Slaying the Dread Synopsis

By Kathrese McKee | Craft

If you have ever written a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, or even a super-long academic paper, chances are that you have written an abstract. Abstracts are expected for scientific studies, too, and put simply, an abstract is a courtesy to the reader to help them decide if the full-length work is what they are looking for. An abstract is a high-level summary, usually one paragraph, that ranges between 150 to 250 words.

A synopsis, for fiction, is like an abstract for non-fiction.

Why do you need a synopsis?

If you are seeking traditional publication, your synopsis may (or may not) unlock the door to finding an agent or a publisher.

Steve Laube commented that sending your first three chapters without a synopsis is: “Like asking someone to buy a car but only showing them the front grill and the passenger side door.” Ha! I love that analogy. If you want to read his entire article, here’s the link: “Why Write a Synopsis?”

Even if you plan to self-publish, your synopsis is a valuable, not-to-be-missed part of the writing and refining process. Why? Because it will help you ferret out the weaknesses in your story:

  • Is your premise strong enough?
  • Are your main characters compelling?
  • Does the plot stay interesting?
  • What makes your story unique?

When do you create a synopsis?

I advise attempting to create your first synopsis BEFORE you write your story.

Breathe! fanning your face It’s gonna be okay.

Write a single paragraph:

ELIZABETH BENNET is one of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five daughters. The estate is entailed to a distant cousin, and the girls’ parents are desperate to marry them off. MR. DARCY is a wealthy prospect who is attracted by Elizabeth but put off by her decidedly crass relatives. He insults her at their first meeting, despite his immediate attraction, and she is in no hurry to forgive. Can love overcome his prejudice and her pride?

See? You can do that.

If you can summarize more of your story before you begin writing it, then you will spend less time wandering aimlessly, wasting precious time.

But I’ve already written my first draft.

What did you say? You’ve already written your first draft? Some would say this is the very best time to write your synopsis.

Write your synopsis. Let it stretch to five pages, if need be. It’s best to stick with the main characters and the major plot points without following the bunny trails.

Then step back and ask:

  • Is this the best story I can write?
  • Where are the weak points?
  • Is your main character relatable?
  • Are the stakes high enough?
  • Is death on the line?
  • Is the pacing tight enough and the plot twisted enough to hold my readers’ interest?
  • Does the ending make sense without being the same, old thing?
  • Does the main character have a satisfying arc?

Now you can tighten your story in an informed way during the revision phase. You can even rewrite your synopsis before you start revising to perfect the plot and the story arc.

Ideal Length

Ideally, you should hone your synopsis down to one, single-spaced page. This is about 500 words. The payoff is that it is a short distance from this synopsis to a one sheet, which would act as a marketing piece for your book.

One page is difficult to achieve, especially for a full-length novel. Honestly, if you are self-publishing, it isn’t necessary to shorten your synopsis to one page, but you shouldn’t need more than five.

However, if you are preparing your synopsis for agents like Steve Laube, then you need to pay attention to their submission guidelines. If you overlook their wishes, then you are inviting them to toss your manuscript out. Some agents or publishers will want one page, some two, and some will go for three.

What do you include?

Start with your main character(s). State the main problem. You are expected to tell, not show. Put on your summarization hat. “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Joe Friday, Dragnet)

Tell how the characters start out, as in the example above.

Tell the inciting event. Go through the major plot points, making the stakes clear.

Then, tell the ending! Give it away. Hold nothing back. Agents and publishers want to know the resolution. If you play coy, you may find your submission in File 13.

What do you leave out?

A good rule of thumb is:

  • Leave out minor characters, if possible. By the same token, include critical secondary characters. For example, you would not mention Frodo Baggins without including Samwise Gamgee.
  • Leave out sub-plots as much as you can. Stay on the main path through the story.
  • Omit backstory. Please, for the love of great fiction, leave out the detailed history of everyone in the story.
  • Do not use flashbacks in your synopsis. Present the story in a linear fashion.
  • Do not use bullet points, headings, and sub-headings. Tell the story.
  • Do not include dialogue. This is a summary, not a snippet.

Tips for a Great Synopsis.

  • Use present tense. Re-read the example above to see what I mean.
  • Put your main characters’ names in all caps the first time they appear. This helps the reader know who is most important.
  • If the setting is key to the plot, put it in all caps the first time it is mentioned. NETHERFIELD PARK is let at last!
  • State the inciting event in a compelling way. For example: LUKE SKYWALKER is a farm boy on the desert planet, TATOOINE, who dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. When his aunt and uncle are murdered by Imperial stormtroopers, he leaves his home planet to train as a Jedi and rebel pilot.
  • Stay out of the weeds. In the Star Wars example, you would not mention Luke’s friendship with Biggs Darklighter in your synopsis. He is part of Luke’s backstory, and he gets about two lines in the movie.
  • Make every word fight to stay in the synopsis. Every word must serve a purpose. Edit like mad. Your synopsis is a demonstration of writing skill. If you do not feel adequate to the task, ask your critique partners for help.
  • Make the stakes clear. For example: When Luke joins the rebels at their base, the pilots are ordered to fly a suicide mission to destroy the Death Star.
  • Summarize the resolution in simple terms. For example: Luke escapes from Darth Vader. Using the power of the Force, he pilots his ship to deliver the “impossible” killing shot that destroys the Death Star. Darth Vader whirls into space in his TIE fighter, leaving the door open for a sequel to Star Wars.
  • Adhere to any guidelines you can find for the particular agent or publisher. This shows that you can follow directions. It is a test, so make sure you pass it.
  • Make sure your story meets the expectations for your genre. This is why I am an advocate for writing a synopsis before writing the first page, but even more so for writing it (again) after the first draft.

Resources for the topic:

“Writing: How to Write a Synopsis of your Self-published Book – and Why Indie Authors Need Synposes Too”

Do you have any pointers or experiences to share about writing synopses?


About the Author

Award-winning author, Kathrese McKee, writes Young Adult Fantasy and helps others bring their fiction to life through editing and mentoring.