Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Synopsis Day at the Novel Writers Workshop #TBSU

Back in a previous incarnation as Mary Carol Moran, I originated and taught the Novel Writers' Workshop for the Auburn University Outreach Program and at conferences and workshops around the United States. In five years, students produced around 15 published novels, not a bad record!

Yesterday, looking for a phantom synopsis, I came across a large file of lessons and worksheets from the NWW. Smacking the side of my head for not thinking of it before, I realized that it's time to share! Since I and a friend, Seumas Gallacher, have recently been working on synopses, that seems like a good place to begin.

Thirteen Suggestions for an Easy Breezy Synopsis Process

Writing a synopsis doesn’t have to be a dreaded chore, though I admit I used to say I’d rather write another whole novel! Here are thirteen ideas for an easier synopsis process. [Okay, I'm a Pollyanna, but really, it can be fun!]

Tip #1

Convince a friend to help you. Sit down in a quiet place with a tape recorder. Tell your friend the story of your book, trying to include everything important. Then let your friend ask questions, and you answer them, still on tape. Later go back and build your synopsis as a continuous narrative from the information (even the exact sentences) you used in talking to your friend. You may well capture the enthusiasm you are trying to convey.

Tip #2

Buy at least two different colors of 3x5 cards. Write the basic plot of your book onto one color of 3x5 cards, each scene (in one sentence) on its own card. If you’re selling the book as a romance, write the romance plot only. If it’s a mystery, write the mystery plot only. Ignore subplots, minor characters, nuances, etc. This is your basic synopsis. 

Now using the other color cards, go back and write down subplots, characters, whatever you think is interesting and adds to the book. Again, write one scene or thought per card. Put all the cards of both colors in order, and write the synopsis. This technique will help you focus on the main plot of your book. If the synopsis is too long, cut parts from the second set of cards.

Tip #3

Keep your plot outline up-to-date as you write. If you don’t outline, write a three or four sentence summary of the contents of a chapter before you go on to the next one. Use the revised outline as the basis for the first draft of the synopsis.

Tip #4

Write the synopsis itself as series of chapter summaries rather than a single narrative. This form isn’t quite as popular with agents and editors, but still works better for some novels.

Tip #5

Whatever method you use, consider putting a teaser at the top of your synopsis. This could be a possible book jacket advertising blurb. Or it could be a bit of background on the main character(s). Another opener might be a 50 word summary of the whole plot. If you have a great jacket quote from a known writer, put it here. Use one of these ideas, not all four!

Tip #6

A rule of thumb is to write about 1 page of synopsis for every 25 pages of manuscript. However, many agents and editors specify a maximum length. You may need a five page synopsis for one agent, a ten page for another, and a twenty page for someone else. The 3x5 cards can help you expand and contract as needed.

Tip #7

Here’s a hint I learned from one of my students: Don’t be afraid to use generous portions verbatim from the opening of your novel. The student ‘wastes’ a whole page of the synopsis on the first few pages of the novel (slightly abbreviated), then summarizes the rest in the remaining four pages. The first page pulls the reader into the story better than any other synopsis I’ve read.

Tip #8

As with the query letter, tell the story in simple language. If you’re sending a synopsis, you are also sending sample chapters. Nobody asks for one without the other. The sample chapters will convince the editor that you write beautifully. The point of the synopsis is to demonstrate that you plot beautifully, that the structure of the book works from beginning to end.

Tip #9

Always tell the ending of your novel. This is not the time to be coy. One of the main reasons for requesting a synopsis is to make sure the climax of the book will be as satisfying as the first few chapters. Lots of people can write fifty good pages. Convince the editor that you’ve written an excellent, complete book. Remember that your reader right now is a business person, not a literary critic.

Tip #10

Proofread! Perfection is everything. One typo can sink a sale. This is one situation where perfection IS required!

Tip #11

A one-page synopsis can be single spaced. Don’t send a one-page synopsis unless specifically requested. One great page is the hardest to write. On a longer synopsis, you can single space the teaser, but always double space the synopsis itself.

Tip #12

Don’t leave the synopsis to the last minute. Once you’ve finished the book, draft the synopsis right away, long before you begin to think about sending the manuscript out to agents and editors. Allow yourself lots of time to rework and revise; the synopsis can be the hardest few pages of the book to write, and it can also be the most important for marketing to royalty publishers.

Tip #13

Even if you are self-publishing, consider putting in the effort to craft a strong synopsis. It may help you to identify and correct a plot weakness or inconsistency. And you never know when a movie producer is going to call! Better to have that killer synopsis all polished up!

Call for Suggestions

So there you have it. Not all tips will work for all writers. Pick and choose what works for you. The only one that's essential is Tip #10. Please, proofread your synopsis over and over and over...

If there's a topic you'd like to see in a post, leave me a request in the comments. I'll be happy to share the information if I have it, or to research and write it up if it's a subject I didn't cover in the live workshops.

Writers, please weigh in with your own synopsis suggestions. Do you find writing a synopsis easy or not so easy? How do you shift hats from creative genius to business-savvy marketer? As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts, and look forward to a great conversation!

Check out these related posts:

Some great blogs, presented here in the grand tradition of The Blog Scratchers' Union! #TBSU

  • Seumas Gallacher (link to his post on writing a synopsis!)
  • Knight Agency (not a blog but a link to an agent's submission guidelines—worth a look to see what top agencies are looking for)
  • David Lender's Blog (a lovely, literate blog that's always a pleasure to read)


  1. Bang on the money , m'Lady :):) great post!!

    1. Thanks Seumas!

      And thanks for stopping by. I tried to make the workshops really practical so that will be reflected in these posts. How do you write a synopsis? Do you outline it all, or bat it out and try to hit the high points? Share your wisdom!