Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Writer's Corner - Writing a Synopsis: a three-step process to getting it done

If you hate synopses, you know who you are. The word gives you the shudders. When you have to write one, you whinge about it on social media.

I get it. I do. But there are two reasons why being able to write one easily will really benefit you.

First - synopses are a reality of the publishing industry. If you're pitching a book to an agent, to an editor, they all want to see a synopsis. And with good reason, obviously - it's faster to read a synopsis than an entire book.

And second, a synopsis is a very useful tool for getting from beginning to end. A lot can happen in 85,000-95,000 words, and it can be easy to lose your way. A synopsis is a road map, a planning tool to work out plot kinks before you're in 60,000 words and realize you've lost your way.

Writing a synopsis can be difficult for many fiction writers. It's basically the opposite of writing a book. But if you break it down into three steps and shift you're writing perspective, it's very, very approachable.

1. Make a timeline. I take a sheet of 11x17" paper and create a timeline with three-act structure in mind. It's okay for this to be messy, with thought bubbles connected to the timeline with long pencil marks.

And do use a pencil, because this is a rough, rough stage.

2. Make a bulleted list of plot points. This is simple - in a document, transcribe the plot points on the paper, filling in any blank spots. This is just a list. For your personal use, you could probably just stop here. But for a proposal synopsis, the next stop is to connect everything together.

3. Write the synopsis. Stay with me on this one.

          Tip 1. Tell, don't Show. For instance, if you're writing a book you'd say -

"Penelope held the potted rosebush in the crook of her arm, stroking a soft bloom with her fingertips. Her heart squeezed. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The house had been in the family for generations. It had survived war, flood, and a pernicious case of mold.

But it couldn't survive her brother's financial decisions. After three hundred years, the legacy ended with a bad investment made by Bernie Seymour-Weston.

The furniture had sold, the artwork too. All she had left of the house was a cutting from her great-grandmother's rosebush."

And in a synopsis, you'd say -

"After her brother loses the family estate, Penelope has nothing but a rosebush to her name."

          Tip 2: Lean into the verbs and keep the sentences simple. Protagonist does this, later protagonist goes there. Protagonist feels hurt, protagonist decides to become a garden consultant. A week later, Protagonist travels to Upper Winbaugh to an estate willing to hire her - and so on.

          Tip 3: Look at is as a series of actions and reactions. In the Writer's Block blog, I talk about how a book is a series of chemical reactions. So look at the synopsis as a way to write out the actions and the subsequent reactions.

          Tip 4: Don't overthink it. If there's ever a time to not self-edit, it's synopsis writing. Take a deep breath and dive in, relaxing into the style.

          Tip 5: Practice. When I was pitching the Two Blue Doors series, I had 25 or so versions of the proposal - that's how many times I wrote and rewrote and pitched and re-pitched the concept. And after that? Tossing out a synopsis feels much more natural. So even if it still feels tricky, keep at it. It's the writing equivalent of riding a bike.

          Tip 6: Make it a reference point. Think of this document as a handy cheat sheet, not only for plot but also for names and places. As you develop your story, character and place names can change. Going through your synopsis and putting the names in bold (just the first time, you don't necessarily have to do it throughout) makes it easy to go back and remind yourself what your character's assistant's name is the name of the fictional cafe where she used to work. 

Those are my tips. What do you think? What synopsis tips work for you?


  1. I'm bookmarking this, thanks Hillary!

  2. Hillary, thank you for this one. I've only written one synopsis so far, and I think it turned out pretty well. But I'll be keeping your article close at hand when I write future synopses. Great tips!

  3. You forgot the part about crying for half an hour before getting started! LOL...

    These are great tips. Writing a synopsis makes me want to stab myself with a fork, but it CAN be done and your advice is super helpful.


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