senior deputy in charge of the K9 division. Check out his website at www.gordoncarroll.com.

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  • Christina Berry

    >There’s always an exception to the rule! :-)

    My one-page synopsis is told in a “his” section and a “her” section, first person. However, I knew the trick could get old quickly, so the longer synopsis is normal.

    I admit, we did use a short third person as well, which we sent to more traditional editors, but the controversial style of the synopsis reflects the controversial style of my book. If an editor was turned off by the first-person use in the synopsis, he/she wouldn’t enjoy the manuscript anyway.

    It’s actually a mutually-beneficial shortcut to rejection or further interest. ;-)

  • Susan

    >Thanks Gordon! I just sent a partial with synopsis yesterday, and writing the synopsis was a longer/bigger headache than editing and polishing the first chapters of the book. I like your step-by-step approach here.

    Rachelle, are there common mistakes in synopses that you see over and over again? (hoping I didn’t do one, but wondering…)

  • lynnrush

    >Thanks Gordon. This is most helpful. I love how you broke it down. Looking forward to tomorrow’s segment as well.

  • Marion Ueckermann

    >Wow – isn’t God good? I just started on my chapter by chapter synopsis in the car this morning and soon realised I was going into too much depth as I have two pages in which to cover 46 chapters (for a novel competition submission). I can’t wait to get home from work to feast on Gordon’s words. Looking forward to Part 2 tomorrow.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Screenwriter and Save the Cat author Blake Snyder recently introduced a paint by numbers type tool for developing a logline. It seems to work well, but it won’t limit the line to 25 words. Applying that method to Bambi, I came up with the following:

    While living a sheltered life, an immature deer loses his mother and must survive alone with his forest friends, but when Bambi falls in love, he must learn to face his fears before an older stag attempts to steal his girlfriend and a fire sweeps the forest, to protect his friends and become the prince of the forest.

    Even though it is one sentence, it seems more like Gordon’s “simple paragraph.” The nice thing is that it gets us close to where Gordon has led us without so much trial and error, but it does require you to be able to fit the story into Blake Snyder’s beat sheet.

  • Karen

    >WOW. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! That is the most helpful article I’ve read on writing the dread synopsis. More, please.

  • Avily Jerome

    >Thanks for having Gordon in, Rachelle! That was awesome. Thank you, Gordon, for your insight. I always have a hard time figuring out what is important enough to put in, and how to fit it all into one paragraph. Thanks again!

  • Marla Taviano

    >Great job with a tough assignment–teaching someone how to write something. In words they can actually follow. Two thumbs up!

  • Melanie Avila

    >That was very helpful! I can’t wait for the next part.

  • Anonymous

    >I love that you used bambi it made it more fun especially because I write kids stories. Thanks kim k

  • Gordon Carroll

    >Christina Berry proves there really is always an exception to the rule (probably more than one).

    Go get em Christina!!!

  • Gordon Carroll

    >Tim, I loved it. Snyder’s paint tool sounds great. Anything to make it easier.

  • Gordon Carroll

    >Thanks to everyone for your kind comments. Using Bambi was really Max’s idea. He’s the cute blond in the picture.

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