Yes, I know—the very word “Synopsis” strikes dread into a writer’s heart. And yes, I know—after the year-or-years long marathon that is writing a book, the very last thing anyone wants to do is come up with a one or three-page synopsis of the 400 pages you’ve just written.
But whether you’re an author or a screenwriter there is no getting around this one. You need to surrender to the inevitable and get good at it.
I’ve heard from a bunch of you who are writing synopses right now and this is showing up as a common sticking point. I’m always happy to answer questions and address specific issues you all are having!
No matter where you are in your writing process, it’s important to take the time to do this synopsis work. Because just like your Premise, the synopsis is a road map of your book. Even if you’re just starting to write it, the sooner you bash out a page or two on the story line, the more confident you will be about where you’re going.
So let’s get into it.
First, there’s a big difference between your OUTLINE — and the SELLING SYNOPSIS you will submit to agents, editors, or contests.
You probably have an outline, beat sheet or working synopsis you use as your guide while you’re writing your story, and/or that you show to your writing group or critique partner(s), or to me or other writing teacher you might be working with. Basically it’s the scenes of your story in rough order, each as a sentence or a paragraph, and hopefully following the Three-Act Structure. Even better if it’s organized roughly in the Eight-Sequence Structure. But that working synopsis should be whatever you need it to be! It’s your road map for writing, although your book or script may very well go off in different directions during the writing process. That’s fine! The working synopsis will evolve and change. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
If you’re sharing your synopsis with a critique group or parter, or a writing teacher or coach, of course it needs to be more readable! But you’re still probably just trying to give those helpful people an idea of the beat by beat ACTION of your story.
And then there’s the SELLING SYNOPSIS:
A selling synopsis is what you submit to agents and editors or contests or producers to get your book or script repped and sold.
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There’s always a lot of confusion about what agents and editors or contests are asking for when they ask for a synopsis of your book. The first thing you need to do is —
Get clear about what each specific agency or house or contest says they want!
It will be on their website. Some will ask for a one-page synopsis, some will want three pages. Whatever they ask for, do that! But —
You’ll want to do both a one page and a three page synopsis, and keep those versions in your Premise/Synopsis file.
You don’t have a Premise/Synopsis file? Create one right now! (More on Premise.) It will save you loads of time and hair-pulling down the line to have these different rough versions, in one easily accessible file.
The one-page synopsis will also be invaluable for you to tweak and use for your website, product description, back cover copy, etc. The back flap copy and the product description are the approximately 250 words that your publisher will use to entice readers to buy your book.
If you're planning on indie publishing, you need these various versions for your Product Description, for your back cover copy, for your website, for ads, for reviewers, possibly for contests, etc.
If you’re a screenwriter, your synopsis is also the rough draft of the script for your PITCH:
—the performance you’re going to give for producers, executives, studio heads, directors, actors—anyone you need to convince to buy your script, hire you for an assignment, and make your movie. (Screenwriters don’t get to just write it, we have to perform it, over and over and over again.)
What goes into a SELLING SYNOPSIS?
A lot of unpublished writers (and often published writers, too) seem to think that a synopsis is an outline or a beat-by-beat breakdown of the book.
But seriously, who’s going to read that? No one I know! A synopsis is a grueling thing to read even when you don’t have to read hundreds of them per week. So your job here is to do all the work for the poor overworked reader, and make it easy, painless, and even thrilling to read.
You don’t need to give beat by beat details - you don’t have room for that!
You need to think of a synopsis for a query (including for contests) as more like a great short story you’re telling to pull the reader in, with suspense and twists and breathless moments.
You could also think of it as like creating a short trailer for the book—but unlike with a movie trailer, you need to tell the twists (don’t be coy or hold anything back). You need to give them your best scenes—your CLIMAXES and SETPIECES.
I haven't had to write this kind of synopsis often, because if I'm pitching a book to my own editor or agent that's a different kind of document. But when I do a selling synopsis, what I personally have done is:
Write it in three prose pages: one page per Act, leading to a climactic SETPIECE scene at the bottom of each page.
And since I write thriller/suspense, one primary goal is to make the reader's pulse race. A synopsis for a comedy should be laugh-out-loud funny. So—
You need to be very clear about the promise of your own genre, and create a sense of the emotional experience you are trying to evoke with your book.
Always remember: the synopsis is a SELLING document, and emotion is the strongest persuader!
Now, if you’re an experienced writer with a good grasp of your story, that’s probably all I need to tell you.
If you haven’t had a lot of experience, let’s break it down further.
I suggest you collect some examples of synopses that do for you what you want to do for the agents/editors/producers/contests you’re selling to. Probably the fastest, easiest way to do that is to:
Look at the book descriptions on the Amazon product pages of books that are similar to your own book.
Your Selling Synopsis will be different from a product description, because your Selling Synopsis has to include all the twists. You do not want to be coy or hold anything back. Agents, editors and producers want to know.
But it’s very useful to look at a bunch of product descriptions in a row (I suggest at least a dozen) to quickly get a feel for the style you want to use for your Selling Synopsis, and to see how those short descriptions create a sense of urgency to entice the reader to buy. Be warned that some of those book descriptions are going to be bad!
Choose the ones that are most gripping and effective to you, and collect them in your file to study and use as a guide as you write your own. (When you’re not feeling like writing one day, do this collecting as your day’s work instead, so you’ll already have them ready to go!)
SYNOPSIS PAGE ONE:
Once you’ve read and collected some good examples, try bashing out the first page of your synopsis, describing your first Act. Make sure you include:
Who is the Main Character? (PROTAGONIST)
What do they want? (DESIRE)
What is the big thing that happens that begins that desire, or focuses it? (the INCITING INCIDENT)
What is their PLAN to get that desire?
Who and what is standing in their way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION).
And end the page with a description of the ACT I CLIMAX.
If you’re unclear about any of these elements, this should prompt you to do some work on them! Follow the links for in-depth posts, or read the chapters on these essential elements of Act I in the workbooks. (Stealing Hollywood: Chapter 7, and 17-21)
SYNOPSIS PAGE TWO
The second page of your synopsis will describe Act II, and detail how the Protagonist goes after their desire, following the Plan—being blocked and tested at every turn by the Antagonist.
And here’s where most people get hung up—both in writing a Synopsis and writing their actual book or script. If you don’t know your MAIN CHARACTER’S PLAN, you don’t really know what your story is about!
So we’ll go into detail on that crucial story element next time.
SYNOPSIS PAGE THREE
And of course, page three is Act III: your thrilling end game - STORMING THE CASTLE, the FINAL BATTLE and a satisfying RESOLUTION detailing the NEW WAY OF LIFE your hero/ine is going to lead now that they’ve been through the crucible of the story.
Have a question or suggestion? I’d love to hear!
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All material from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff
Such incredibly helpful advice here. I’m pretty long in the tooth now as a writer but I’d never quite realised how useful writing these potted versions of a book can be — as a kind of self-editing tool. I’m regretting all my years as a pantser!!!! ✍️🙏🏽❤️🌸🙏🏽