Saturday, May 23, 2015

How to Write A Brief Synopsis

Last week, a writer asked about a "brief synopsis"

I loathe synopses almost as much as writers do (they are the spawn of Satan on their best day)

They are, Satan notwithstanding, needed and useful.

Here's one of the very best descriptions of how to write a succinct synopsis.  It's by blog reader Dena Pawling, who has graciously allowed me to repost this here (it was originally a comment on this post)

I wrote out everything that happens in my manuscript, chapter by chapter, and then deleted words until I was left with only the major plot points and enough flavor to give the emotion of the story. My finished synopsis is about 825 words, which is 2-1/2 pages double spaced.

Here's an example of a shorter synopsis, from a story we all should know, which I just dashed off so I'm sure it can be improved. Total word count 250 [without the qualifiers].

Long ago, Cinderella lives with her parents, who love her. Her mother dies, and her father marries a jealous lady with two beastly daughters. [set-up]

When her father then dies, Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters treat her as a slave. She's moved to an attic bedroom and her only friends are the mice. Her home falls into disrepair because the family has little money left. She dreams one day someone will love her again. [inciting incident and goal]

Meanwhile, the king wants his son to be married so he can see his grandchildren before he dies. The king decrees a royal ball, with every eligible maiden in the kingdom required to attend. [first plot point]

Everyone is excited. Cinderella, with the help of her mouse friends, re-makes her mother's old gown into a beautiful dress. But her stepmother and stepsisters destroy the dress so she won't be able to attend. Cinderella runs out into the garden and weeps. [mid-point]

Her fairy godmother appears and makes her a magical dress, complete with glass slippers and a coach. Cinderella attends the royal ball and dances with the prince. They fall in love. At the stroke of midnight, she dashes away before the spell is broken. One glass slipper falls off, but she arrives home with the other one, which she hides. [third plot point]

The heartbroken prince travels the kingdom to determine which lady fits the glass slipper. Her stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic [black moment] but her mouse friends help her escape [climax]. The glass slipper fits her, and Cinderella and the prince live happily ever after. [resolution]


LynnRodz said...

Believe me, Dena's comment did not go unnoticed by me the other day. I had stated that I had written my synopsis in one afternoon without any trouble, so when Dena wrote this comment, I copied and pasted it to compare with mine. All's well in the synopsis camp. Now if only my query could be as easy.

S.D.King said...

Nice job, Dena.

I find it so hard to write in first person present. I need more practice.

Happy Memorial Weekend,everyone.

Unknown said...

Printed. Taped to wall. Husband unhappy, he says tape will take paint off wall. I scream at him to 'leave me alone', as frustrated artists have been doing for years.

Actually I just said it needed to be repainted soon anyway. And he said why paint it at all, walls are covered with shark shit.

Which has me thinking about what shark shit looks like...

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks Dena and Janet for (re)posting this as I missed it the first time.

Like Amanda I am going to print and stick on the wall. But we are in the middle of repainting so it doesn't matter - yet.

What will happen once the wall has been repainted has yet to be seen. Maybe rather than Dulux's Silver Beige I should repaint the wall Resene's Shark - then The Hub may not notice all the post-its stuck on the wall with Sharkly wisdom scrawled on them?

Anonymous said...

This is a perfect example and I to noticed it. Whether I commented or not, I don't know. My ferret brain is so easily distracted.

I suffered horribly with mine. The crew at Books and Writers stuck with me through a one-page and a five-page.

Someone somewhere was later fretting because there wasn't enough room to get all the details and their voice in. I believe Jessica Faust said they weren't really interested in voice in a synopsis. They wanted to know if you had a complete story.

Anyway, good job Dena.

And cakes again and I'm on a d-i-e-t.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I saw it the day of and glad to see it again. Copy-n-pasted and saved to my, still, sparse synopsis file.

Thank you, Dena and Janet.

Anonymous said...

Amanda, get you a roll of painter's tape and tape to your heart's content. Tell him you need a bulletin board. I have a bulletin board and a No Parking sign above my desk. The sign is supposed to remind me if my butt is planted in that chair, I should be writing, not just parked.

"And he said why paint it at all, walls are covered with shark shit."

Not sure, but since there are fossilized shark droppings complete with tapeworms, it's out there. I'm not sure if they are more expensive with or without the worms.

fossilized shark poop

Susan Bonifant said...

I was thinking this week that most of us are storyteller "types" by nature. It's probably just another way of describing voice but which type we are is certainly reflected in pace and tone.

There are campfire types (slow and deliberately spooky), life of the party types (gets to the point to keep attention), or maybe the police chief at a conference type (just the facts, lets reader fill in) and so on.

Synopsis writing is a huge headache, but not just because you're trying fit 250 words in a Volkswagen. It's a headache because synopsis-telling makes you write like a police chief when you would rather spook the campers.

As I looked over Dena's example which is brilliant, I pictured the type as a guy in a hurry being stopped and asked about something complicated. (Okay, I'll make this quick).

It kind of hurt my right-brain, but it helped me to picture a type of person telling me my own story in a way that I would find interesting. Then I made them a character with my synopsis as dialogue and whaddaya know, it looked good.

Unknown said...

Nice job Dena! I've got to pull out mine and have another look. What I particularly hate are individual requirements at individual agencies for say a 300 word synopsis, or a one page single spaced, or a one page, double spaced, or a two paged... I guess this is the spawn part of Satan's Spawn. I just send what I have, which, single spaced, is a bit longer than one page. If I had to write a custom synopsis each time I probably wouldn't make it out of my tree hole.

Anonymous said...

I was reading someone's a while back and began to see why agents want to see a synopsis. The story read like Ray Stevens Along Came Jones.

Help he's grabbing me!

Oh no, here come the train, here come the train, here come the train.

It was one damsel in distress moment right after another. I thought, sheesh, doesn't this woman ever get her gumption up and do something to protect herself?

LynnRodz said...

Mine clocks in at 757 words, a little over 2 pages double spaced. Like Rob said, this is what I'll send regardless of what they're asking for. (Or will I be making a big boo-boo doing that? We shall see.)

Thanks for posting this, Janet, and great job, Dena! One less thing to worry about.

Julie, after reading your comment, that video is so funny. Save me! Save me! LOL.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Well done Dena! The Shark quotes you. I copied and printed this as soon as I saw it.

Jami Gold has a series of downloadable worksheets on her blog. Beat sheets adapted to novel and fiction. One is based on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat beat sheet. Here is the link

Dena lists all the main points Jami lists. The worksheets give excellent explainations for each beat or plot point. This may help in breaking down the story for the dreaded synopsis.

Dena makes it sound easy.

Julie said...

Having now officially finished the garble of my first draft (YAAAY! - pardon, but I'm still punch drunk, though a bit sad, actually), the timing, as usual, is AWESOME!

Kudos to yudos, Dena. Yep, I remember.

And thank you again, O Cosmic Queen. For you have nailed my next project squarely upon its pearly penny-nailed head.

Yes, this is.... Dun dun dunnn....

Agent Week.

(Which will more likely be Agent month, but that's why I paid these people, I'll take their word on when the query and synopsis are a go. Unless you all wanna look at them... ;) )

But seriously, thank you so much.

Donnaeve said...

Good job Dena - although I might use this format for brief outlining purposes too.

I also found those beat sheets, and it's really WONDERFUL so many other writers have brains that can distill the info into something workable as in EXCEL SPREADSHEETS. Whoop!

William Coleman said...

The idea of writing a short synopsis is akin to writing queries and getting root canals. I once wrote a short story and by the second re-write I had 365 pages. I have issues with short, maybe because of my height?

I will have to try Dena's technique next time I have to pen one.

On a different note, am I the only one who wonders why the fairy godmother waited so long to come into this poor girl's life?

Anonymous said...

Great post, and great information. Thank you Janet and Dena.

My experience is: most agents who want to see synopses (and few do) don't give specifics. They'll say 'a brief synopsis', which can be anything from 1 page double spaced, as in Dena's example, or 3 pages single spaced (I've always heard synopses are to be single spaced). They just don't want to see ten pages of 'then this happened, and so-and-so did this...'

Longer synopses, in my opinion, show you can't write cleanly or concisely. (I should talk, right? Look at my posts.) Chances are a long synopsis is going to be as rambling as the novel.

But I've heard from agents and editors though: Novels aren't rejected because of how the synopsis is written. And definitely not because their understanding of 'brief' is not the same as your understanding of 'brief'. If a novel is rejected at the synopsis, it's because of the plot. That's why they want to see the synopsis. They want to make sure you've got a good, logical, appropriate plot that isn't just a series of events.

Julie's example is a good one. Along Came Jones is a fun song, but you really do get the impression that the damsel could really TRY to do something besides cry prettily for help. And character development, while not necessary in the old silent movies that Along Came Jones is parodying, is kind of crucial for a novel today.

And thanks, Angie. Those beat sheets are interesting.

Soups. Dang. They still haven't made it count when you click on the example. What's wrong with them?

OpenID error. Soups. Again. *makes a note for lunch*

Dena Pawling said...

Several days ago when I saw an email in my in-box from Janet Reid, at first I stopped breathing and then I hyperventilated.

Did I read that right? She wanted to use my comment on her blog? Seriously?!

Then I printed that email and taped it to my wall. I prefer to call it “shark glitter.” It sure does look purdy lol

I wrote that synopsis in about 10 minutes. Now that I look at it again, I see several areas where I can make it better. But QOTKU says it's good, so I'm not messing with it!

Which reminds me of a traffic trial I watched once. The officer testified how at a specific intersection, a bus stopped at a bus stop [a phrase which my freelance editor would have yellow-highlighted and told me to change up the word usage] which was right before a right-turn lane [another highlight, this one probably with a note to change the first “right” to “immediately”]. The Defendant pulled out from behind the bus, passed the bus, then merged in front of the bus into the right turn lane and made his turn [note from editor: please buy a thesaurus – bus, bus, bus, right, right]. Our boy in blue then “initiated an enforcement stop” for an unsafe lane change. Which was technically true, based on how the officer described it and the law he cited.

When the officer had finished, the judge leaned forward.

Judge: “I've been at that intersection myself. When the bus is there, it makes things durned inconvenient.”

Officer: “Yessir.”

Judge: “And I can certainly understand why this Defendant did what you just told me he did.”

Officer: “Yessir.”

Judge: “So I'm inclined to find him not guilty.”

Officer: “Yessir.”

Judge, turning to Defendant: “Is there anything you want to say? And by the way, I recommend that when you're winning, to shut up.”

Defendant, who must have been former military because he then effected a perfect parade-rest stance: “No comment, sir.”

Judge: “Smart man. I find the Defendant not guilty.”

I agree with LynnRodz – if only my query had been that easy.

Thanks everyone. And remember, Memorial Day is NOT just another long weekend for barbecues and hot dogs.

Signed - Mom of Navy son.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the Memorial Day reminder and thanks for your son's service.

What a great example of when to shut up.

I love courtroom humor.


Diana Gabaldon acquired her agent with a 28-page synopsis, some chunks of writing and notes as to where those chunks would fit in the synopsis, and some samples from her Donald Duck writing. OUTLANDER was very far from complete and turned out nothing like she planned.

Obviously, Diana is not the norm, but I have another friend with an enormously long novel, hereafter known as BAN, who queried two agents with an incomplete novel and a very long synopsis. Both of them pounced on it immediately.

Cakes again. It's a sign.

John had been on a diet for weeks and was doing very well. He'd lost 20 pounds, but one morning he was really craving doughnuts. He said, "Lord, if you want me to have a doughnut, please give me a parking place right in front of the doughnut shop." Sure enough, on the eighth trip around the block, there was his parking place.

Julie said...

William - I'm with you.

I start out trying to write comments that say "I'm with you," and end up with comments that say, "I start out..."

I start out trying to write 80K mysteries, and end up with 100K Actions.

I start out trying to write 100K fantasies and end up with... well, let's not go there.

Let's just say that this "It could be 250 words, it could be 20 pages" synopsis thing is far, far, far too analogue for a digital thinker like me. I need clear. Like, crystal clear. Like "Nope, I don't need a synopsis. Send me a query and your first 10 pages," clear. And even then they get 10 pages plus whatever it takes to make it to 10 pages --> a reasonable breaking point.

Isaac Newton must have been either completely genius or completely insane when he looked at the series of consecutive approximations and came up with "the calculus." Turning black and white into grey is maddening. No - it is art, and that is what made him and Bach so far into the celestial sphere as to be boggling.

I digress.


THIS is why whenever an Agent has the tagline "...and a synopsis," (sans word count or very clear specifier), I feel Lucifer poo land on my shoulder. And I generally move down my Agent list, thereby narrowing my query range. And thereby causing me to wander further from the Woodland Path. To swim farther from the reef. To dream the impossible dream... To sing the impossible song...

And, yes, this is how I'm feeling this morning, LOL...

ANYWAY, synopses.

Thanks, Janet.


Julie said...

(PS, I'm likely to be saccharine + sugar + maple syrup with whipped cream and a cherry on top sickeningly sweet for some time to come, and I'm already untwisting and retwisting the twists I twisted into the plot this week. :D)

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I can't help thinking, "Isn't 'brief synopsis' redundant? And a synopsis that's long seems oxymornic." But then I think, well, a synopsis can be shorter, or it can be longer or too short or half as long. So that's all relative to another synopsis. But a brief synopsis just feels wrong, ya know?

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Sorry. Oxymoronic.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You guys are so dang smart. I am not worthy.

Colin Smith said...

That is a good example, Dena--like you needed me to tell you that after you've been given the gold star from QOTKU. :)

To commenters and lurkers: you know what Janet's saying by lifting Dena's brilliance from the comments and giving it the spotlight? She's saying: "This is how to write a synopsis. So stop belly-aching, grit your teeth, and go tackle Satan's spawn!"

And btw, Beelzebub's underpants are a great way to protect against Lucifer poo. Just sayin'... :)

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: I'm never worthy. Just permitted. :)

Anonymous said...

Julie: I know I don't have all the answers. But you must be extremely good luck to your friends, if they can get an agent with an incomplete novel, let alone with an incomplete novel and a story-length synopsis. :)

Although, if the novel is incomplete, it might be very useful for the synopsis to fill in what's missing, so the agents can see the whole story planned, despite it not being written yet.

John: Yep. It's all relative. A ten-foot piece of rope can be short if you need 11 feet, or long if you need 5 feet. :)

Karen McCoy said...

Thanks for this! On the road now, but will be taping this to my wall when I get home.

Karen McCoy said...

Thanks for this! On the road now, but will be taping this to my wall when I get home.

Anonymous said...


Diana and I have been friends for a long time, but she was published before I met her. She got it on pure obvious talent.

My other friend is a similar case of remarkable talent and she, like Diana, doesn't have a clue how the book is going to end. She told the agents flat out if she knew how it was going to end, she would have no desire to write it so they should be aware the book would end nothing like the synopsis.

Diana admits she only wrote the synopsis because it was requested. She's a chunk writer. She had a vague idea of where they might go, but when she writes, the story tends to go where it will.

After the third book, her publisher told her to stop wasting her time and theirs writing a synopsis because the books were never anything like what she submitted.

I keep hoping some of this talent will rub off by osmosis, but it appears you actually have to work at it. Who knew?

Granted, these two people are very much not the norm. So saeth the person who is busy whacking words again to become the norm.

Anonymous said...


I remember a keynote speech Diana gave at Surrey one year. About how a single mother - with a few children - managed to carve out time specifically for writing. And how, no matter what daily life throws at us, we can put butt in chair and write.

I think she proves the rule that you have to work for your success. You have to be passionate about it and persistent. It takes work, discipline, self-sacrifice, and plain old stubbornness.

And her message was: If she could do it, so can we.

She's really a marvelous woman.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Great advice, Dena, thanks for posting in the first place and letting Janet use it! I'm pretty sure my current synopsis needs work, and it'll come in handy for any subsequent novels I write. Right?

Thanks Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli for posting the link to those worksheets, maybe I'll run some off on my spandy new (well, my fiancé's spandy new) laser printer and play around with 'em.

CONGRATULATIONS JULIA on your first draft!

I feel like I had at least one great story idea yesterday, but lost it due to migraine. I was able to get out of bed at 8 p.m., though don't worry, nurse Elka was on the case! Maybe it'll come back to me in a dream....

Unknown said...

Julie, thanks for the picture of shark shit with worms. Another sentence I never thought I'd ever say.

I've got to ask...did you just happen to have a picture of shark poop or did you Google?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, not worthy but permitted. Love that.

bjmuntain, Love the rope. It is the story of my twine.

Kate Larkindale said...

I've always struggled with synopses, but never more than for a book where I had two very different POVs. I tried writing the synopsis following the structure of the book and it sounded wacky and schizophrenic; I tried writing each character's POV separately, but it made no sense.

Any words of wisdom about how the heck you write a synopsis for a dual POV novel that makes sense?

Anonymous said...


I wrote some dinosaur books for my youngest son when he was little so I am kind of a dinosaur/fossil nut. I have a dinosaur egg that is about 14 inches tall. One item on the bucket list is to get knees in good enough shape to go fossil hunting. So, no surprise I keep dinosaur and fossil sites bookmarked.

Anonymous said...


I have five POV characters.

I did a few sentences for each chapter and then tried to weave it into something cohesive and cut out everything that wasn't absolutely necessary.

One thing the crew at B&W told me is that it doesn't necessarily have to be in exact order.

You're going to have to leave some things out that tie things together, so you can rearrange a bit to make sense. Obviously, you can't rewrite your story, but make it readable.

For instance at the very end of the synopsis, my MC's aunt tells her she's earned a place in the Horse Guards as a Far Rider when she turns 18. Kaelyn still cares for the pirate captain, but isn't sure she can ever trust him.

The aunt actually tells her that news much earlier, but it was awkward and wordy there in the synopsis because I cut all that section out. This is important because it's the MC's goal, so it goes in wrap up.

AJ Blythe said...

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli - thanks for the link! Jami Gold's Basic Beat Sheet is so simple. I've just printed it out and stuck it next to Dena's synopsis.

I need a bigger wall!

I have no idea how long a synopsis should be. I thought they should be short (say 2 to 3 pages) but have heard so many conflicting numbers I'm totally confused.

I can only hope when I send a synopsis it doesn't actually matter.

Julie said...

Okay, so reading my previous comment... it now makes no sense unless you're in my head. And it's scary in there, so let me clarify.

Yes, the draft is done. Yay.

But what I meant by "timing" was that now I'll be working on queries and synopses, so the timing of the blog post is absolutely ideal, and Janet has a knack for pulling blog post timing out of the ether like some kind of super shark. They do have that weird electromagnetic sense, right? That's why they ate AT&T's fiber optic transatlantic cable when it was first laid all those years ago and made all those execs so hopping mad.

Anyway, that's what I meant.

Nighty night.


Anonymous said...


Diana is truly inspirational, She had two jobs when she wrote Outlander, plus the professional papers she was writing, raising three small minions, caring for a large minion, but pretty sure Doug and her were still together when she wrote the book.

Even so, when people say they have no time, she's a prime example, everyone has 24 hours. She set the alarm and got up in the middle of the night to write for 30 minutes when it was quiet.

If you really want to write, you make time.

This happy horse crap of needing a room of their own and perfect conditions is just that, horse crap.

Charlie Russell created beautiful art on wooden spoons (whore spoons), letterhead, envelopes, anything that didn't move really.

Artists create, writers write, just as y'all are or you wouldn't be here.

Some of you write at a prodigious rate, holy crap, Julia.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer: If it's a really great story idea, it will come back. Something will remind you of it, and that something might make it an even better idea.

Julie: I don't think she necessarily meant writing the first Outlander novel when she was giving that keynote. She talked about having an office, then, too. I mean, it's not like she wrote Outlander and suddenly her life became simple, right? Imagine the years she's put into her writing, stealing time here and there, trying to run a household and raise kids and still become the success she is. Yes. A true inspiration and example of 'no time but writing anyway'.

Kate: Something you might try, if they are very different and have different stories, is take your separate ones, put them together chronologically (according to the chronology of the novel) and before each paragraph, say who's POV this is from. For example:

This would be a paragraph explaining the two POVs. For instance: Rod is a race car driver who is having a run of bad luck. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Joe is finding out that marriage is not as easy as his parents made it seem.

ROD: This would be Rod's inciting incident, and other beginning info.

JOE: This would be Joe's inciting incident, and other beginning info.

ROD: Yada yada

JOE: Yada yada

What do you think? What do others think?

Anonymous said...


I don't think I intimated life got simple after she wrote Outlander, but she wasn't a single mother. It was a while before she quit her jobs.

Her father was aghast she'd quit even after she became successful and kept giving her references to "real" jobs.

Regardless, definitely an inspiration.

LynnRodz said...

Kate, I have 3 POVs in my synopsis just like Dena's example. If you look at it carefully you see Cinderella's POV, the king's POV and Prince Charming's POV. You don't need to be technical (sorry BJ) nor do you want to be by putting a name and a colon. The reader can follow along without it.

In Dena's synopsis, we see what's happening with Cinderella and her situation. We then see what's going on with the king which starts the ball rolling (l & f). Finally, we get Prince Charming's perspective and what he wants.

I hope that helps.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

@ Dena - Thanks, Dena! For the obvious - the Cinderella synopsis- and your Bus Stop story; it helped. Oy vey!

Anonymous said...

Yes! What Rob said! Writing a synopsis isn't easy, but the true pain is trying to satisfy query guidelines from fifty different agents who all want a different synopsis length.

Well done, Dena! I'm going to use your format next time!