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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  1. I can’t do synopses in advance either, Julie. Nor can I do them afterwards.

    You are not alone.

    But I am v proud of you for persevering!

  2. Believe me, Jan, if I could have avoided it for any longer, I would have!

  3. Hey Julie — I avoided clicking on this a few times when I saw it on Twitter, because God forbid anything that even approaches a template enter my vision, LOL — I resist anything structural (your use of post-its makes me shudder, and don’t even say the word “spreadsheet”). I just tend to work better with more organic approaches, but I think this is relatively useful in the way you mention.

    I have actually moved from writing pretty long (10-12 p syns) to writing 2p syns for Blaze, and it works out so much better — and again, I found my way to this more intuitively, but I think this format serves as a nice reminder of what to include, and then if you limit it to 2p, you assure yourself of being concise. But as I cannot even follow a recipe verbatim, I would likely use this as a rough guide and then write it as it made sense to me, combining these elements in various ways, if not strictly following the order, but this could be useful for new writers, too.

    I’ve come to realize with synopsis, and this was advice from my agent as well, that short is always better.


    • Yup. Short is always better.

      I have to say that my synopsis doesn’t exactly follow this formula. But as you say, it’s a good guideline to follow, even if only roughly. I find that it’s really easy to get lost in a big soup of story when you’re writing a synopsis, and anything that helps to break it down, can help.

      And synopses don’t have to be magical things. They can be formulaic. That’s okay. You want to show the editor/agent/scout/reader/marketing department that the story is structurally sound, that it has conflict and events and a suitable ending. Following a formula can actually do that for you.

      But you don’t need to use a formula. Far from it. Some books wouldn’t really fit this template, anyway.

      Thanks for visiting even though recipes give you hives! 😀

      (PS I could never use a spreadsheet for writing. Spreadsheets are for accounting. In my mind, it’s wrong. But everyone’s different…)

  4. Thanks for explaining this method, and illustrating with your process. This is particularly timely for me, as I have a synopsis to write within the next two weeks. Though I’ve tried, I’ve never managed to complete one before. (They end up looking more like outlines, and are way too long to be useful to anyone, never to mind readable or, heaven forbid, catchy.) Now, thanks to your blog post, I understand that my approach was faulty.

    • Yes, Lorraine, you’re right—outlines are very different from synopses. They have completely different purposes. An outline is for you to follow, to make sure you’re on track as you write; a synopsis is for a publishing professional, to understand the concept and bare bones of your story. My post-it plans are more like outlines (created after the book is written), and that’s why I couldn’t write a synopsis by following mine.

      Good luck with yours!

  5. The S word. I have been avoiding writing mine. Shh, am still avoiding it.

  6. I have TWO of these charming things to write. (Can you tell I’m good at avoiding them until the last possible moment?) And the recipe sounds so simple! No doubt the simplicity is deceiving, but just because I’ve never written a brilliant synopsis before doesn’t mean I won’t now. Hey, I’m even willing to settle for one that’s mediocre and one that’s spot on 🙂

    • Yours are bound to be brilliant, Chelsea!

      Good luck with them.

  7. Oh wow, there really is a sekrit formula!
    Thanks Julie, I have a synopsis to write too and this is perfect. I love the colour coding idea too (but anything involving lots of different colour pens is good by me!)
    Thanks for the link, Chelsea.
    Now I must go read the post on character arc- my hero doesn’t appear to want to have one.

  8. OMG, Julie I’m in heaven and you are a star!I just found that series you did on character arc and am a very happy girl.

    • I’m so glad you’ve found some useful stuff on my site, Jane. I try to answer questions if they’re asked on here, too. Thanks for visiting!

  9. Ooh, I hate synopses. It takes me 100,000 words to tell this story; how am I supposed to do it in two pages?

    That’s a useful formula, Julie. I think it’s all too easy to try to cram too much information into a synopsis that doesn’t need to be there; although I find even when following such a simple structure that I can’t explain complex events, twisted with emotional conflict, in a paragraph or two!

    (and surely I’m not the only one who cheats by adjusting page margins, text spacing, etc? Am I?)

    • Well, I don’t adjust things like font and margins any more. I don’t want the thing to look weird when I send it electronically, especially if it’s going to another country. It’s easier just to cut out a subplot or character.

      I do think that emotional conflict and complex events can be simplified in a synopsis. In the one I just wrote, the book’s climactic scene takes up three chapters. It involves ten major characters, five plot threads and two time periods. I squeezed it down to two paragraphs, cutting it down to four characters and one plot thread. A character may have ten reasons for behaving as she does; you have to cut it down to one.

      You have to stick with the major plot/conflict, and not go into depth. It hurts, but it’s also quite liberating as you can really see the core of the story.

  10. Weirdly as I’m writing/polishing the first three chapters of a manuscript I WILL submit by Christmas, full formed sentences of the synopsis are striking me from nowhere. I’m adding them as I go and hope by the time the process has finished the synopsis might have even written itself ….?! Although I suspect that’s being overly optimistic.

    Hope your agent agrees you’ve nailed it this time Julie!

  11. […] and planning ahead. Though it’s longer than a single page, I followed (more or less) the synopsis formula I’ve posted here, plotting events on a three-act graph and making sure that each event raises the stakes for the […]

  12. Just in time. Just about to send off my synopsis so I checked it against your formula….a few tweakings later, I feel much more confident. Thank you. I’ll let you know if it worked.

  13. I like those 8 paragraphs, Julie, and as my story is only a short one I think this will help. I’ve written many a synopsis before and as many people know, they are the bain of a writer’s life!

    Thanks for this 🙂

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