How to Write a Synopsis in Ten Steps

Writers are funny creatures. Many of us aren’t intimidated at the thought of writing a 300 + page novel, but ask us to write a 500 word synopsis, and suddenly we want to curl up and hide.
And yet, synopses are an inevitable evil of publishing, particularly traditional. Agents often ask for synopses with your query letter and pages; once you’re agented, your agent might ask for a synopsis to go along with a new project you’re working on. Editors ask to see synopses as part of submission packages, and if you sell a multi-book project, your editor might want to approve your synopsis before you work on the draft itself.

Even beyond these required synopses, I’ve found that writing a synopsis can be helpful to me as I draft and revise because it forces me to distill down the heart of my story.

All well and good, but this begs a couple of questions: what is a synopsis, and how can you possibly distill 300 pages of lovingly crafted prose into 500 words?

What is a Synopsis?

A synopsis is a short summary of the plot of your story, usually around 500 words (though they can range from 1 page to 5-10). A synopsis differs from a query letter in that the query letter usually covers only the first 50 pages or so of the story, and its purpose is to hook the reader into wanting to know more. A synopsis, on the other hand, covers the entire story–including the ending!–and generally demonstrates that you know how to execute and resolve a plot.

Agents and editors asking for a synopsis aren’t generally looking for pretty language (though that wouldn’t hurt), as much as they’re looking to see that the storyline is surprising in some way, that plotlines resolve, and that you’ve got a solid grasp of story structure.

How do you write a synopsis?

I’ve seen advice on writing synopses that suggests summarizing each chapter in a sentence–but if you’re like me, some chapters are more critical than others, and trying to summarize all of them muddies the plot. I’ve found it much more useful to write a synopsis by identifying key plot points and working from there. Susan Dennard has an excellent post on writing a one-page synopsis and my method is indebted to hers, but I find it easier to wrap my head around Dan Well’s 7 point story structure. Since the purpose is to showcase the plot, it’s best to limit the named characters to three or so, or you risk losing the reader in a character soup.

To illustrate how this system works, I’m going to use Well’s story structure to summarize Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in roughly 500 words.

1. Identify the opening image and briefly describe the protagonist(s)
Where are we when the story begins? Many stories begin and end with a similar image for continuity–find yours and start the synopsis there. For example, Pride and Prejudice starts with the situation of the unmarried daughters.

Where is the character (in terms of internal arc) when the story begins? Dan Wells calls this the hook–and for Elizabeth Bennet, her central arc is from single to married, so her character description emphasizes this.

In Regency England, a family of five daughters lives in an entailed estate—unless the daughters marry, and marry well, they face penury after their father’s death. The second of these daughters, bright, lively, Elizabeth Bennet, finds her mother’s obsession with matrimony ridiculous.

2. Briefly describe the inciting incident
What event sets the plot in motion? Why does the story start here, of all possible beginnings. Given that P&P is essentially a marriage story, the novel begins with the arrival of eligible bachelors.

When a rich young gentleman buys the neighboring estate, the Bennet’s mother launches into a plot to marry one of her daughters to him. While Elizabeth’s older sister finds the new owner charming, Elizabeth is less than impressed by his disdainful friend, Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy by Hugh Thomson, 1894

3. Identify the first plot turn
The plot turns are typically events that push the characters toward the person they become at the end of the story. Often, the first plot turn is the call to adventure–in the case of P&P, this is the arrival of the regiment and more potential suitors.

Elizabeth and Darcy are thrown together as their friends and family continue to associate. Darcy begins to admire Elizabeth, but her poor opinion of him is heightened by a flirtation with a handsome soldier, George Wickham, who has known Darcy since he was a boy.

4. Describe conflicts and character encounters
Susan Dennard recommends including a description of additional characters who inform the story, but if you’re pressed for space, I don’t think this element is essential. (You can also think of this as the “fun and games” part of the Save the Cat beat sheet).

The romantic entanglements are enlivened by the arrival of an unctuous county cleric, the cousin to whom the Bennet estate is entailed, who asks Elizabeth to marry him. Too proud to stoop to his level, Elizabeth says no, only to be appalled when her best friend, a much more pragmatic young lady, accepts in her stead.

5. Identify the first pinch point 
If the plot turns push the character toward the person they need to be at the end of the story, pinch points pull them back to their original state. When summarizing your story, ask yourself: what major event challenges the forward progress the character has made? In P&P, the pinch point is an event that pushes Elizabeth away from marriage (with either Darcy or Wickham).

Wickham reveals how he has been harmed by Darcy; with this information weighing heavily on her, Elizabeth visits her friend and is again thrown in company with Darcy. When Darcy finds Elizabeth alone, he proposes. Incensed by Darcy’s poor treatment (she believes) of Wickham and his role in frustrating her sister’s romance with his friend, Elizabeth refuses. In response, Darcy writes a letter exonerating himself and his behavior toward Wickham, by revealing that Wickham had attempted to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister.

6. Describe the midpoint
The midpoint is often described as the point of no return–once the character has crossed this threshold, they cannot go back unscathed to the person they were at the beginning of the story. Usually, at this stage the protagonist moves from reaction to action, and winning often seems imminent. In a love story like P&P, this is the point at which the protagonist admits their interest in a relationship.

Already softening in her attitude toward Darcy following his revelation of Wickham’s perfidy, Elizabeth visits the Lake District with her aunt and uncle and agrees to tour Darcy’s estate, in the belief that Darcy is away from home. His staff speaks so admiringly of Darcy that when Darcy returns unexpectedly, Elizabeth feels quite friendly toward him.

7. Identify the second pinch point
Remember that the pinch point pulls (“pinches”) the character back toward their original state. At the second pinch point, something should go horribly wrong. This stage is often called the dark night of the soul.

Elizabeth and Darcy seem close to establishing an understanding with one another when word arrives that Elizabeth’s youngest sister has eloped with George Wickham. Elizabeth returns home at once, sure Darcy will want nothing to do with her family, as her sister’s careless action will tarnish the reputations and marriageability of all the remaining Bennet sisters. 

8. Identify the second plot turn
The plot turn pushes the character toward their final stage. At this point, the character often receives information they need for a successful resolution. In P&P, this means each of the leads gets information that keeps them from despairing.

The run-aways are found and forced to marry. Elizabeth initially believes her uncle to have paid off Wickham to bring this about; later, she discovers it was, in fact, Darcy—a sign that he might still care for her. Shortly afterward, Darcy’s aunt arrives at the Bennet home to forbid Elizabeth to marry Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to make any such promise, and the aunt goes away incensed. 

9. Describe the climax/resolution
How do the characters defeat their nemesis/achieve their happy ending?

The aunt’s visit has the unexpected side-effect of bringing Darcy back to pay his addresses. As he tells Elizabeth, he knew that if she were set against him, she would not have hesitated to tell his aunt so! Darcy proposes, Elizabeth accepts.

10. End with a final image
If your synopsis begins with an opening image, close on the mirror of that image. For P&P, this is the successful establishment of the daughters.

Elizabeth and Darcy marry; her sister marries Darcy’s friend, and they all live happily ever after (except, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Wickham).

The problem of the plot—the single sisters, is answered.

The final synopsis looks like this: Pride and Prejudice distilled down to 513 words:

In Regency England, a family of five daughters lives in an entailed estate—unless the daughters marry, and marry well, they face penury after their father’s death. The second of these daughters, bright, lively, Elizabeth Bennet, finds her mother’s obsession with matrimony ridiculous.

When a rich young gentleman buys the neighboring estate, the Bennet’s mother launches into a plot to marry one of her daughters to him. While Elizabeth’s older sister finds the new owner charming, Elizabeth is less than impressed by his disdainful friend, Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth and Darcy are thrown together as their friends and family continue to associate. Darcy begins to admire Elizabeth, but her poor opinion of him is heightened by a flirtation with a handsome soldier, George Wickham, who has known Darcy since he was a boy.

The romantic entanglements are enlivened by the arrival of an unctuous county cleric, the cousin to whom the Bennet estate is entailed, who asks Elizabeth to marry him. Too proud to stoop to his level, Elizabeth says no, only to be appalled when her best friend, a much more pragmatic young lady, accepts in her stead.

Wickham reveals how he has been harmed by Darcy; with this information weighing heavily on her, Elizabeth visits her friend and is again thrown in company with Darcy. When Darcy finds Elizabeth alone, he proposes. Incensed by Darcy’s poor treatment (she believes) of Wickham and his role in frustrating her sister’s romance with his friend, Elizabeth refuses. In response, Darcy writes a letter exonerating himself and his behavior toward Wickham, by revealing that Wickham had attempted to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister.

Already softening in her attitude toward Darcy following his revelation of Wickham’s perfidy, Elizabeth visits the Lake District with her aunt and uncle and agrees to tour Darcy’s estate, in the belief that Darcy is away from home. His staff speaks so admiringly of Darcy that when Darcy returns unexpectedly, Elizabeth feels quite friendly toward him.

Elizabeth and Darcy seem close to establishing an understanding with one another when word arrives that Elizabeth’s youngest sister has eloped with George Wickham. Elizabeth returns home at once, sure Darcy will want nothing to do with her family, as her sister’s careless action will tarnish the reputations and marriageability of all the remaining Bennet sisters.

The run-aways are found and forced to marry. Elizabeth initially believes her uncle to have paid off Wickham to bring this about; later, she discovers it was, in fact, Darcy—a sign that he might still care for her. Shortly afterward, Darcy’s aunt arrives at the Bennet home to forbid Elizabeth to marry Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to make any such promise, and the aunt goes away incensed.

The aunt’s visit has the unexpected side-effect of bringing Darcy back to pay his addresses. As he tells Elizabeth, he knew that if she were set against him, she would not have hesitated to tell his aunt so! Darcy proposes, Elizabeth accepts.

Elizabeth and Darcy marry; her sister marries Darcy’s friend, and they all live happily ever after (except, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Wickham).

____________________________________

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

 

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