a tip for adding character arc to a synopsis

Filed under: writing

Writing a synopsis? You poor, poor thing.

If you’re writing character-driven fiction, and you’re as passionate about character arc as I am, it’s a good idea to emphasize character arc in your synopsis. But how do you know if you’ve done that?

Here’s one way. You write your damn synopsis (easier said than done). Then you print it off, or you get it up on screen, and you look at each paragraph, highlighting all the parts that are about character arc, rather than plot or backstory or description. (For a handy definition of character arc, see this post.)

Here’s an example, from the synopsis for my next book, Getting Away With It, with the character arc bits in a different colour:

LIZA HAVEN is the bad twin. Her identical sister LEE is the ideal daughter: smart, popular, dutiful. But from a very early age Liza rebelled, causing trouble in a bid for some sort of attention and in order to differentiate herself from her sister. Although she loves Lee more than she can love anyone else, she also envies her. Liza also clashed with her mother, ABIGAIL, a cold, authoritarian woman, and hated living in the small Wiltshire village of STONEGUARD, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. While Lee stayed at home to work in her mother’s successful ice cream business, Liza left and eventually became a stunt woman in feature films, a career which gives her the risks, attention and independence she craves.

Liza has barely spoken to her sister in two years, after they argued following their mother’s revelation that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Abigail gave responsibility for Ice Cream Heaven to Lee, and Liza, hurt by her rejection, reacted by leaving in anger and taking greater and greater risks.

The story begins on a film set, when the reckless Liza crashes the fantastically expensive principal car. The crash nearly kills her, and worse, it makes her lose her nerve so she can’t bear to drive. No one will hire her. Lonely and shaken, feeling worthless, she accepts Lee’s peace-offering: an invitation to a charity ball in Stoneguard.

Once you’ve done this highlighting, you can do two things. One, you can see how much space you’ve spent on the most important part of your story. I try to have at least one mention of character arc per paragraph, sometimes more.

Two, you can read through only the highlighted bits, to see if you’ve traced your character’s arc fully from beginning to end. If you see any major gaps, you know what you have to work on.

Simple, isn’t it? Er…maybe.

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17 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. I keep putting off writing my synopsis, but after reading this here blog post of yours, I’m actually going to get to it today. Right now in fact!

    Thanks so much for your advice, Julie. Your other Character Arc posts have been extremely helpful as well. And after reading this synopsis I can’t wait to read your next novel installment!

  2. Ahhh good luck, Suz! Synopses can be tricky but they are also extremely useful things too, for selling your book and also for showing you as the writer what’s working and what isn’t.

  3. Great advice, as always. And timely, as I’m reworking an earlier MS and so need to rewrite the synopsis. (It probably needed a rewrite, anyway.)

    Thank you.

  4. Someone, somewhere, is always writing a synopsis. It’s a Great Writers’ Law. Or something.

    Good luck with it Jan! I do find that (as with most things) a glass of white wine helps.

  5. Aha! Very useful. Thanks for this and all the other very helpful posts and comments. My arm is still (more or less) attached to the rest of me.

  6. That is excellent advice, Julie. Although I write character arcs I always forget to stress this during synopses, in my desperate urge to encapsulate an entire novel in one page. Think I’ll print out your post and tack it to my board as a reminder.

  7. Now my wannabe pole dancer and sister are back at school, I have writing time, yipee! This is a great post, I am working on character arcs at the moment, and it’s going OK. The stuff you say makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  8. Ah! Excellent post, Julie! I’m all plot, all the time, so I really need to keep focused on Character Arc’s, and making sure they’re in properly in my synopsis is always a struggle. Thanks for the heads up!

  9. I can’t tell you how useful this advice was when I attempted a synopsis recently. I used yellow highlights and it was BRILL! In my first version I had about 2 yellow sentences, by the end I had a yellow sentence or two in almost every paragraph. The story hadn’t changed at all but my positioning of it had! Hurrah!

  10. Oh, Julie, you are SUCH A STAR!

  11. It’s a very simple concept, but when it occurred to me it was like fireworks going off in my brain. So, so glad it’s useful to others.

    And as Claire says, it’s not about changing the story—it’s about changing your positioning, how you’re presenting it to a reader/agent/editor as a character-driven story.

    Though it can also work as a diagnostic tool, to show you whether your character arc is coherent and logical.

  12. Thanks Julie! A great tip. I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

  13. Thanks for this, Julie. I’m going to apply it to my overlong synopsis this evening!

  14. Simply brilliant – really.

  15. Hi Julie.
    This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m struggling with a 1 page symposis for a pitch I’m entering and this trick will definitely help.


  16. I’m so glad it’s helpful to you, Lacey and Lizzy and Liz and Marcy. Hooray!

  17. Dear Julie

    “Simple?” you say. “Er… maybe not.” 😉

    I’m a newbie and like so many, I’m struggling to write my first query letter and synopsis. I can’t figure out why it seems so easy to write the story – ok, so, for the most part, it seemed easy anyway – but the query/synopsis part seems so complicated!

    Someone strongly suggested your blog and ideas. I like your post-it-note idea but doubt I can pull it off, at least not for a first-timer. Will try to apply this one and see what happens.

    Thanks for sharing.



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