synopsis formula (and a synopsis fail)

Filed under: writing

For the past three weeks, I’ve been failing to write a synopsis. It really has been the most pathetic thing and I am going to tell you about it in hopes that you can gain some pleasure from my pain.

I’ve written the book already, of course. It’s 130,000 words long and it has two major plot threads and several sub-plots and about a gazillion characters, most of them with two identities. I can’t write a synopsis before I write a book, for the simple reason that I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen, but in this case, I had to write a short, clear synopsis for my agent, so she can send it to foreign markets to sell the rights. I think my publisher would also find it quite handy, for briefing cover art, marketing, etc.

Now, I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. I mean, I’ve written loads of these things before, right? I had my post-it plan for the book, right? So I figured all I had to do was to transcribe this plan into words and hey presto—a synopsis.

I realised my error when I was midway through writing page 5 of the synopsis and hadn’t even reached halfway on the post-it plan yet.

So I scrapped it and started again. This time, I remembered that actually, I teach writing workshops sometimes, and actually, I have a simple and easy formula for writing a synopsis, which I should have been following from the beginning, except I was far far too stupid and had been using my post-its instead. Here is the formula.


Paragraph One: Set-up, necessary backstory, the main character and her conflict, as concisely as possible.
Paragraph Two: Inciting Event.
Paragraphs Three to Five: Three Main Turning Points of the Story (including their emotional impact).
Paragraph Six: Climax.
Paragraph Seven: Dark Moment.
Paragraph Eight: Resolution.

Right. Easy. I wrote these headings down on a new document and wrote each paragraph underneath the headings. This, finally, resulted in a structurally sound synopsis. I sent it to my agent. She phoned me and pointed out, tactfully, that a three-page synopsis is not exactly concise, and that I had included far, far too many secondary characters and subplots, and therefore, the thing was as confusing as hell.

Oh, yeah.

So I scrapped it and started again. Even more simplistic. Cutting out all but the most necessary characters, all but the main plot. Dividing my two story threads and dealing with them each separately, signposting as clearly as I could which thread I was dealing with in each paragraph. Then I colour-coded it, highlighting each story thread to see if I’d achieved an even balance. Then I colour-coded it again, to make sure I included emotional arc as well as plot.

Finally, I had one and a half single-spaced pages, 1000 words. It’s more than eight paragraphs, simply because I split some of the paragraphs for ease of reading. It includes six characters.

After three weeks of work, producing the final synopsis took about an hour. I sent it off this morning. Keep your fingers crossed I’ve got it right this time.

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