5 Tips for Writing a Strong Synopsis | Institute for Writers
For most writers, there are few things more reviled than writing a synopsis of a book manuscript or short story.
- What do you put in?
- What do you leave out?
- Why is writing a synopsis so hard and so scary?
A synopsis really just tells us two things: the story and the character. Both are totally essential to the synopsis but they’re also woven together in how the synopsis is presented. Basically we can look at how a synopsis is woven together by breaking it down into who, what, when, where, and why. Easy, right? Sure, it is. Trust me.
Your synopsis must let us know who the story is about. Who is your main character? Or (if your viewpoint is split) who are your main characters? This needs to be brief and specific. A synopsis that doesn’t seem to have a main character is immediately going to set off red flags for an editor or agents, because if your characterization is vague, your story will tend to be shallow and slight. Let’s look at a brief story synopsis opener that seems on the surface like it might grab an editor’s attention:
When a group of friends finds a spooky old bomb shelter in the woods, they decide to make it the ultimate secret clubhouse. But someone else has found that bomb shelter first, and he’s willing to do anything to keep it secret.
That certainly suggests action and conflict. And it has some “code” words that make for a strong middle-grade story: “spooky” and “secret.” We definitely see there will be an antagonist (villain) but who is the main character? We’re two sentences into the synopsis and we have no obvious main character. Is this whole group of friends going to act as one main character? We don’t even know how many friends there are. Right now, the villain is the strongest character hinted at in the synopsis. How could we do this better?
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across a spooky old bomb shelter in the woods, they decide to make it the ultimate secret clubhouse. But someone else has plans for that bomb shelter. And he’s willing to do anything to keep its secrets safe.
That’s not much change, but it gives us specificity about the main character right up top. It gooses the opening with a better verb (in keeping with the sibilant consonance I was going for there with all the s sounds.) and now the villain goes from having found the shelter to having active plans for it. This pricks our interest even more and will keep the editor reading.
The what of the story is the very basic sketch of the plot. In my Carter example, the “what” feels like a thriller or possibly a mystery or adventure (or a mixture of those genre). The what is a discovery followed by danger. Carter and his friends find an abandoned bomb shelter, which is interesting all by itself. The very words “bomb shelter” have such an imperiled feel to them. And the kids are excited by the discovery, but we (as readers of the synopsis) immediately know something the kids don’t: danger is coming from someone with secrets to keep. This “what” is the basic plot of the story, rendered in as few words as possible. In a full synopsis, the “what” would go on to let us know what Carter will need to do to resolve the story. For instance:
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across a spooky old bomb shelter in the woods, they decide to make it the ultimate secret clubhouse. But someone else has plans for that bomb shelter. And he’s willing to do anything to keep its secrets safe. When things heat up, Carter and his friends run into the roadblock of adult disbelief, and realize the only way to get out of this alive is to clam up, stick together, and beat an old spy with some new tricks.
Notice how this synopsis sample use strong verbs (stumble, run, clam up, beat). Use the strongest verbs you can (without over-exaggerating) to give your synopsis power. Notice also how much conflict the synopsis has. We have the conflict between the kids and the villain (who is revealed to be an old spy). We have conflict with the kids and the adults who don’t believe them. And since I threw in “stick together,” we have a very subtle possible hint of conflict between the kids themselves. Conflict is the engine of plot, so make sure your synopsis displays what your character is going head-to-head with.
A synopsis cannot waste many words, but it benefits from clear specifics. That can be a difficult juggling act to manage. But it can be done. The question to ask yourself is this: how specific can you be without adding confusion? Let’s look back at Carter and his friends. Take a moment to imagine how these stories might differ:
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across the abandoned bomb shelter in the woods behind the witch’s house, they decide…
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across the old bomb shelter in the woods near the abandoned army base, they decide…
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across the old bomb shelter while hiding in the woods behind his stepdad’s slaughterhouse…
When Carter and his two best friends stumble across the old bomb shelter in the woods behind that weird private school…
See how much difference place can make? And we didn’t need a lot of words to add the place to the synopsis. Now I could have added a bunch of words about place in every example. I could have revealed more about the old lady who the kids thought of as a witch or the name of the army base and the local theories about exactly why it closed. I could have told why these kids were hiding in the woods or given the name of the private school and the fact that no one ever saw any of the school’s students, ever. I could have added a bunch of stuff, but when deciding how much detail to add, I’m wanting to add enough to add interest without bulk and without creating confusion.
Story when can mean the time period (which is important if you’re doing historical fiction). It can also mean something a little more specific to the story itself, such as the story takes place after a specific story event or during a specific story event. Let’s look at how that might play out in our imaginary story synopsis. First, we have automatically given a certain amount of information about the time frame simply by adding the element of an abandoned bomb shelter. This story couldn’t take place in the 1800s, for instance. So we already have some very vague implied time, but let’s look at some possible specifics:
At the height of the Cold War, Carter and his two friends stumble across an abandoned bomb shelter in the woods behind the school. They decide…
When hiding out to escape his mom’s wedding rehearsal, Carter and his two friends stumble across an abandoned bomb shelter in the woods…
During the hottest summer on record, Carter and his two friends stumble across an abandoned bomb shelter in the woods…
One important thing to keep in mind about “when” is that any information that goes into the story synopsis needs to be important to the story. So if I mention that the story is in the height of the Cold War, that needs to color the story in an important way. Maybe the paranoia of the Cold War will color the characters’ decisions. Or maybe the stress and details of the mom’s upcoming wedding will help explain how Carter could get into so much trouble without her noticing. Or maybe global warming will be essential to the story in the last example. Detail never goes in just for the sake of detail. It must always serve a specific purpose in the synopsis, because it’s an essential element in the story.
Every story has two journeys. There is the physical, active journey from the circumstances at the beginning of the story to the circumstances at the end. In our imaginary example, the journey is from the discovery of a cool, abandoned bomb shelter to the danger of dealing with someone who will protect the bomb shelter’s secrets at all costs to the ending which resolves that external tension and conflict. If I plot this like most middle grade novels, this would be when the boys overcome the dastardly old spy and can return to being safe again. The physical plot is often a bit circular. It’s the journey from “normal” to “change in circumstance and consequences” to “return to normal/new normal.” But this isn’t the only journey in your story.
The second journey is internal and it is not circular. It is transformative. In the internal journey, the main character starts the story in one state, and then ends up a changed person. In our story, he may have changed in the way he relates to his friends in order to get through such a dangerous circumstance. He may have changed in how he views adults. Maybe he always saw them as dully benign, a place of refuge, but he comes to realize that adults are more complex (and sometime more flawed) than he’s realized. Maybe his change is from being scared to being courageous. Maybe he’s always been a natural storyteller, and thus has a reputation for stretching the truth, and his change is to face the potential consequences of that and learn when to tell stories and when to tell the truth. These are all changes that could also work in the circumstances created in our imaginary plot. Change needs to happen in your story and it needs to be reflected in your synopsis. This is the “reason” for the story, the “why.”
How might I add the “why” to my imaginary synopsis?
All his life, Carter has been the quiet kid with a reputation of being scared of his own shadow. When he stumbles across an abandoned bomb shelter in the woods, he finally has something exciting to share with his bold best friend, Justin. The boys decide to make the bomb shelter into the ultimate secret hideout. But someone else has plans for that bomb shelter. And he’s willing to do anything to keep its secrets safe. When things heat up and Justin is kidnapped, Carter is sure the discovery of the bomb shelter played a part. He quickly runs into the roadblock of adult disbelief, and realizes the only way to get his friend out of this alive is to clam up, man up, and beat an old spy with some new tricks.
This new synopsis shows us the physical plot of finding the bomb shelter, claiming it, and running into serious trouble as a result of that. We learn Carter’s best friend is kidnapped and the logical place for Carter to turn (adults) seems hopeless, but Carter comes up with a plan. We also see the inner journey of a bright, hesitant kid who is delighted to be the “discoverer” for once. And we find that discovery is only the first step on Carter’s journey of change. He must also become a “man of action” to save his friend. This feels like a synopsis with things happening externally (what) but also things happening internally (why).
What about your story? What are your five Ws? The cleaner and more orderly your plot is, the easier it will be to write your synopsis. So the very process of writing one can help you reveal flaws in your plot. If you flatly cannot construct a five W synopsis, the problem might not be with your synopsis writing, but with the plot itself. Plot flaws in the story are one of the most frequent causes of synopsis bloat. That’s something to keep in mind as you write your synopsis. Personally, I like to write a synopsis at several points in my creation process. I write the first one before I begin the story. Now this synopsis is almost certain to change, but it helps me get the feel for what I want from the story. Any time I feel a little bogged down or am not sure what to do next, I’ll write another synopsis as that often helps me spot what is causing the trouble. Every time I write a synopsis, it will point me toward places where the plot becomes sloppy or wanders off course without purpose. It will also tend to reveal if my inner character journey feels unmotivated when boiled down to its essence in a synopsis. So synopsis is more than a selling tool, it’s also a great diagnostic tool for the book, pointing you to the places in need of revision.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go figure out what happens with Carter.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.