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The (Not-So) Dreaded Synopsis

In thinking about what I wanted to blog on, I remembered a synopsis article I’d written for my RWA chapter several years ago. In my distant memory, I’d recalled having fun with it (fun with a synopsis, you say?!?!) and dug it back up. I hope you’re forgive the re-do, but I thought it might be fun to pull it back out and see if it still resonates.

So here we go!

You’d be hard-pressed to find any words in the English language that strike more fear in a writer’s heart than the words, “I need you to write a synopsis.” The poor, beleaguered synopsis – both feared and dreaded by all – has come to be misunderstood for both it’s purpose and, dare I say, it’s beauty. At its core, the synopsis is a selling tool. A quick encapsulation of your story that gives enough detail so your editor knows the story’s got meat for anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 words.

The synopsis has significant value beyond your editor, as well. The synopsis is a tool used throughout the publishing house – sales and art being the two chief places. The synopsis supports your book as it travels from idea to reality. Once you’re actively selling, this is incredibly important. The book is being written while other things are happening – the sales sheets are under development, back cover copy is written and art is designing that jaw-dropping cover. To ensure the book production process moves smoothly, all of these departments need to understand what your story is about as well.

So how do you go from viewing a synopsis as a necessary evil to an enjoyable part of the writing process?

First, throw away the bad vibes and negative thoughts. The myth of the “dreaded synopsis” is so pervasive in our writers’ culture it’s become a mantra. Ignore it! You’re a writer and you’re an adaptive one at that. And as a professional writer, this is a necessary requirement of your craft.

Second, think about what it is you want to say. What is your book about? Who are these characters in your mind’s eye who have gripped you and won’t let you go? Why do you care about them and their journey to their happy ever after?

That is the focus of your synopsis. How are these two people going to get from page 1 to page 350?

For me, I look at a synopsis in really clear chunks – and I follow the same pattern each and every time.

Open your synopsis with a brief character sketch of your hero and heroine. Tell us who they are with a few quick highlights. It’s even better if you can showcase the reasons why these two people are going to have an unlikely time of falling in love.

Then use the next several paragraphs detailing what happens to the hero and heroine over the course of the book, as well as any secondary characters who play a role in the story.

Finally, ensure you close on how the book ends. The synopsis is not a tool to entice someone to read the book so you don’t want to play coy with the ending. The synopsis should be a full overview of the story from start to finish.

For clarity’s sake, I’ve broken down the film YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Not only does it showcase two of my most favorite characters ever put to film, but it’s a story rich with conflict between the hero and heroine. By focusing on the conflict (which fuels your story from start to finish), you can quickly synopsize your work.

KATHLEEN KELLY appears to lead a blissful existence as the owner of a small children’s bookshop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She’s doing what she loves and is dating a man who’s crazy about her. She’s got a successful business and she’s surrounded by a core group of “family” in the form of her bookshop employees who all love and adore her. On her birthday, Kathleen wanders into a chat room online and the happy existence she thought she had changes when she begins to have feelings for someone she’s “met” in the chat room – NY152 – a man she hasn’t actually met face-to-face.

JOE FOX is the heir to the Fox Books nationwide chain of bookstores. The child of a broken home, he’s been raised in privilege, even as he chafes against the loveless constraints expected of him. He’s dating a woman who’s in the publishing business and while he cares for PATRICIA, he knows he’s not in love with her. Its only when he wanders into an internet chat room and meets SHOPGIRL that he begins to realize there’s possibly someone out there for him.

As you can see, this is just a quick character sketch. I haven’t told you Kathleen is a cute, perky blond or Joe’s tall. I also haven’t let you know what their conflict is yet either. Right now, we have a quick glimpse of who these two people are.

From there, you want to move into a brief telling of your story. Here’s where the adage “show don’t tell” can be literally tossed out the window. A synopsis is all about telling. You want to do it in a way that stays true to your voice, but at this stage of the game you’re giving an overview of what is going to happen.

Continuing with YOU’VE GOT MAIL, here’s a few suggested paragraphs of how the story would look.

On her walk to work one morning, Kathleen sees a large sign about two blocks from her shop. Fox Books – a large chain bookstore that offers its customers deep discounts – is opening a store around the corner from her shop. Although she has a dedicated group of customers and a thriving bookstore, she’s concerned that Fox Books will pose a threat to her business.

The following weekend, Kathleen is hosting a busy day in her store. Her story hour where she reads to the neighborhood children is always a popular weekend destination and the store is full of families, happily buying books. One of the families she meets is a man and, she presumes, his two children. As Kathleen begins speaking with them, the girl, ANNABEL, informs Kathleen that the man is her big brother, Joe and the boy is her nephew, MATT. There is an obvious flirtation between Joe and Kathleen and both are interested and engaged in the conversation.

Joe panics as the conversation progresses when Kathleen mentions a Fox Books is opening around the corner. Knowing that his store is a threat to her business, he quickly pays cash so no one will see his last name on his credit card and ushers the kids out. He and the children had gone to the store at the children’s request – with no ulterior motive – but he’s reluctant to ruin the congenial mood and the subtle attraction he shares with Kathleen by discussing business.

From here, you would continue to build the synopsis. The paragraphs can alternate between the two characters and if you’ve got a secondary character who drops into the story, they can be woven in as well.

Thinking through the movie, you’d likely have paragraphs that correspond to these plot points:

  • Kathleen and Joe are both at a party, where it’s revealed to Kathleen that he is Joe Fox, of Fox books. She accuses him of spying on her in the store with the kids. (This is where our reference in Joe’s paragraph above – that he went in at the request of the children – is important as we know Joe wasn’t intending to spy on her.)
  • Kathleen struggles with her decreasing sales after Fox Books opens its doors and she asks her online friend, NY152, if they should meet.
  • Joe agrees and realizes it is Kathleen when he gets to the coffee shop. He then comes in and plays “himself” but doesn’t confess to her he’s really NY152, the man she’s been waiting for.
  • Kathleen makes the hard decision after the holidays to close her store. On a snowy night, she wanders into Joe’s store and he observes her talking to his store workers. He realizes how much she loves the book industry and he feels additional remorse for putting her out of business. He also knows he’s still very much interested in her.
  • After a discussion with his father, Joe realizes that he has nothing to lose and he needs to go after Kathleen – the woman who fills his heart with joy. He subtly plays her against her imagined online love, helping to reinforce to her that he’s the man she’s really in love with.
  • Joe and Kathleen go on a few dates and it is on their last date where he confesses he cares for her. She sidesteps her feelings and tells him she has to leave because she’s going to meet NY152 for real.
  • The story culminates with Joe showing up and confessing he’s NY152. Kathleen confesses back that she cares for him, too. “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”

There are certainly other high points in the film and in writing the synopsis it’s possible they’d be included as well, but through the examples above, I’ve focused on the key turning points of the story.

For example, we don’t really have to have the gym scene detailed out – where Joe is on the treadmill and sees Kathleen “zing him” on the evening news – but that is an important scene in the film and a necessary one that would have made the story less complete if it weren’t there. However, for the synopsis, it’s not necessary to focus on it.

As a quick aside, if you’re frustrated writing a synopsis for your own work, a great exercise is to take a film you enjoy and try writing a synopsis for it. By taking a story you know so well, yet are still removed from, it’s often easy to see how the plot points flow and how to dissect the story and can be an excellent practice exercise.

I hope this helps and the next time you hear those words, “I need you to write a synopsis.” Your future editor awaits!

xo,

Addison

21 responses to “The (Not-So) Dreaded Synopsis”

  1. What a great post on synopsis. Being an indie writer, I haven’t written a synopsis in a few years but I can see how a synopsis could help with promoting your book. I’m pantser so writing a synopsis always came after the book was written.

    I love how your example is filled with emotion, a must needed element in my opinion.

    Thank you. I’m bookmarking this article.

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    • Addison Fox says:

      I’m so glad it helped!! I know for me, once I started looking at it as something separate in style and requirement than my manuscript it totally changed my perspective!

      Addison

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  2. Julia Day says:

    I’m with Autumn. Great breakdown of the synopsis. I think having the character overviews at the beginning is a great technique.

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  3. I have yet to write a synopsis so this was extremely helpful. More so than the class I took. Thank you.

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    • Addison Fox says:

      Candy

      Thanks so much – I’m glad it helped!!! Good luck with your synopsis when you do write it!

      Addison

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  4. I know the synopsis is needed and does not have to be long and drawn out, but it still creates angst when the time draws nearer to complete it.The dreaded word has become less ominous thanks to your post.

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  5. I never look forward to writing them but this is very helpful. Thanks, Addison!

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  6. Great post.

    I used to hate writing a synopsis, but now I write them for ever single book I write. I use it as a guide to keep me on topic which is hard because I’m easily distracted. Like now, for instance, I was actually writing the synopsis for a book I’m working on and popped over here to see what was going on.

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    • Addison Fox says:

      I love that, Katie – and a great point to add! A synopsis can be a great way to stay on top of the story and all the great plotting you’ve already done.

      Good luck with the latest book!
      Addison

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  7. Hywela Lyn says:

    Really helpful post, thanks for sharing. I really don’t mind writing synopses – but usually after I’ve written the book! I’m really struggling with my current WIP but after reading your suggestions, I think I’m going to concentrate on the synopsis and hope that will give more structure to the story as I write it! Thanks

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    • Addison Fox says:

      Thanks, Hywela!

      Your synopsis can be a really great way to work through some of those plot points. Sometimes that focus OFF of “show don’t tell” and just telling the darn story can help put the story arc and plot points into great perspective.

      Addison

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  8. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    Wow…haven’t even finished a book…yet. But must file this away for when the time comes that I will be writing that synopsis!

    Thanx, Addison:)

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  9. June Love says:

    I love your outlook on writing a synopsis. Using I’ve Got Mail as an example helped a lot! Now, it kind of makes me want to write one.

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    • Addison Fox says:

      I’m so glad, June!

      And the movie thing is fun, especially when it’s a move you love. It makes it flow differently because you’re looking at it through a more objective lens. Then as soon as you have the blueprint, it becomes WAY easier to model your own work on the same.

      xx,
      Addison

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  10. Rita Henuber says:

    I’ve shared the link and heard back from several the post was most helpful. Thanks it is a great post.

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  11. I’m late to the party, but I just wanted to say I love this post and how it breaks down synopsis writing! And YES – I think the most important thing is to not get bogged down by dread and negativity. Dive in and splash something onto the page! If it isn’t perfect, you can always spruce it up with the crucial details you accidentally left out (like I always seem to – lol).

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