Friday, August 19, 2011

Organizing a Synopsis

First of all, don't forget that Sarah Holman is our guest this week. She's giving away a copy of her latest, The Destiny of One, so make sure you get yourself entered to win.

A writer asked, what is the best way to organize a synopsis? And I'm so glad they did because, as many of you know, synopses make my heart go pitter patter. I adore writing them.

A common new-synopsis-writer mistake is to write your synopsis in perfect chronological order. It worked in your novel for building tension, why shouldn't it work in a synopsis?

To be honest, I don't know. But it doesn't. It's jumbled and confusing and turns into a dry resuscitation of facts. Here's what I've found works best for me:

My first paragraph or two is often backstory/set-up as to why my MC happens to be in her current predicament. Here's what that might look like:

Sixteen-year-old Marin Young has always believed sex should be saved for marriage. It’s a principle her parents raised her with—but of course they also said marriage was forever. This summer, her father moved out and now lives with his former high school sweetheart. Who’s due in December with Marin’s half-sister. Now it’s just Marin and her mom rattling around the large house. It’s been three months since Dad left, but Mom still hasn’t said a bad word about him. Marin’s worried that before too long, Mom will run out of surfaces to clean and she’ll crash.

The second person to disappoint Marin over the summer is her boyfriend, Dave. With him being a fellow youth group member, Marin assumed Dave was like her and believed in abstaining from sex. She’s had other boyfriends, non-Christians who claimed they didn’t mind waiting but then pressured her later on. It turns out Dave isn’t much different and has little interest in self-control. Good-bye to him.

That's not where my novel opens, it opens on the first day of school, but in a synopsis you need to start with your premise.

Then I move into the major plot lines, each of which usually gets it's own paragraph. We'll keep using Marin as an example. The major plot lines in that story involve her two best friends, her hunky new boyfriend, and her mom's new boyfriend. After sitting here and studying my synopsis for a bit, I've noticed a pattern with my paragraphs. I explain what happens up until the big turning point/climax/moment of question for that particular plot, and then I move on. See below for an example. (I've "bolded" the turning point/question)

Ella, who’s never been too interested in boys, starts up with a guy from another high school. While Marin and Katelyn are initially thrilled for Ella, they soon grow concerned as they see her priorities slipping. Ella’s slacking off in two activities she’s always been steadfast about—school and creative writing. Will Ella soon become flexible about her morals as well? Even though Ella assures Marin she’s in no danger, that she’s in control of her actions, Marin remains nervous.

Meanwhile (brief interruption - this word is your best friend in a synopsis) Marin has her own boy issues. After her disaster of a relationship with Dave, she intends to take time off from dating. She plans to focus on the newspaper and fill her résumé with activities impressive to the University of Missouri and their elite journalism program. But the new guy at school, Vince, changes things. Not only is he the best looking guy Marin’s seen on this side of television, Vince’s parents also split over the summer. He understands Marin’s heartbreak like no one else. So, okay, he’s not a Christian. But even though he doesn’t believe in saving sex for marriage, he totally supports Marin’s commitment to waiting. Isn’t that enough?

Marin isn’t the only one who finds herself in an unexpected relationship—Marin’s mom has met a guy...

See what I mean? I explain up until the big "What's going to happen?" moment, then shift to another plotline.

Next I usually have a section that - for lack of better terms - explains why the climax happens. Sometimes this is a couple sentences, other times it's a paragraph. Like "Marin finds these, which leads her to talk to Vince about this, which causes him to break up with her, which makes her do this climactic thing."

And finally, I arrive at the Final Battle Scene. Sometimes this part is neat and tidy. Like if you're writing a romance, it's where the hero and heroine realize they're perfect for each other and defeat the final obstacle standing in their way. If you write mysteries, it's where your MC figures out who dunnit.

On the other hand, if you're writing a book like the one I've been describing, that "final battle" can be a toughie to capture. (Sometimes it can even be hard to determine!) But it gets it's own paragraph, typically.

Finally, I write a concluding paragraph telling how things are different and what my MC learned. Like:

When Marin sees Vince moving on with another girl in their class, she can’t deny the pangs of regret over not being with him. She briefly fantasizes about abandoning her principles, about living “here and now” and not worrying about what the future will bring. But around her she sees the lives of those who did compromise—her father who’s emotionally torn about the arrival of his girlfriend’s baby, Ella whose romance has gotten complicated, and Katelyn who has discovered long-distance love isn’t as romantic as it looks in the movies. With all them in mind, Marin sees how her sadness over losing Vince is nothing compared to how she’d regret abandoning what she believes.

Including this shows agents/editors that you understand your main character needs to have gone through a transformation and that you have applied that to your story.

Any questions? About synopses or other concerns near and dear to your heart?

Have a fabulous weekend everyone!


  1. I've heard that some agents ask for a one-page synopsis, whereas others ask for a three-page one. In the case of the longer synopsis, should I include additional information (like setting), or just go more in-depth in summarizing the key plot points?

  2. Great post :) I learned! Thanks so much for sharing Ms. Holman.

    crazi.swans at gmail dot com

  3. I'm really glad you chose today to post this today, because it just so happens I spent the whole morning working on a synopsis! How long should they usually be? The person helping me with this didn't specifiy. How much should they reveal?

    Oh, and here is a question that I've really been wondering. I keep getting different opinions on it. Should a synopsis include the ending of the book it's about and what happens, or should it be like the back cover of the book and leave you hanging?

  4. Sapphire, the short answer to your question is go more in-depth with your plot points. Setting should included but brief. Such as, "It's the summer of 1812, a tense political time in Macedonia," or wherever. The longer answer is that in my experience agents typically ask for a 1-3 page synopsis. Mine tend to be 2 pages. If I can cut it down to one, though, I do.

    Book Blogger, how convenient! Glad the timing worked out :) As I mentioned in my response to Sapphire, 1-3 pages is the typical requested length. Synopses should reveal everything. Every plot twist, every surprise, and all the details that go into your satisfying conclusion. Agents and editors read these when considering if they should request a full manuscript. They don't want to be left hanging; they want to see that you know your stuff and crafted your story well. Great question!

  5. Thanks! That really helps! They are so much fun to write! But if you can't fit the whole thing in three pages? Sometimes my stories have a lot going on :)

  6. Oh, and this may sound slightly strange, but what are a person's chances of getting published by the age of twenty? I know some people have done it... :)

  7. Even if they have a lot going on, they really need to be 1-3 pages long (or the length specified by the agent/editor.) You'd be surprised by how much feels necessary to the synopsis, but really isn't. Show it to a friend and get their feedback. I'm always amazed by the things my writing partner finds that can be cut.

    I can't provide stats, but I don't know anyone who has been traditionally published by age 20 ... unless they cowrote the book with their already-established-author mom.

    But I know LOTS of writers (myself included) who by age 20 had written a draft of the book they eventually published.

  8. How can I make sure I've made a good synopsis? Like decent? lol. Because I know I'm gonna wanna go back and edit the synopsis when I've finished it...

  9. Beautiful timing since I'm working on my synopsis now!

    Oh, and I just loved reading that last comment of yours, Stephanie. You'd written a draft of Me, Just Different by age 20? Really? That's heaps encouraging!!! Neat-o! How many drafts did you go through before arriving at 'the finished product?'

  10. Jazmine, if you have someone in your life who will read it for you, then lean on them. Especially if you can find someone who hasn't read any of your book. (Or who haven't read the whole thing.) They'll be really good at identifying what doesn't make sense.

    Rachelle, technically AT age 20, but yeah. MJD went through at least 3 big rewrites. As in, chuck the story and rewrite it from scratch. In the first draft, Skylar was in 8th grade. So.

    If you read the first draft, you'd recognize a lot of the story, but when I made the call to make Skylar a senior in high school, it was easier to just start over. And the storyline about Skylar being date raped didn't occur to me until after I'd written the second draft ... so then I had to do another major rewrite.... Some books are just trial and error processes like that. I worked on that one off and on for about 3 1/2 years. Then I wrote the other two in the series in 9 months, and most people like them better, including my editors. It gets easier :)

    Sorry, LONG answer!

  11. I really like how you made one wall into a bulletin board! Good tips!

  12. Stephanie,

    Hilarious. That's a lot of changes. What a major story-line to have to incorporate after the fact, wow. Okay, I don't feel so bad now about my first-novel-to-be-completed changing around so much. :) *admiring smile.*

  13. So I'm assuming I won?? I just received "The Destiny of ONE" in the mail a few minutes ago! lol! I was completely confused as to why there was a package that was shaped like a book addressed to me, confusing!
    Cool though! :D I have a new book to read! Thanks!