The Dreaded Synopsis

Writing a synopsis doesn't have to freak you out.

Writing a synopsis doesn’t have to freak you out.

“A synopsis is a cold thing. You do it with the front of your mind.”

~ J.B. Priestley, English novelist, playwright, broadcaster

Is it only me, or do you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about having to write a synopsis? I can write novels. I can write devotionals. I can even whip out a mean shopping list. But writing the dreaded synopsis brings out the idiot in me. Perhaps, indeed, I have lost the front half of my brain somewhere along the way.

So what’s my problem? Am I giving this too much importance? Am I trying to fit in too much information? Has there not been enough dark chocolate in my diet of late?

Regardless, there’s no getting around the fact that every writer must construct a synopsis in order to sell a manuscript. Think of it as the bones of your story, or if you like, the short story version of your novel.

3 WAYS TO WRANGLE A PLOT INTO A SYNOPSIS FORMAT

1. Introduce your main characters, focusing most on goals, motivations, and conflicts rather than on physical attributes.

Hint: Think back cover copy.

Example: It takes a thief to catch one, and there’s none better than reformed cat burglar (MOTIVATION) Officer Doug Harwell. He’ll stop at nothing to rid the Boston streets of crime (GOAL)—until the beautiful pickpocket Rhianna Davis enters his life (CONFLICT).

2. For the body of the synopsis, set up each paragraph with the actions, reactions, and decisions made by those main characters.

Example: Bob kisses Donna under the apple tree (ACTION).
He makes her forget she’s already engaged to Bubba (REACTION).
Donna decides to break off her engagement and run away to join the circus instead (DECISION).

3. Tie up the loose ends.

Never—ever—leave an editor guessing, no matter how cute you think it is. Cliffhangers are great for chapter endings, but not for a synopsis finale. You must include the resolution to your story.

There you have it. Put together your story idea into a two-page format before you dig into chapter one so that you have a road map to follow as you compose.

DO NOT LIVE AND DIE ON SYNOPSIS HILL

Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse? I’m not. Shoot, I’m not even prepared to make dinner tonight. I’ve got more important things on my mind, like should I stick to my synopsis or deviate in a whole new direction even though I’m two-thirds of the way finished? Don’t smirk. This is a serious crisis.

What do you do when you suspect your storyline might be one of the living dead?

First off, don’t panic. I never do. Oh, I did on the first three or four manuscripts, but now I see a pattern. I get bored with my own story. Yeah, I said that out loud. And newsflash: If the author’s bored, the reader will be bored. It’s a valid reason to stray from your original outline, but there are a few other reasons you might want to consider when deciding if you should revamp your plan or ditch it altogether.

You might want to change your synopsis if:

1. You thought of a better idea for an ending.

2. A new character shows up and takes center stage.

3. You realized an angle to turn the story into a series.

4. You came across information that makes your original idea not only implausible but outright impossible.

Remember, a synopsis written before a story is finished is more of a guideline than a legal contract. It’s okay to change things up, unless you’ve already got a contract on the piece. Then you’ll have to clear it with an editor first.

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6 thoughts on “The Dreaded Synopsis

  1. Of the hundreds of posts I’ve read on this site, yours ranks among the best. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for posting this, Michelle! It came at a perfect time for me – I’m working on a book proposal, and I’m hesitant to write a synopsis, because in my experience, my story always takes on a life of its own once I’m writing it, and all I can do is hang on for the ride. After reading your post, though, I’m ready to write, knowing my synopsis isn’t necessarily set in concrete.

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