Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing a Synopsis- Jill's Method

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

I know both Stephanie and Shannon have written posts on how to write a synopsis, but I'm now at the point in my drafting process when I do this for myself. So today I'm going to share with you my method for writing a synopsis, and perhaps some of you will glean something new from my approach.

I'm at the point in my author career that if I was hoping to sell Onyx Eyes to a publisher, I'd go ahead and pitch it. Since I'm a multi-published author, I have enough contacts within the industry to try and sell a story without actually writing the full story first. Most editors want to see a few sample chapters and a synopsis. That's usually enough for them to take the idea to their publishing board. Some might ask for a book proposal, which I'll talk about in a couple weeks. I've earned the chance to submit stories this way from nine years of publishing books consistently, having them sell well, and earning some awards.

I likely couldn't get away with this, though, if I didn't have an agent to pitch for me. And there is always the chance that I might approach a new publisher or editor I haven't worked with before who will want to read my full story before going to bat for me. So I never really know. Each situation is different. But for the sake of giving you my process, at this stage, if I wanted to work with a traditional publisher on Onyx Eyes, I might try and sell the story now. To do this I would need to give my agent a synopsis.

Now, I also want to point out that every agent is different, as is every publishing house. So while some might want a synopsis, others might now. When you're ready, be flexible and do what you need to do to get your work seen by editors.

I used to create synopses in an entirely different way (click here to read that method). That way still works, and I'm not opposed to using that method from time to time, especially if I need a synopsis in a hurry. Since I rarely have need to rush out a synopsis, I've come to use my new method because it's pretty much halfway done already. Allow me to explain.

First of all, for those of you who don't already know, a synopsis is a one- to two-page, single spaced document that tells an overview of your story and usually accompanies a submission to an agent or editor. Sometimes an agent will want only one page. Some might ask for a longer, five-page synopsis. Give them exactly what they want.

A synopsis should cover the main events and plot twists as they happen. It should also introduce the main characters and give the ending. It is very important to include the ending! This is not the time to be mysterious or worry about spoilers. The purpose of a synopsis is for an agent or editor to see that you can plot a compelling story from beginning to end. They don’t have time to request a manuscript they aren’t already convinced will be good. So you have to give the ending. That's just how this works.

My new method of plotting has streamlined my synopsis process. If you take a peek back at the post I wrote a few weeks back on How to Plot Your Story and Create a Loose Outline, you'll see that my outline  makes a decent rough draft of a synopsis. Here is a few paragraphs of how that looked:

Prologue - (KAITLYN POINT OF VIEW) - Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn's best friend recently disappeared. Now her brother, Quinn, is acting CRAZY. She wants to figure out what is going on.
PART ONE: Glasderry
1 - Setup (Hero in his ordinary world, not yet living his dream) - (DRAKE POV) - Drake, a Grounder knight, has been engaged to Princess AyannaRynn for years, but when a royal contingent from the enemy Aerial kingdom comes to court, the Grounder king annouces that his daughter will marry the pompous Aerial prince SuelAlefric. Drake is furious. Later he visits Ayanna, but neither of them know what to do.
2 - Turning Point #1: Opportunity - (DRAKE POV) - That night, Princess Ayanna goes missing. Drake is accused, and the Grounder king gives him five days to find her or take the blame. Drake confronts the king about his promise to allow Drake and Ayanna to marry. The king says that peace is more important than promises made years ago. Drake starts his investigation. Clues lead to the Aerials, but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not a strong enough stonecaster to know such magic.
3 - Stage II: New Situation - (DRAKE POV) - Drake goes to visit Tulak, the Old One who took him in after his mother abandoned him as a child. Drake asks what spell might give him wings. Tulak says that only using onyx to bond with a winged creature could accomplish such a thing, but that is the darkest of magic and forbidden. Drake considers Tulak's warning, but his mind is made up. He would do anything to find the princess.

To turn this into a synopsis, I need to take out all the headings, add sentences for clarity, and streamline the prose so it flows like a story. Also, with synopses, here are a couple ground rules:

1. Synopses are always written in third person, present tense, even if the story is not. This is just how it's done. I'm not saying you can't try it a different way, but do so at your own risk.

2. It's customary to put a character's name in all caps the first time you use it in a synopsis.

3. Synopses are single spaced with 12-point font. Indent to 0.5.

3.  Use as few characters as possible. Just don't mention some of the side characters.

4. It's also helpful to leave out as much storyworld jargon as possible.

The point is to show you have an intriguing story without confusing the reader. Keeping things simple for the synopsis, even if your story is intensely complex, is the best way to do that. Here is the first part of my synopsis, edited from my outline:

          Sixteen-year-old KAITLYN PETERSON'S best friend recently disappeared. Vanished from her own bed without a trace. Now Kaitlyn's brother, QUINN, is acting crazy, and she doesn't know if he's on drugs or simply losing his mind. Though life in Meridian, Idaho seems to be falling apart, Kaitlyn will not rest until she figures out what is going on.
          In the Fae realm, DRAKE, the Grounder captain of the guard, is standing watch in the great hall when PRINCESS AYANNA enters. They share a secret smile. They are in love and hope to marry soon. The princess takes her seat just as the Aerial court arrives. Drake is nervous about this night. The Aerials and the Grounders have been enemies for centuries. There have been talks of peace between the kings of both realms, but Drake has his doubts it will work. The Aerials enter, including the pompous PRINCE SUEL. At the end of the meal, the Grounder king makes an announcement. To ensure peace between the Aerial and Grounder realms, the two kings have decided that Prince Suel and Princess Ayanna will marry. Drake is furious. Later that night he visits Ayanna, but neither of them know what to do.
          Drake is awakened in the night by men of his guard, who inform him that Princess Ayanna is missing. He rushes to investigate but finds no sign of a struggle. The Grounder king summons Drake and accuses him of helping Ayanna hide from a marriage to Prince Suel. Drake denies this. The king says that if Drake doesn't find Ayanna and bring her home before the blue moon, he will be arrested. Drake continues his investigation. Clues point to the Aerials, but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not a strong enough stonecaster to know such magic.
          Drake goes to visit TULAK, the Old One who took him in after his mother abandoned him as a child. He hasn't been "home" in far too long, but Tulak greets him as if he had never left. Drake shares news of the missing princess and asks what spell might give him wings. Tulak informs Drake that only bonding with a winged creature could accomplish such a thing, but that it is the darkest kind of magic and forbidden. Drake considers Tulak's warning, but his mind is made up. He must find the princess, no matter the cost.

You get the idea.

I would continue, one paragraph at a time, to write out the full synopsis until I was happy with it, then I would work hard to pare it down so that it fit onto two pages--or one, if that was the request. That can be hard work. Focus on only what is necessary to the bare-bones story, and you'll be able to fit it all on one page. I promise. I know because I've done it many times (after hours of hard work). You can do it too!

A couple things to note:

Though my fairies have names like AlstonFoyledrake, AyannaRynn, and SuelAlefric, I chose to simplify their names for the synopsis. I kept the terms Grounder and Aerials, but I didn't give the name of Kaitlyn's friend, either king, or either kingdom. I had to add mention of Meridian, Idaho and the fae realm, so that the reader would understand that Kaitlyn was living in everyday earth and Drake was not. Also, in the prologue, Kaitlyn never really thinks her world is falling apart, but I needed a sentence that would neatly wrap up that paragraph. You can fudge details in a synopsis in order to smoothly tell the story. No one is going to call you on such things. But if you say that Kaitlyn falls in love with Drake in the synopsis, you'd better have that happen in the story. The point is to be aware that what you include in the synopsis sets up the correct expectations for your readers.

Any questions on writing a synopsis? Have you written many? What is your process?


  1. I've written a couple synopsises, all styled according to the GTW's book ;D It was a fun process, but lots of thinking! I need to write another sometime here soon. It's definitely a bit of a challenge for me ;D

    1. Good job, Keturah! I'm glad the GTW book process helped you. It's certainly is challenging to write small when you're been writing big, in terms of one page vs all the pages in a novel.

  2. I actually write a synopsis instead of making a chapter-by-chapter outline (or any other kind of outline). It's really helped me in the minimal outlining I do before writing! It tells me where the story goes, but I'm still free to change things up a little bit. :) And then if I ever need to give someone a synopsis, I have one ready to go!

    1. That's awesome, Julian. I agree that the synopsis and the outline are somewhat similar in what they accomplish for writers when written before drafting the story.

  3. You said to use as few storyworld terms as possible, but I'm wondering, why didn't you explain the few you did use: Aerial, Grounder, and Stonecasting? Are you supposed to just drop them with no explanation and expect the editors to figure it out in context?

    1. Yes, the idea is that you should use storyworld terms in a way that readers understand what they mean in context, but you should use them rarely.

      Now, to be fair, I didn't get feedback on what I wrote in this post. Usually, I'd write my synopsis, then give it to a couple writing friends for feedback. It's best not to explain anything in a synopsis. Write it like you're telling a story to people who are from that same place, but use storyworld terms as rarely as possible. That should keep you from "over telling" your storyworld information and bogging down your synopsis with storyworld words.

      That said, if my beta readers were confused by my use of Grounder and Aerial, then I might change that sentence at the start of paragraph two to: In the Fae realm, DRAKE, the elvish captain of the guard . . . Then I'd change my terms to elves, fairies, and mermaids throughout the synopsis, even though I wouldn't call them elves, fairies, and mermaids in my story. My Kaitlyn character will surmise that the lore of elves, fairies, and mermaids was derived from my Grounders, Aerials, and Merrows.

      As to stonecasting, I think the use of that word works okay because of how I used it in that sentence. It implies that there are people who do magic in my storyworld and that my guy doesn't think he's all that good at it to be doing advanced magic. Again though, if my beta readers were confused, I'd change it to something like: but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not learned in such magic.

      Make it your goal to not confuse a reader in your synopsis. The reader will be able to read the real story terms in your sample chapters.

    2. Also, I haven't pitched this to my agent or to any editors. it very well could be that everyone will think it's too confusing that I've made up new names for elves, fairies, and mermaids. Perhaps it is. I'm still drafting this book, and I might, in the end, decide to change those more confusing terms to ones that are more universal and easily understood by all. That would make my book appeal to more readers, so it's something I really should consider.

    3. So, synopses aren't supposed to include definitions of storyworld terms. Good to know!
      I don't think you should change the words! When you say elves, fairies, and mermaids, people come into your story with certain expectations based on popular culture and its generic depiction of these creatures. When you say Grounders, Aerials, and Merrows, we know that these don't follow ordinary mythology. Some things may be similar, but so many are different!

  4. This came at the perfect time. I was just planning on writing one :) Thank you for your insight!