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The Miniature Masterpiece: How to Write a Synopsis With Style

November 14, 2023

Short, simple, but with everything you need. 

That is the ideal synopsis. How can you write one? First let’s look at what a synopsis is and what it does.

A synopsis is…

A synopsis is a tool writers use to assess the quality and comprehension of their novel. It gives a complete overview of the story from beginning to end, showing what main events happen, what characters change, and how it ends. In self-publishing, synopses can help writers identify weak points in their plot, structure, and character development and motivation. In traditional publishing, synopses are how agents determine the value and marketing potential of a story. If they like it, they’ll want to read the full manuscript. 

A synopsis is not… 

  • An elevator pitch. This when you condense your story’s main conflict, main character, and their motivation into one sentence. It should be intriguing and cause your audience to ask engaging questions.
  • A book blurb.  Found on a book’s back cover, this is a 200-word summary that teases the story.
  • A marketing description. This is the expanded blurb found on websites and sales pages.
  • An outline. This is the skeletal details of a story, which a writer builds their story around.

Crafting a good synopsis: components

If you are submitting a synopsis to a publishing house or agent, always check their requirements and stick by them. Do not go over the word limit. A good synopsis is typically 500-1000 words, or 1-2 pages, single-spaced. It should be written in the third person point-of-view and present tense. The writing should be neutral but stylistic.

  • Neutral: Do not explain why your story is great or show preference to a single character, setting, or point of conflict.
  • Stylistic: This is a concise piece of writing that will not only show off your story but your skill as a writer. While descriptions need to be limited, infuse your stylistic voice into the summary as much as possible.

Your synopsis should include each main element of your plot: ordinary world, inciting incident, events and conflicts, crisis, climax, and resolution. It should also include any worldbuilding that is essential to the story (eg: for fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction genres that would require the reader to be place-oriented) and highlight character attitudes and motivations from beginning to end. This should reveal how they either change as a person or stay the same. Only the main characters and secondary characters that have major influences should be named. Leave out other side characters and subplots unless they are vital to the main plot. These should be combined and summarized in the order they appear in your story. The ending should reveal a satisfying ending for both the conflict and the character’s inner journey.

How to put it together

Grab your manuscript and your favorite note-taking tools. For each scene, write a summary of the main events that occur. When you’ve done this, combine those summaries into one big summary and then condense it. Cut out as many details as possible while still retaining the essence of your story. For example, practice breaking down every main plot point (inciting incident, conflicts) into one sentence. This should break your story down to its most important elements without resembling an outline. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing:

  • Characters: Why are they important to the story? What kind of person are they? How did the story pressure them into changing or leaving their comfort zone? Who influences them the most throughout the story? How do they change? Are they better off in the end because of these changes?
  • Events: Do not leave out any spoilers or plot twists. They are major elements that need to be in the summary. You aren’t trying to hide anything from yourself or a publisher. 
  • Selling point: What is the one thing that makes your novel interesting?

After you’ve done this, build your summary back up again with stylistic choices. This is your chance to show yourself as a writer. You have all the important information down and are free to add more as long as you remain within your word limit. Try to keep descriptions short but impactful, and always relevant to the story.

Tips for writing a synopsis

  • Get to the point. A synopsis doesn’t have the space for prose.
  • However, don’t write only the barest details. “Synopsis speak” is when a person writes like a robot, mechanically giving details as they happened without embellishment. “After nearly giving up hope that she could do it, Lindsay tried to bowl one more time and made her first strike” tells us a lot more about the situation and character than, “Lindsay got a gutter ball. She got another gutter. Then, she got a strike.”
  • Don’t call out the structure of the story (ex: “In the resolution…”)
  • Don’t include backstories unless they are important to the plot or character motivations and actions.
  • When writing about events that impact characters, include their reactions and emotions.
  • If you are submitting to a publisher or agent, do not submit your synopsis immediately. Wait a few days after finishing it to review and make any necessary changes.

***

A well-crafted synopsis is a concise yet comprehensive summary of your novel. It highlights the main plot and characters from beginning to end. While it’s often written to gain the attention of a publisher or agent, it can also act as a powerful tool to assess your story for plot holes, structural issues, and lack of character development. When writing a synopsis, remember to keep it direct, clear, and focused on the essence of your story.

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