How I Write a Fiction Synopsis

Thanks to Justine’s “writing advice month” posts, I’ve been getting a bunch of requests for advice on how to write a synopsis for a novel. Most writers I know hate writing synopsis, loathe it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I have a friend who calls them sucknopses — a term that drives me up a wall. I feel very much in the minority, because I love writing synopses. LOVE IT. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to do in the entire process or writing a novel.

My love for writing synopses started early on in my career, and it changed my ability to write on a fundamental level. Now, armed with a synopsis, I can sally forth into the wilds of my story without fear of getting lost. I’ve got a road map.

I was taught to write synopses by Kathy Carmichael. Her synopsis writing workshops and handouts cannot be beat. Doesn’t matter if your synopsis is for romance or not (she has some especially for non-romance fiction. This is the place everyone should go — anything I would say about the nuts and bolts would be derived from her workshops. I cannot recommend them enough. I have not looked at them in years, however, because at this point, I kind of know what I’m doing, It’s like no longer referring to maps once you’ve driven the same route a few times.

So now that you know where I get my basic template for my synopsis, let’s move on to the special things I do.

Thing #1: I write my synopsis before I write my book.

I really think writing your synopsis before you write your books makes it SO much easier. You still have a firm hold on what your central story question is, and you aren’t distracted by all your pretty little details and funny lines and unique set details.

A portion of you have already run off in terror, because you belong to the group of writers who think that pre-planning takes all the fun out of it. I can’t tell you how many arguments conversations I’ve had about this with writer friends who think planning books out in advance is sheer madness. My brain does not work that way. Unless i have a plan it’s like getting in a car with no idea where I’m going. I prefer to have a destination in mind and a road map of how to get there.

Please note: this does not mean that I know every single thing that is going to happen in every scene on every page of my novel. (A lot of people who are on the “OMGNOOO, you PLAN?” bandwagon assume that it’s all or nothing in that manner.) Nor does it mean that things don’t change. To completely beat this “roadmap” metaphor into paste — sometimes you’re on the way to a certain place, and you have to take a detour. Or maybe you say to yourself — hey, let’s take this other road instead.” Or even decide to go to a different but related place. All cool.

But the interesting thing is that it probably won’t change the synopsis, much like if you decide to take a detour on your way to your favorite restaurant it’s unlikely worth mentioning to the people you’re meeting for dinner.

I judge a lot of unpublished writing contests, and the number one problem I see in a bad synopsis is that the author doesn’t know what details they should put in, and which ones to leave out. Writing the synopsis before you write the book helps avoid a lot of these problems because you don’t have any of the details yet.

For instance, say you are George Lucas, and you are writing a synopsis of Star Wars. It probably doesn’t behoove you to bother mentioning that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and Luke drink blue milk out of plastic glasses in the opening scenes. A person looking to buy your book doesn’t need to know that. You should spend your time mentioning that those new droids Uncle Owen and Luke just bought are actually refugees from a captured intergalactic ship who are carrying top secret information vital to the rebellion for some old hermit named Ben who lives in the mountains.

Which brings me to

Thing #2: A synopsis is a sales tool.

This is another tip from Kathy Carmichael. A synopsis is not your outline of the story, if you’re an outliner (though it can serve as one in a pinch). A synopsis is, in actuality, your opportunity to skip over flaws in your story. Again, let’s say you’re George Lucas, and you are, perhaps worried that your scoundrel smuggler character might be a little TOO over the top in that one bar scene where he shoots Greedo in cold blood. I mean, it makes sense in context and all, nails the character PERFECTLY, and it’s a totally awesome scene that should never ever have been changed (damn you, George, damn you) but you’re afraid that if you type: “while Han’s first mate, the giant fuzzy Chewbacca, negotiates with Obi-Wan and Luke, Han Solo meets with this ugly green dude who is looking for money Han owes to some other guy and Han shoots him” someone is going to go: “Man, this is not going to play well in Peoria…” You know what you do? You don’t mention it. Because

Thing #3: A synopsis is your chance to tell.

“Show, don’t tell?” Doesn’t apply in synopses. You don’t need to talk about Han shooting Greedo because you have already introduced the character Han as being a “scoundrel smuggler-type with few scruples — or so you think!”

In fact, that’s how you should start your synopsis (Kathy goes into far greater detail on this). “Character A is a such-and-such sort of person who wants such-and-such because of this reason. Unfortunately, he/she is thwarted in this desire by XYZ.”

(If you are writing a fantasy, even this might be pre-empted by some sort of statement about the world rules. For instance, the first paragraph about my Rampant synopsis explains how unicorns are not, in fact, the fluffy innocent sparkly magical pure being of myth and legends, but instead giant, man-eating venomous beasts that have fortunately been extinct for a century or so, only oops, not so much. Then I go into all sorts of stuff about Astrid.)

The other thing that helps you to figure out what detail you need to put in and which to leave out is to really be strict with yourself in terms of space. I cut my teeth writing synopses for inclusion in Harlequin submissions. At the time (might still be, I don’t know) Harlequin said that synopses had to be 2 pages long. That’s two pages for a 50-70k book (depending on what line you were targetting. So you learned to really concentrate on the characters and what made them tick. Usually, in such synospes, you were going to spend the first page on hero (space scoundrel/smuggler), heroine (intergalactic princess and rebel spy), and premise (it’s hatred at first sight when he rescues her from the evil intergalactic vizier/high priest’s evil planet-killing fortress), and the second page on what all happens to them after that.

Much more standard synopsis length is 1 (double spaced) page for every 10,000 words of manuscript. When you are just starting out, look at each 10k words and FORCE yourself to keep your synopsis to that length. You’ll be surprised how it makes you focus on what hte big plot points and turning points of your story are.

And please, do, read up on Kathy’s worksheets.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing advice, writing industry

30 Responses to How I Write a Fiction Synopsis

  1. JKB says:

    Definitely a timely and apropro post, Diana. Thanks!

  2. Diana: Thanks so much for your hearty recommendation of my synopsis materials! I’m awed and honored 🙂 — KC

  3. Phyllis Towzey says:

    That’s great advice, Diana. Although I’m squarely in the I-hate-synopses camp, looking at it as a sales tool (and just leaving out the stuff that’s tricky to explain) really makes sense. Your Star Wars examples really clarified it for me, and I’m actually looking forward to going home tonight and scrapping my current synopsis and trying again.

  4. Jen says:

    Thanks, Diana. I’ve never been very good at writing a synopsis, and I’m working on one right now that’s terrible. I think this helps quite a bit.

  5. Alexa says:

    Thanks that was great advice

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  8. Patty Palmer says:

    Great post! I agree, Kathy has great information.
    Thanks…it was just what I was looking for.

  9. Diana, thanks for this post.

  10. Pingback: Wise words on writing a synopsis » Justine Larbalestier

  11. Amazing post! I usually keep mine to one page–eek. I think that’s magazine writing training, but maybe I’ll expand this next one. And I’m a planner, too. I mean, I must know where I’m going. I don’t have to be totally sure how to get there, but I need the destination–and a road map of a few of the hills and valleys.

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  17. Kristin Gray says:

    most helpful. thanks. now off to work.

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  21. Pingback: Rabia Gale » Blog Archive » sunday update

    I have read a number of posts of yours, but this is the one that I like the most. So expecting some more ideas from your side. Thanks !

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  24. Really your post is really very good and I appreciate it. It’s hard to sort the good from the bad sometimes, but I think you’ve nailed it. You write very well which is amazing. I really impressed by your post.

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  26. I am depending on family and friends (like y’all!) to cheer me on and give me counsel. There are also a lot of great resources for aspiring writers online. Right now I’m using Kathy Carmichael’s workshop on writing a synopsis to help turn my notes into something solid for TheMajPub. (Found via Diana Peterfreund.) […]

  27. Diana Peterfreund gives some laugh- out- loud funny practical advice on synopses here. I can’t believe I only just discovered her blog.

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  30. Thank you for every other informative website. Where else could I get that type of information written in such a perfect means? I’ve a mission that I’m just now operating on, and I’ve been at the look out for such info.