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Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up

by Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc

Tell most aspiring novelists that they must synopsize their masterpiece, and they run screaming into the hills. Give them a few weeks, then, to calm down and read everything they can get their hands on about synopses and... well, they break down and head off screaming again. Materials on writing a novel synopsis are often conflicting, especially when it comes to length, and for some of us a word or page limit is the only way we know to stop writing.

A synopsis should be a breakdown of the central plot and storyline, and introduce the central characters. Simple, right? Wrong. The problem with building a novel synopsis is that, as the author, it's hard to take a far enough step back to determine what is central and vital and what is interesting but not quite necessary. No more does this issue become evident than when we sit down and write what we think is a killer synopsis, show it to someone who's never read the book, and they find themselves completely confused: and usually bogged down in a host of names, locations, and side issues.

So how do you avoid this? By making use of the various recommended lengths. Everyone has their own favorite working methods, but for me this means doing a sequence of synopses in the following sizes:

  1. A single sentence.
  2. A single paragraph.
  3. A single page or shorter.
  4. The expanded version.

The One Sentence Synopsis

In writers' circles, something similar to the following is often bantered about: "If you can't tell someone what your novel is in a sentence, you don't know what it's about." A ripple of panic then goes through the room as everyone tries to figure out how to sum up their entire novel in one little sentence. The thing is, you're not trying to sum up the whole story here. Instead, you're dealing with the theme, the underlying message behind the piece.

Don't panic, you don't have to come up with something perfect right now. Think of it as starting the gears turning, jotting down your initial thoughts to save yourself work later when it does come time to pitch your book. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the central character? Even if you have a set of main characters, often the story ultimately revolves around one of them. If not, if you really cannot separate them for some reason, then that also answers your question.

  • If you have more than one central character, what qualities describe the main characters as a group? Are they all doomed? Are they all looking for something? Are they all too young or too old to be facing this challenge? A mix of the two? Is there something they must all overcome?

  • What is the overall theme? Is this a tale of redemption? Loss? Coming of age? Love conquers all?

  • What is the central driving force for your main character or group? Try to be specific here. If there's a prophecy, then that's a driving force, but what's the cost of failure? What are the external (to the world, community, and so on) and internal (to the character(s)) costs?

Now, grab a blank sheet of paper (or open a new document) and start jotting down sentences that capture the essence of your answers. Treat this like a brainstorming session, don't analyze too heavily, just go with the flow until you've got a page of them or the ideas just stop coming. For example, I might end up with some the following for one of my less serious story ideas:

"One small boy stands between a cursed kingdom and salvation."

"One little curse goes a long way."

"One waif of a boy must save a cursed kingdom, but he'd better not clean himself up too much first."

As you can see, I'm really not telling you much about the story itself, but at the same time you may have to read a good part through the book to realize that what you see here is the central storyline. Also, you might notice that the synopsis samples are all in present tense, or mainly are-- this is a highly recommended novel synopsis technique.

The One Paragraph Synopsis

If someone just walked up to you and asked you to summarize your novel into a single paragraph, you'd probably laugh at them. However, after trying to write a one-sentence synopsis, maybe you'll realize that a whole paragraph opens a world of possibilities! Don't go too crazy though. You don't want to end up with a paragraph that takes up a whole page.

In addition to the questions you asked yourself when writing the first version, consider the following:

  • If you have more than one central character, who are they, and how many? You have a bit more room in a paragraph to include some quick details about the main pair or group, if these details can be made relevant to the overall story and plot.

  • Why does this character or group have to proceed? Typically, if your character can back out, then you don't have enough dramatic tension. What's pushing them forward? Here you're only concerned with an overall issue. You don't have room for individual issues.

  • If you have more than one central character, what fate ultimately binds them together? Typically you need a reason that you're covering multiple people. Their storylines and plotlines should weave in amongst each other such that the reader begins to feel the web of connections that binds them.

  • What is the climax of the piece? Does your heroine slay the dragon? Does Timmy manage to rescue his sister from the flooding cave?

  • What lesson is learned? Once again, this issue might be identical to the theme, but it might not. The lesson might differ in some subtle but interesting way.

It's time for a new sheet of paper or blank document. If one of your single sentence synopses really stands out, then start with that item if you'd like. Once again, treat this like a brainstorming session and churn out as many versions as come to you. I personally like to think of this in terms of what you might read as the back cover blurb. One version for the example story is:

"The kingdom of Verflucht has endured a decade of misery, under a geas that any curse uttered within its borders comes to pass. King Günstig cannot endure watching his people suffer from the safety of the palace, the only place immune to the curse, any longer. Their only possible savior is a young beggar boy, Timmy, who's led a hard enough life without being cursed that no one's had the heart to add any more to his burdens. Timmy must strike out beyond Verflucht's borders and find someone both powerful and foolish enough to enter his homeland and break the curse of all curses."

Notice that in the single sentence version I didn't bother to include any names, but here I've introduced a few. Names of places and people must be used sparingly in any synopsis. Only mention a name if you're talking about a central character or place, I use a personal rule of:

"If it's too confusing not to mention the name, add it."

This issue typically comes into play when I realize I'm using a lot of words to write around something where I could just include a name. Others have suggested the following to me in the past:

"If a character or place is only referred to once throughout the synopsis, don't use a name."

Of course, this means that I might want to take out the reference to King Günstig above, but I don't think this single paragraph version has a confusing number of proper nouns to keep track of. That's where we tend to run into problems with synopses. A synopsis for a novel with a cast of thousands can quickly bog down in too many people, places, and things to keep track of!

The One Page Synopsis

After going through a single line and single paragraph synopsis, the idea of having a whole page to fill is heaven. Here is where it's really tempting to try to fit everything in, every little nuance and subplot, but fortunately for the average novel all of this information won't fit in one page-- I say fortunately because if you did include all of that, then you'd have to pull it back out!

Proceed with caution. Here are some more questions to ask yourself before starting:

  • What does your (or each) central character want? What human need are they trying to address? This issue often feeds back into your theme, but when there are multiple characters they may each be addressing different facets. If you have multiple main characters, be sure to take advantage of this issue here to really weave things together. Even if you have a single character, including this issue can help to give an agent or editor a serious feeling for the emotions you bring into your work.

  • What personal issues drive your (or each) central character forward? Without a constant sense of forward motion through the plot and story, your novel risks being sat down and never picked back up. Even in a synopsis it's possible to convey this drive forward with the right details and emphasis.

  • What personal issues hold your (or each) central character back? Yes, I'm focusing on multiple characters a lot here. This is really the first place you can make serious use of them! There is often some pain or fear that makes it hard for your protagonist(s) to press on.

  • What is your central character(s)' defining moment? At the climax, your character typically needs to change, to face down what's holding them back and press forward against all odds. What realization or decision must your central character(s) make?

A great way to structure these issues if you have multiple main characters is to give each of them a paragraph or so. One good layout is a first paragraph that ties everything together for the beginning, progress through the characters, and then a last paragraph that ties it all together again for the end. For a single character, make sure not to let subplots get involved, since it might feel that you have room.

Grab another blank sheet or file and give it a whirl. If you actually need to turn in a one-page synopsis, then be sure to keep in mind that you'll have to double-space the document once you have it typed up. On the other hand, if you don't have to turn in the single pager, go ahead and leave it single-spaced, while keeping in mind that when it comes time to expand into whatever length you are looking for, the ultimate result will have to be double-spaced (isn't document formatting fun?)

Here's an expansion of my previous exercise, designed to fit on a single double-spaced page:

"The kingdom of Verflucht has endured a decade of misery: any curse uttered within its borders comes to pass. The King cannot watch his people suffer any longer, and so to keep him from trying to leave the palace, the Captain of the Guard devises a plan.

Only someone not cursed can leave the kingdom. Timmy, a ten-year-old orphaned beggar boy, is offered a quest. If he succeeds in finding someone both powerful and foolish enough to enter his homeland and break the curse of all curses, he gains a post as a royal page.

But there's a problem. Timmy remains uncursed because people can't imagine anything worse than his own terrible life. He sets off for the long trip on his own, passing through villages of people cursed with maladies, mutilations, and worse. As his confidence grows he must work harder to hide it, and in the end he barely makes it past the border unscathed.

Once outside he discovers that the neighboring kingdoms are under siege by brutal warlords. By the time he finds a nervous old woman who claims to have the powers he seeks he's desperate to return home. When they finally reach the palace Timmy isn't certain if removing the kingdom's curse is best, since it keeps the warlords out due to fear. But the King has slipped into madness and won't listen.

Eventually Timmy decides that the only way to keep his people safe is to keep the curse intact. He lures the old woman out of the safety of the palace and places what he hopes is a clever curse upon her: that her magic cannot remove Verflucht's great curse until the outside world is in peace. He then heads off to seek his own fortune, no longer afraid of someone laying a curse upon his head."

Once again, I avoid names as much as possible here. Little Timmy comes up often, and it's easier and more appropriate to say "Timmy" than "our hero" for this kind of piece. The rest of the characters I really don't feel the need to name, even the King who's referred to more than once. It's easy enough to just say "The King." Now, if there were two Kings in this story, names would become more important in the synopses.

This breakdown is also still very focused. None of Timmy's side adventures are included. Nothing about what the warlords are doing, a couple of quick adjectives to describe the old woman, or even the specifics of how the curse works are introduced here. There's just not enough room. I find that, personally, I delete a lot of what I write when I'm preparing the single-pager. It's easy to think that there's so much room after being confined to sentences and paragraphs; that is, until you suddenly find yourself moving on to the next page.

The Expanded Synopsis

Finally! If you're submitting your novel to an agent or editor and a synopsis is required, this length is what you're aiming for. The general advice is to keep the expanded version to five pages. However, always look at the writer's guidelines for the publication or agency in question and follow their instructions rather than anyone else's. They're the ones who know what they want, and they are paying attention to whether you heeded their preferences or not.

Your synopsis may not need to be particularly long: let your story be your guides. Once again, let me remind you that a novel synopsis should only cover your central storyline and characters. Don't go off following side plots or trying to explain every nuance of your characters' behavior, even of the main protagonist(s).

I approach the expansion by starting with the single-page version, and then filling in between the lines. Often I haven't managed to answer all of the questions asked throughout this article, and so I go back through and look to see where I can flesh out motivations, driving forces, key events, and so on. Nothing gets added unless it's necessary to explain what's already there. The hard part, of course, is as the author I often think more is required than really is.

It's worthwhile at this point to share your synopsis with people who are good at giving constructive feedback, and (this is important) who have never read any part of your novel, and who you haven't told much of the story to-- especially if you have a particularly complex plotline. See if they find the described story compelling, if they feel that what you have is cohesive, or if they feel like you have a bunch of unrelated bits and pieces all kind of tacked together. I personally find that this is the best way to accomplish two things:

  1. Not leave out critical bits of detail that are obvious to me but not obvious to someone unfamiliar with the novel.

  2. Find bits of detail that are not necessary, and in fact overcomplicate the synopsis!

Once I found myself with a twelve page synopsis, and after a lot of thought and showing it to a few people, realized that what I'd done is written a six page synopsis with too much information about a quite complex plot, and expanded the piece to twelve pages trying to explain all of the extraneous bits I'd included in the six-pager. By rewriting my synopsis using the methods discussed throughout this article, I found myself with a much better five page synopsis that better met that fine line of too much detail, and too little.

Obviously, every writer works differently. This method might be great for you, or might in fact make writing a synopsis even harder. My recommendation would be to find as many different descriptions of synopsis writing as possible and experiment. Eventually you'll find a way that works really well for you.

Enjoy, and happy writing!

Copyright © 2002 Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Dee-Ann LeBlanc is a professional geek, a professional writer, and a creator of handmade jewelry (http://www.etsy.com/shop/deesadornments) who uses social networking to keep in touch with friends and family and to promote her work. She has a certain fondness for the social aspects of the Internet since she met her husband there, way back in the early 1990s!

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