On Writing – The Dreaded Synopsis

Tell most aspiring novelists they must synopsize their masterpiece, and they run screaming into the hills.    Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc, Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up

The synopsis is your sales pitch—worth the time it takes to construct and polish until it’s right. Think of it as a jacket blurb. Many jacket blurbs are actually written from a synopsis.

What is a synopsis? Essentially, a synopsis tells a reader the central story of the book, and introduces the central character(s).

How long should a synopsis be? • one sentence • one paragraph • one page (250 words) • expanded version

As a general rule, publishers who request a synopsis with submissions prefer shorter versions, unless they specifically ask for longer versions.

So, how does a writer determine what to tell a reader about their book in a single sentence, or paragraph, or page?

1. Start by re-reading your novel, pen in hand

•write a paragraph for each chapter -what happened here, and to whom?

-Notice: the running theme, symbolism you didn’t know you’d woven into the story

The result is a fairly dry outline of the novel. Now, it’s time to distill and up the interest quotient.

II. Ask: •who is the central character

•if there are more than one, what qualities describe them as a group—are they all doomed, are they all searching for something, is there something all must overcome

•what is the main driving force (goal) for your main character(s)

•what are the costs of obtaining the goal—consider internal costs to the main character(s), and external costs to the community, world, etc.

•what is the overall theme

While some believe there are only six or seven plots and everything is a variation on those, others think there are many more.

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. [wo]man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

 20 Plots: Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993.

1. Quest 2. Adventure 3. Pursuit 4. Rescue 5. Escape 6. Revenge 7. The Riddle 8. Rivalry  9. Underdog 10. Temptation  11. Metamorphosis                12. Transformation  13. Maturation  14. Love  15. Forbidden Love 16. Sacrifice  17. Discovery 18. Wretched Excess 19. Ascension  20. Descension [not a word].

In the list of 20 plots, there are variations on the same theme (quest/adventure; transformation/maturation) and some are simply opposites (ascension/descension). So it might be helpful to think of a reduced number when you’re trying to discover your central theme. Is yours a story of redemption, love (loss of love), coming of age (maturation), revenge, or escape?

III. Write several single sentences that capture the essence of the answers you’ve given above.

IV. Expand the sentence you like best to a paragraph.


•telling details of the main character — the boy/girl is a homeless waif

•why does the main character need to proceed — if s/he can back out, there will not be enough tension to sustain the novel. If there’s more than one issue, concentrate on the main issue.

•if there is more than one main character, what fate ultimately binds them together

•what is the climax (turning point) of the piece

•what transformation takes place (lesson learned, etc.) This might be identical to the theme, or it might differ in a subtle way.

V. Expand to a page.


•what does each central character want?

– feeds back into theme, but if there are multiple characters each might be addressing a different facet. Take care to weave these together.

•what are the drivers for each character?

•what personal issues hold each character back?

•what is the central character’s defining moment—the moment they must face down what’s holding them back and press forward against all odds. What realization must they have, or decision must they make?

*Don’t involve subplots.

*Don’t leave out the ending.

*Use the same way to refer to characters throughout: if you introduce a character as Dr. Evans, don’t use ‘Jerry’ next time and ‘the doctor’ the next.

*It’s also advisable to identify which character(s) is the point of view character by typing (POV) beside their name the first time you introduce them.          Marg Gilks, How to Write a Synopsis

**Note: Synopses are always written in the present tense.