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The Synopsis is Your Friend

This is not one of those articles that’s going to explain how to write a synopsis in five easy steps.  And I am not one of those weird people who enjoy writing synopses (apologies, weird people).  Writing a synopsis can be excruciatingly painful.  But it’s worth it.  And not just because you generally need one to sell a book.  I love the synopsis because it lets me evaluate whether I have a novel or just a bunch of scenes stuck together.

Let me explain.  The first time I attempted to write a book, I just sat down in front of the computer and started typing.  I didn’t have an outline, a synopsis, or even a pitch paragraph, just a vague idea about two best friends realizing they were more than friends (I know!  So original!).  After two long years, I got to page 234 and typed THE END.  I had finished my first novel!

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the most exciting thing I had ever read, but that was because I had spent so much time writing it that I was sick of looking at it.  The rest of the world would surely appreciate its brilliance.

Now all I had to do was submit it to a publisher, sign a contract, and deposit my six-figure advance check.  I looked up my dream publisher’s submission guidelines and–what was this?–they wanted a synopsis?  I found some examples of synopses online and tried to write something in a similar format.  This was an absolute disaster.

I figured I must be doing something wrong, so I went in search of how-to-write-a-synopsis guides.  After examining a few, I found what looked like a foolproof technique.  All I had to do was write a paragraph about my hero’s background, one about my heroine’s background, add in a bit about each of my turning point scenes, the black moment, the climax, and the resolution.  Simple.  Except where were my turning points?  Where was my climax?  Where was my black moment?

Hmm.  I was beginning to see why my “novel” was so boring.  It didn’t have turning points.  The scenes didn’t build to a climax.

The next time, I wrote the synopsis before I started writing the manuscript.  Not only was the synopsis itself much easier to write (you’ll notice I said easier, not easy) it turned out that looking only at the key scenes was a great way to evaluate whether my not-yet-written novel was structured properly.  I designed my turning point scenes to take the story in a new direction so the reader didn’t get bored.  I made sure the scenes built logically upon one another, and that the conflict escalated as the story went on, building toward the climax.  When I finished, I had a strong scaffold for my novel.  Now all I had to do was write it.

But that’s another story.

What about you?  Can you write a novel without any advanced planning?  (If so, I demand to know your secrets.)  Do you need some kind of road map?  What form does your road map take?

43 responses to “The Synopsis is Your Friend”

  1. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    I still write “seat of the pants” style. I don’t recommend it. For me, it means lots of back and forth and deep editing, but I HAVE tried plotting, making notes of key scenes, etc., only to find my characters insist on going their own way—rather like willful children. The only times the story goes astray, however, is when I DON’T listen to them.

    Of course, that makes writing the synopsis a royal pain in the rear because, knowing every nuance by the time you try to write it, the urge to include things that might, otherwise, not rate mention is difficult to overcome. Everything has become important.

    Can you say Catch 22?

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Why can’t those children just behave?

      But seriously, it’s wonderful that you understand your process. That took me a while. Actually, I’m still learning…. 🙂

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  2. Keli Gwyn says:

    I learned the hard way that being a panster doesn’t work for me. I wrote six stories that way and have completed four major revisions. When I was offered representation by my Dream Agent in December and learned that my story had a major plot problem at the quarter point, one that required me to rewrite the other three-quarters, I decided there had to be a better way.

    Enter plotting. I wrote a rough synopsis and plotted the first half of the story scene by scene before I began the rewrite. Now when I sit down to write, I have a road map and don’t spend time wondering where I’m going. I can get right to work, knowing that what I’m writing is far less likely to end up on the chopping block later. I’m sold on plotting and won’t go back.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Yay for plotting. I hope Dream Agent finds your revised novel a home soon. 🙂

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    • Eden Glenn says:

      Similar experiences for me. Sans the dream agent success part. **someday**

      I am trying a plotting thing on index cards now. We’ll see how it works.

      I am interested in trying to learn to write the synopsis first.

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  3. OMG, Shoshana, we’re practically twins in the way we work! I had a similar experience with my first book. I don’t even want to open that file and try to find my turning points. I’m sure there aren’t any. The best thing I can say about that book was that it taught me a lot about how not to write a novel. It wasn’t until my third book that I got a clue and wrote a synopsis before I started writing the book. I find it’s such a big time and angst saver in the long run!

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  4. Shoshana Brown says:

    Yay for plotting. I hope Dream Agent finds your revised novel a home soon. 🙂

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  5. Carly Carson says:

    As much as I don’t enjoy writing a synopsis, I agree with you. It helps you find the structure of your story and without the structure, your story will crumble. That said, I always start the tale without any idea where it will go. Several scenes later, it’s time for the synopsis or I’m the naughty child lost in the woods, and searching for crumbs.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      It definitely helps to get to know your characters before writing the synopsis. Being a total left brainer, I’ve always done this using character worksheet type things, but maybe next time I’ll try writing the first few chapters instead to let the characters introduce themselves to me in a more organic way.

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  6. Kristi says:

    Did you read the article in the last RWR about “flying into the mist”? That’s me (no, I didn’t write it, but it sounded just like what I do). Before writing page 1, I could probably write a 1-paragraph synopsis, but the details are extremely hazy. I know roughly who the characters are, and the major plot milestones. But if you’ve ever seen Dora the Explorer and “The Map”, it has like 3 landmarks on it. “Go through Letter Town, Over Number Mountain, and Get to School!” Yeah, about that detailed.

    By about 1/3 to 1/2 way through the book, I can probably write a 2 page synopsis (heavy on the first half of the book) where the end is kinda close to how the book really ends. But until I write “the end” (sometimes for the third or fourth time, because I have been known to re-plot endings more than once), I can’t really make a synopsis that really matches the book.

    As I write, details make their way into the scenes that then become more important as time goes on. Maybe my subconscious has the whole thing plotted out before hand and refuses to share, or maybe my brain just goes with what I’ve already written and works up a conclusion that ties it all together.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      I did read that article. It’s so interesting to learn how varied our writing processes are.

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  7. I really like the idea of repurposing your work here to save time: you use the exercise of writing a draft synopsis to basically outline the most important highlights of the novel without suffering too much from overplanning and messing with the creative aspects of writing the novel.

    This is not unlike the non-fiction I’ve been writing lately. We write the proposal, then the Table of Contents and THEN the book (in which we often tweak the Table of Contents after we realize we’ve forgotten something, or need to reorder things).

    Great post!

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Interesting. Do you think writing your nonfiction books has helped you work out your fiction writing process? Because I want to read the rest of LOVE ON A LIMB!!! (You knew that was coming, right?)

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      • I wouldn’t say so. I liked my process before. It’s the time I lack now, mostly because I have too many writing projects I am currently accountable to others for-ones that pay advances and royalties. LOAL is fairly high on my “just finish that last 5% for goodness sake!” list.

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  8. Elise Hayes says:

    I’m a big believer in the synopsis as well, Shoshana. I hate, detest, LOATHE writing them, but they always help.

    Over the last two books, I’ve started using plotting tools to help make my writing more efficient (which is another way of saying that I hate writing first drafts and the plotting tools, while painful to compile, help me get past that teeth-pulling stage more quickly). But the synopsis still helps. Whenever I write one, it helps me take a fresh look at the overall structure of my book. I rewrote the synopsis for my current wip just last week and started noticing that the last two “acts” of my book were redundant (the same issues/tensions/fights). So I restructuring things and. . . voila! A much stronger plot structure that is going to make writing those last 150 pages MUCH easier (not to mention fewer revisions!).

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      I’m such a plotting-tools junkie. Give me a chart or worksheet of any kind and I’m totally happy. I have to give myself strict time limits so I don’t spend months fiddling around the my excel spreadsheets and actually start writing.

      Good luck with those last 150 pages, Elise. 🙂

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  9. Something you said has made me think that I pre-write synopses for backstory, but not the story itself.

    Like, who were the character’s parents? How did they meet? What tragic events shaped the hero’s grandfather’s life? Etc., etc. They’re always very dramatic and fun, because they’re just for me.

    But lately I’ve been worrying that that my backstory is more interesting than my actual story. So little backstory makes it into a category novel, and sometimes I feel like I’m writing about some really interesting person’s less-interesting progeny.

    But maybe I should pretend I’m doing the same thing for the story itself. Maybe if I treat the story like a two- or three-page encapsulated tale, I’ll give it more natural drama and rhythm. And I’ll end up with a roadmap!

    Oh, wait. My backstories always end in tragedy. It’s easy to end something in tragedy, IMHO. Ripping someone’s soul out is obvious. Less obvious is how to put it back in.

    (I can’t spell rhythm, by the way. Do it “rythum” every time, even though I know it’s wrong. I depend on spellcheck to fix it. Same with “excersice.” Crap, exercise.)

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      > Oh, wait. My backstories always end in tragedy. It’s easy to end something in tragedy, IMHO. Ripping someone’s soul out is obvious. Less obvious is how to put it back in.

      So true. I really admire writers who can take two characters through hell and then bring them out into a
      convincing HEA. That’s why I stick with the lighter stuff. 🙂

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  10. Tina Joyce says:

    I write my synopses after I finish the first couple of chapters. Have no idea why that is. I think it’s because I usually have an idea for an opening line, and then I go from there. But having a synopsis once I’ve got those first chapters in place helps me stay on track–maybe for the exact reasons you listed: turning points, escalating conflict, black moment, etc.

    *Taking a deep breath* “The synopsis is my friend…the synopsis is my friend…the synopsis is…” Okay, so he’ll never be a friend, exactly, but I can admit to needing him.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >Okay, so he’ll never be a friend, exactly, but I can admit to needing him.

      LOL. That’s the first step.

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  11. Lise Horton says:

    What I discovered was that, while I am still a die-hard pantster, what the writing of a synopsis helped me do was EDIT my completed novel. It showed me where I needed more “oomph”, tightening, heightening, etc. So while I still do my synopsis after I write the first draft, it is a very helpful part of the editing/revising process for me. My particular frustration with writing synopses (I don’t mind the WRITING part), is that every publisher I look as has a diffrent length requirement. 1-5, 3-5, 2-10, 4 max, etc. So I sometimes find creating a “happy medium synopsis” a bit daunting.
    Fun blog and great anecdote (esp. the part about the 6 figure advance!!!)

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      > what the writing of a synopsis helped me do was EDIT my completed novel

      That’s interesting. I’ve read a lot of Jenny Crusie’s articles on writing, and a lot of the tools she uses to help shape/edit her novels once she has a draft, I use before I start writing my first draft.

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  12. Hope Ramsay says:

    Shoshana, you are a quick study. It took me years to learn this lesson.

    For the majority of my (not too successful) novel writing career — I mean years — I insisted that my characters told the story and that was the way I liked it. I was killer at creating 3D characters, but the truth is, they weren’t telling the story, they were running away with it.

    I had no idea what makes a good plot. None, nada, zippo. I must have written ten books by the seat of my pants without having a clue.

    And then after I finally joined RWA (did I mention I’m a slow learner?), entered a few contests and got a CP I finally recognized the error of my ways. Once I realized my weakness, I immersed myself in every book and every workshop where plot and conflict was discussed.

    Now, I outline, in detail, with GMC charts and turning points corresponding with the 12 steps of the hero’s journey. Learning how to do this has made all the difference in my writing, and I’m convinced that the tight plot in my books is part of what attracted my editor at Grand Central Publishing.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      I’m glad you figured out your process, because I’m really looking forward to reading A Ticket to Last Chance. 🙂

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  13. rita says:

    All of my stories come with an opening and ending and who the H&H are. Ta-da! Brilliant! Yea! Right!
    How and when do the H&H meet and how do they get from the beginning to the end? A many pub’d author kept telling me to summarize the story in one sentence do an outline and then a synopsis.
    Slow forward a year. I got some good advice on how to write out story and character GMC and plot points.
    Okay -I put that on paper. Wrote a one line blurb an outline and synopsis. Each of which was horrible but I had a starting point. Some I know, also break it down into the three acts. That idea still gives me a head rush. today I am in the sixth or seventh revision of the synopsis. Why? Added more conflict and my H&H have grown over time. I have been incredibly slow on this story because I’ve been in a huge learning curve. The more I learn the more I know I have to keep track of my character and story GMC. The outline and synopsis keep me headed in the right direction. If my characters jump up and start writing the story I pause and see if the outline and synopsis have to be revised.
    I cringe when people call it the suckopsis. I feel like they are missing out on using a valuable writing aid. I’ve kinda given up on preaching about it. I can tell you I am sure it helps me.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      > All of my stories come with an opening and ending and who the H&H are.

      Then you’re already one step ahead of me, because all I get are the opening and the hero and heroine. 🙂

      > I cringe when people call it the suckopsis. I feel like they are missing out on using a valuable writing aid.

      Everyone has their own process. No matter how weird it might seem to the rest of us. 🙂

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  14. Dara says:

    I need a vague road map. I used to be one of those people who would plan everything out ahead, but then realized the story would often take a different path, thus wasting all those hours laboring over a chapter outline.

    Now I just write a brief summary of whatever ideas I think might happen throughout the course of the book. I find that I’m not completely lost and floundering, yet I’m not on a strictly paved path–it gives me some time to divurge and enjoy the scenic route.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      It sounds like you’ve found a good balance. I find the planning stage a little too much fun, so I have to make sure I don’t go overboard with the excel spreadsheets and outlines and waste weeks of writing time.

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  15. >All I had to do was write a paragraph about my hero’s background, one about my heroine’s background, add in a bit about each of my turning point scenes, the black moment, the climax, and the resolution. Simple. Except where were my turning points? Where was my climax? Where was my black moment?

    Been there!

    I’m one of those flying-in-the-mist types. A few months ago I had to send 3 chapters + synopsis of my WiP to my editor, and writing that synopsis was one eye-opening experience. Half of me was standing back reading over my shoulder, going “Really? That’s what’s gonna happen?” But now I guess it is 🙂

    (Oh, and for my money, “best friends realize they’re more than friends” is a plotline that never get old.)

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    • …never GETS old, either! darn typos.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      > Half of me was standing back reading over my shoulder, going “Really? That’s what’s gonna happen?”

      LOL. It’ll be interesting to see how closely you follow the synopsis.

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  16. I finished my second novel and entered a contest that asked for a synopsis. Looked up a format on line and attempted to follow. can you say”Not Working?”Hours later I had what I call now “My almost awful,rambling synopsis and since I didn’t know any better,I submitted it.I still don’t know if it was as bad as I now believe it was as I didn’t keep a copy. The judges hated my novel and gave me all the reasons why. Some I agreed with some I didn’t. Took me three weeks of sackcloth,ashes and flagellation with an imaginary cat o’ nine tails, self pity and telling myself I would never be a good writer or sell anything before I could write another word. Have I tackled another synopsis(NO!) But I am slowly moving toward that goal with my other two novels. So do I hate or love writing a synopsis? I’ll let you know after I get up the courage to write another one. From a fellow FTHRW member.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Contests can be a great learning tool, but they can also be tough on the ego. It’s important to take the comments that are helpful for you and learn to ignore the rest–not everyone is going to get your story.

      I hope the next synopsis is easier. 🙂

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  17. Liz Talley says:

    Yeah, I kinda did the same with my first novel to. Hey, everybody learns on the first one. I remember someone asking me about GMC once. I remember thinking, “He’s got to have a goal? A motivation? why?” cause trust me I have no goal in mind some days. And those days work out fine. Okay, they don’t. Not really. And neither did that first book.

    Presently, I HAVE to have direction. I’m starting a new story this week. The first thing I do is get to know my characters and give them background story. I have to know them if I’m going to give them GMC so I write down on a notepad stuff about them. Then I work on conflict for the story. It takes me a good week or two of thinking. Then I have to put fingers to keys.

    So basically I’ve given my pantser self a guide to winging it. Now that I need to do 2-3 books a year, I don’t have time to meander too much.

    Oh, and another reason synopsis are essential, once you establish yourself, that’s what you will submit to your editor for the go ahead.

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    • Liz Talley says:

      Oops! That should have been “too.”

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      > cause trust me I have no goal in mind some days

      LOL. I used to have a lot more of those days before I had a baby.

      Three books a year? Even without meandering, I don’t know if I could pull that off. Then again, I am probably the slowest writer in the world.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        I’m with you there, Shoshana. Even if the day came where I earned enough money writing to quit my day job, I can’t see myself pumping out three books a year, no matter how much I optimize my process!

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  18. I started out a pantser and wrote my first novel as such and spent two years rewriting and getting lost in repeated scenes,non existent plot points,using ing words,telling not showing,etc. I started my next novel as a semi-pantser and well armed with index cards.I am about to embark on my first fantasy book armed with index cards and a knowing that I must have story structure,plot points ,conflict,goals, motivation,scenes that move the story along, no headhopping,watch the POV,grammar,sentence structure,watch the ing words ,etc,etc,etc.Show don’t tell and actually still write a compelling story with characters the reader will love and care about without jarring them out of the story with my ill-placed clumsy writing or typo because I didn’t catch the error. Uhh maybe I’ll just watch AVATAR again and wonder why this incredible, difficult, almost impossible to break into profession chose me? Happy thoughts indeed.PS Please overlook any of the above mistakes in this comment. My sarcastic muse did it.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Sounds like you’re well on your way to working out the writing process that works best for you.

      > Uhh maybe I’ll just watch AVATAR again and wonder why this incredible, difficult, almost impossible to break into profession chose me

      I think we all wonder that from time to time. 🙂

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  19. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Shoshana–I used to be a pantser, but now I consider myself a PLANTSER. I usually do a GMC chart and a character interview, write my first three chapters, and then I write a working synopsis after I get to know my characters and the story a little better. I find when I begin to get stuck in the middle, if I work on refining my synopsis, it helps me focus on my core story conflict and gets my plot back on track.

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  20. […] it’s about time for me to write another one (or two or three) of these buggers, I found this post over at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood particularly […]

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