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The Seven Paragraph Synopsis – Redux

Way back in November, 2011,  I posted a blog here on writing a synopsis.  The post turned into a session at the 2013 RWA Nationals and to this day I continue to get people emailing me looking for more details on synopsis writing.  So, below you’ll find the original post in its entirety.

In addition, I have posted some plotting and characterization worksheets that plotters (and pantsers) may find useful in creating an outline or synopsis for a book you’re just starting.  The worksheets are available at:  http://hoperamsay.com/Worksheets.html.  The worksheet on novel turning points is particularly helpful in trying to decide what to put in a synopsis and what to leave out.

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The original blog follows:

Synopses are evil.  When faced with the prospect of writing one, perfectly competent authors have been known to quake in their boots, hide under the bed, or indulge in M&M binges.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A synopsis has a form and structure to it, just like an essay or a press release or other specialized forms of writing.  And today, I’m going to give you the secret recipe for writing a synopsis for a romance novel.

WARNING:  If you’re a seat-of-the-pants plotter, you may find this secret recipe somewhat daunting to follow.  But anyone who plans a book, or outlines even a little bit, will be able to follow this guide, and be able to write a synopsis even before they have finished the book.  This guide should be easy to follow for anyone who has already finished a novel and just needs to find a way to summarize it in five double spaced pages before sending it off to the Golden Heart contest.

A complete synopsis can be written in as few as seven paragraphs, as follows:

Paragraph 1 — The Heroine.  Introduce your heroine.  Be sure to have a sentence that tells us what the heroine wants and needs at the beginning of the story, why she wants or needs it, and what is standing in the way of her getting what she needs.  You can put in a little backstory here, but keep the paragraph short.

Paragraph 2 — The Hero.  Introduce the hero the same way you did with the heroine.

Paragraph 3 — The Moment of Change.  Your story should start at the “Moment of Change,” when the life of one (or both) of your protagonists begins to change.  In your synopsis, describe what happens to your protagonists and how it changes the course of their lives.  It’s important to focus on the change that occurs in the opening of the book, not backstory or a description of the minor characters or the book’s setting.  The editor or judge will respond if you tell them how your hero’s life has been turned upside down at the beginning of the story.  (Hint:  if you discover that the moment of change occurs on page fifty in your finished manuscript, it’s usually a tip off that you’ve started your book in the wrong place.)  The Moment of Change should occur as close to page one as you can get it.

Paragraph 4 — The First Threshold.  In every romance there comes a moment about one-quarter of the way through where the hero and heroine are forced to either work together toward a common goal, or are thrown together as a result of some circumstance beyond their control.  Your fourth paragraph should describe the situation that throws them together, and how your hero and heroine deal with this circumstance.  Be sure to describe how this external force is starting to change your characters so that the goals they had at the beginning of the story are starting to change.

Paragraph 5 — The Ordeal.  If you want to avoid a sagging middle, you should make sure that something dramatic happens in the middle of the book.  (See my blog on writing middles).  Your fourth paragraph should begin with a sentence that summarizes the action leading up to the big Ordeal in the middle of the book.  Your next couple of sentences should describe The Ordeal and how your characters learn something important as a result of what happens.  End the paragraph with a summary of how The Ordeal has brought your hero and heroine closer together.  The Ordeal usually ends with a first kiss or a love scene.  The Ordeal is also the moment when the hero and heroine fall in love, even if they don’t fully realize it.

Paragraph 6 — The Black Moment.  At some point, near the end of the book, your hero and heroine will be faced with a combination of external and internal forces that will make them revert to the people they were at the beginning of the story.  They will fall back into their old ways of thinking and forget the things they learned in the middle of the book.  They will let old fears rule them, and in so doing they will lose each other.  This is the Black Moment.  (See my blog on Black Moments.)  Your sixth paragraph should describe the actions leading up to the Black Moment, and how the Black Moment forces your hero and heroine to forget the things they have learned.

Paragraph 7 — The Resolution.  Describe how your hero and heroine get out of the Black Moment.  This will require your hero and heroine to grow in some important ways, and they may have help from minor characters.  End your synopsis with a couple of sentences describing what your hero and heroine have learned that make it possible for them to have fallen in love.

If you have already written your novel and it follows the standard three act structure of most romance novels, you should be able to find the scenes and story action that correspond to The Moment of Change, The First Threshold, The Ordeal, The Black Moment, and the Resolution.  If you can’t find those scenes in your finished book, or if they are out of order, you may have plot problems that will make writing a clear synopsis difficult under any circumstances.  In this way, writing a synopsis can be a great way to find plot problems in a finished manuscript.

Now comes the hard part — for many published writers the synopsis has to be written before the book.  All authors, even those who plot by the seat-of-their-pants, are going to have to write a book proposal sooner or later.  So learning how to do it is an important part of becoming a professional writer.

I find that describing the hero and heroine, understanding their goals and motivations, and then figuring out just a handful of turning points in a great way to accomplish this chore.  With five turning points, I can develop a good story line without having to get into so much detail that I feel locked in or lose the joy that comes with discovering the details as I write.  Usually my outlines are quite a bit different than the finished manuscript, but the synopsis gives me a great starting point for getting a new project started.

Got more ideas on how to make synopsis writing easier?  Now’s the time to share them.

 

16 responses to “The Seven Paragraph Synopsis – Redux”

  1. elise hayes says:

    Thanks for re-visiting this synopsis advice, Hope! I’m about to start plotting a new book, so I’m going to take this little gem of a 7-paragraph map with me when I go on the writing retreat.

    I also want to revisit my synopsis for the book that’s going into my agent, so again this is really timely for me. My synopses usually end up around 5-10 pages, so I’m going to see if I can do a shorter 2-3 page version following this advice!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Elise,

      You know the last outline I turned in was 13 pages, 1.5 spaced. So I don’t know that short is necessarily better. Maybe for a first sale it is.

      But I’ve been working with the same editor for almost 5 years now, so I turn in longer outlines. The more I write professionally the longer my outlines are becoming. I would not recommend this for everyone, but it’s the only way I can produce two books a year. I just don’t have time to get lost trying to solve plot problems in the actual book. I try to anticipate them in a longer outline. I still have a lot of problems to solve as the story unfolds, but having that long synopsis to fall back on really helps me stay focused. (And for Scrivener users, taking the synopsis and pasting it into scene documents is very helpful in keeping you going, day after day.)

      So one day I may write a blog post on really long synopses. 🙂

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      • elise hayes says:

        Ohh…that’s what I need to do as I gear up for the next book…get Scrivener! I’m putting that on my “to do” list! I’d been meaning to try it for plotting and writing the next book, but had totally forgotten about it as I’ve been working on final edits.

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  2. I loved this post when it first aired, and it’s still fabulous!! Great tips, Hope. Thanks. 🙂

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    Best help ever!!!!!

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  4. June Love says:

    This is a great refresher post and should be used periodically. As someone who attended your workshop last summer, I can say that you’ve got the synopsis under control. It’s an awesome workshop.

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  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Hope, I’ve lost track of how many writers to whom I’ve sent this link – particularly writers whose contest entries I’m judging.

    Great stuff!!

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  6. Gwyn says:

    This post never gets old (and I promise, it has nothing to do with my current retention issues). I’ve already printed it out, but since I can’t recall where I stashed it (yes, I know), looks like time for a reprise. Thanks, Hope.

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  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is the awesomest thing ever!!!

    Thanks for re-posting!

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  8. Thanks so much for re-posting this, Hope. I was struggling with a synopsis for a new book, so I set it aside in despair. Now I feel ready to tackle it again.

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  9. You know I revisit your posts all the time. Great info!

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  10. Traci Krites says:

    Great explanation!! Thanks!!

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