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6 Steps for Writing a Book Synopsis

Posted on: 8th Apr 2013  /   Categorized: Writing Tips

Confession: I enjoy writing query letters. I know that most writers loathe them, but I always thought the query letter was kind of a fun challenge. The challenge of trying to distill your novel down to its essence, giving just enough information to draw the agent or editor in to the story, but without giving away so much that the manuscript loses all sense of mystery.

 

However, I feel quite differently about the second-most dreaded item of many submission packages: the Synopsis.

 

The book synopsis is that three- or four-page snapshot of the book, that essentially tells your story from beginning to end, while seemingly stripping it of any intrigue, humor, or emotional resonance. To me, writing a synopsis that could leave a reader still wanting to read the actual manuscript always seemed like a much bigger challenge than the query letter.

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that getting published does not necessarily mean we don’t ever have to write a synopsis again.

 

Last January, when it came time for my agent and I to start talking with my publisher about My Next Book (which was the Super Secret Project I wrote during NaNoWriMo last November), the submission package we pulled together was remarkably similar to the package we’d used to sell the Lunar Chronicles:

 

- A pitch letter (similar to a query), illustrating the concept and major conflict of the book.

- The first 50 pages, edited and polished to a glowy sheen.

- The synopsis of the book (although some plot points are subject to change).

 

So rather than whine and complain about how much I hate writing synopses, I decided to take the opportunity to embrace the synopsis writing challenge, and figure out a process for writing the synopsis that didn’t seem quite so painful and intimidating and, in the end, left me with something I was pleased to show my editor.

 

I’m not allowed to really talk about my new project,* so I’m going to use examples from the synopsis I wrote for CINDER way back when.

 

 

Step 0: Write the book!

If the book isn’t written yet, I feel like you’re writing an outline, not a synopsis, and I’ve talked about outline writing at length in previous blog posts. For the purpose of this synopsis-specific guide, let’s assume you have the book drafted out, or even completed.

 

 

Step 1: Skim through the manuscript, noting the important events of each chapter.

Try to boil every chapter down to just one or two sentences. What is the point of this chapter? What is the most important thing that happens?

Some chapters will be significantly longer than a sentence or two, particularly the opening chapters (as they tend to introduce a lot of information about the world and the main characters) and the climax (which could revolve around lots of complicated reveals and twists).

And yes, include the ending! From who wins the final battle to whether or not the protagonist hooks up with the love interest in the end. One of the main purposes of a synopsis is to show the full arcs of your plot and subplots, so don’t leave out those all-important resolutions.

 

 

Step 2. Embellish the beginning.

Just because you can’t use pages and pages to set up the world and protagonist’s character in the synopsis doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give the reader a little bit of foundation to stand on. The first paragraph of the synopsis should give the same basic information you convey through the book’s first chapter: where and when does this story take place, who is the protagonist, and what problem are they facing right off the bat?

 

Example: LINH CINDER is a cyborg, considered little more than a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother, ADRI. But her brain-machine interface has given her a unique skill with mechanics, making her, at sixteen, the best mechanic in New Beijing.

 

 

Step 3: String your short chapter summaries together, using standard synopsis formatting.

Here, it will begin to look like a story, but an incredibly sparse and drab one. Don’t worry about that. Just focus on getting all the technical formatting stuff figured out so you don’t have to re-write it all at the end.

 

Standard Synopsis Formatting

- Written in third person, present tense, regardless of what POV or tense the book is written in.

- The first mention of each character’s name is put in all-caps (so that they can be easily spotted).

 

Example: When she arrives home, she discovers her two stepsisters—arrogant PEARL and vivacious PEONY—being fitted in ball gowns.

 

 

Step 4: Read through, with a focus on plot.

Distilling each chapter down into just a sentence or two can lead to lots of apparent plot holes and lost information. Read through what you’ve written and check that every event in the story naturally leads into the next. Imagine beginning each sentence with a Because / Then structure, and insert further explanation or character motivations as necessary.

 

Example: Cinder is worried that if she doesn’t fix the hover, Adri will sell off IKO in order to pay for the repairs herself. That night, Cinder goes to the junkyard to find replacement parts…

 

(Could be read as: Because Cinder is worried . . . then she goes to the junkyard…)

 

 

Step 5. Read through, with a focus on character arc.

Now that the plot makes sense from beginning to end, check that you’re adequately showing how your protagonist evolves as a result of the events in the story. Do readers get a sense of who they are at the beginning and how they’ve changed by the end? Look for those Big Moments in the story that change your protagonist’s attitudes and goals. Indicate how those moments effect the protagonist emotionally, and show how their goals and motivations change as a result.

 

Example: Without Iko and Peony keeping her tied to Adri, Cinder vows to fix up the abandoned car she saw in the junkyard and run away.

 

 

Step 6. Trim and edit.

Now that you have all the necessary information, read through a few more times and trim it up as much as you can. Be ruthless when it comes to removing excess words and phrases that don’t help you tell the story. Choose your descriptive words carefully, ensuring that you’re using words that carry a lot of weight. My book synopses for CINDER and New Secret Project both came in around the 1,500-2,000 word range, and that’s not a lot of room to work with! So edit, edit, edit.

 

 

Happy synopsisizing, everyone!

 

 

* Okay, what I CAN tell you about my Super Secret NaNo 2012 Project is that YES, Macmillan did buy it, woot! That must have been one heck of a synopsis, right? ;) More information to come… someday.

36 Comments

  1. Alexa Y. commented on:

    I’ve not yet experienced writing a synopsis for my WIP, but this post will definitely come in handy someday so thank you for sharing your steps with us. Also, congratulations on Macmillan picking up your super secret project. I’m so excited to find out what it is!

  2. Naomi Hughes commented on:

    Great tips! I’ve always dreaded writing my synopses, but once I started using a method close to yours, it was SO much easier. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. Loie commented on:

    Awesome tips, Marissa!!! Still writing the book hahaha so I will return to this post some day hopefully at some point this year. Weeeeeeee! Congrats on the book deal and can’t wait to hear more deets :D !!!

    Loie x

  4. Stephanie B commented on:

    I’m definitely going to be saving this page. This is great advice and it’s amazing how you made the process sound much more doable than most people do. Thanks, Marissa! Can’t wait to hear about the Secret Project!

  5. Mime commented on:

    I haven’t ever written a synopsis before–this is great!!! I always thought of synopsises as the monster in the querying closet. But it might not be so bad!

    Secret Project?! I can’t wait!

  6. Hope Cook commented on:

    Oh my god, you are straight from heaven. I haven’t attempted one of these in a while, but should the need ever arise (right now I’m in the query stage) I’ll be returning to this goldmine of handholding. THANK YOU!

  7. Carol Bodensteiner commented on:

    Great post, Marissa, and so timely. My task this week is to write a one-page synopsis of my novel for use in an advanced novel-writing workshop. Would that I could do a 2-3 page synopsis! Your approach will be priceless in guiding me through the challenge. Thanks.

  8. Paul Nosach commented on:

    This is amazing! I love the story-writing bit, however writing the synopsis feels like a new story altogether. This page has great tips and how to break everything down.

  9. Sinka commented on:

    Thanks so much for your info on synopsisizing. I’m at that stage now and it seemed so daunting. Not any more.
    Wish you lots of success with your new book.
    Thanks again.

  10. Julie Thomas commented on:

    I am currently trying to write a one-page synopsis for my new book and wish to say a big thank you for the formula that you have shared.

  11. dedicated hosting commented on:

    continuously i used to read smaller articles which as well clear their motive, and that is also happening with this post which I am reading here.|

  12. Herbert W. Piekow commented on:

    Marissa, you have distilled this to the very basics, thank you.

  13. Andas Maliki commented on:

    This your synopsis writing tips is a detailed and helpful one as i’m actually searching for tips that will aid me write a marketable synopsis for my new novel.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  14. eliana commented on:

    i love these tips and will take each one into consideration when writing my synopsis thank u for your help

  15. Regina commented on:

    Great tips, I am trying the write my synopsis now for my new novel. I am a newbie and can use all the advise I can get. Thanks for sharing …

  16. Stephanie Priestley commented on:

    Love, love, love this! Any thoughts on how to work in the background world info? Does it need to be woven in or is it ok to put a paragraph or two to fill in the reader? I would NEVER do that in my book, of course… :-)

  17. Marissa commented on:

    That’s a great question, Stephanie! I would limit any world info to elements that are strictly necessary to the plot, and I would try to weave it into the synopsis on a need-to-know basis. Example: for Cinder, I would wait until the part of the story in which the Lunar queen first becomes relevant to the plot (probably when Queen Levana invites herself to Earth for the first time), then explain about the society of people, called Lunars, who live on the moon and have developed mysterious powers of mind control.

    I would not go in-depth into how they were formed by an Earthen colony before forming their own republic, which was then changed to a monarchy when the first true Lunar rose to power and was able to manipulate the government to his own whims, etc. None of that has a direct influence on the story of Cinder, so I would leave it out.

    I hope that helps. Good luck!

  18. Maxine Shand commented on:

    Thank you so much for the wonderful advice.
    I am about to submit to a publishing house and was looking for information about how to write a good synopsis (as I have never done this before). I was dreading this before, but now feel energised about the whole experience.

  19. melissa commented on:

    I really didn’t know the correct format for writing a synopsis but after following these tips and getting onto mine, I can safely say that it makes perfect sense and i think I have the makings of the best synopsis I’ve ever written. Thanks for sharing!!!

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  23. Corey Furman commented on:

    By a strange twist of fate, I was just given Cinder as a Christmas present, and this was the first link I checked on writing a synopsis.

    Thanks for putting this out there. I’m about 75% done with my own work, but I am starting a few conversations. It will help to get started on the things I expect to need.

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  26. magda commented on:

    love your background image.

  27. Pingback: Synopses | Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers

  28. alex commented on:

    how long should a synopsis be?

  29. Pingback: Query letters | Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers

  30. Stacy commented on:

    Oh yeah! :0 Super helpful!! >:3 I used to hate book synopis’s. Now it’s crystal clear. Best of luck to everybody in their writing!!

  31. Starstryder commented on:

    Thank you, this has helped tremendously. I have given up the mantra of “Oh, how I hate you synopsis!” Not sure if something else will replace it but the dread and procrastination of the last couple of weeks are gone. I was over thinking things (as usual!) and making it more difficult than it needs to be.

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  33. Magnus Shaw commented on:

    Thank You so much Marissa for this immensely helpful Synopsisizing Sequence! I’m about to submit to a publisher for my first book that happens to be a Memoir. Just wanted to ask you if there are any do’s & don’ts or anything to take care of while writing Synopsis for a book written in First Person POV i.e. apart from what you have shared here. Thanks a ton! and Wish you all the Very Best in your Future Projects!!

  34. Melissa Muhlenkamp commented on:

    Marissa, where has your blog been all my life? Thank you for sharing all your wonderful advice and experience on the subject of writing. Most authors I love don’t really share much about their creative process and you are exceptionally kind for doing this. Thank you!

    ps: cannot wait to find out more about your new project. The Lunar Chronicles has become one of my all time favorites.

  35. Jinx commented on:

    I read your post and reread it again because this is valuable advice. I’m at this stage right now and I’ve already written my query and edited my manuscript, but I’ve been stuck on this synopsis for a while. The agents I want to send to request a two page query that’s double spaced, and I’m having a hard time fitting all of the important events in. Would this be okay or do I somehow have to fit all of into those two pages?

  36. tour de magie avec des cartes commented on:

    At this time I am going away to do my breakfast, later than having
    my breakfast coming again to read other news.

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