Tips for Writing a Synopsis

April 14, 2011

Like Elley, for me writing a synopsis has been challenging to say the least. It’s like writing my resume. I’ve written hundreds of resumes for other people, no problem. I know how to lay it out, what to put in, and what to leave out. When it comes to my resume…panic, fear…I frantically spin my wheels. I suppose a synopsis is somewhat like a resume for my book, and because it’s so personal, it’s difficult to reduce it to 3-5 pages.

What do I take out? What do I put in? It’s all important to the movement of the plot! How do I artfully reduce a 350-page book to under five pages?

After last Friday’s workshop at the Romantic Times Convention, I have a new outlook on synopsis writing. The workshop with literary agent Jim McCarthy, took writers step by step through several book synopses that had been submitted by convention goers previous to the convention. The synopses represented category romance, paranormal and fantasy books, but the process was the same for each.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Unlike your book, your query and the back of the book blurb, your synopsis doesn’t need to be artfully written. It needs to be concise and clearly lead the editor or agent through the plot, hold nothing important back (including twists and turns) but not adding unimportant sub plots. Hmm… This reminds me of my non-fiction writing. Cut the fluff. Get right to the point. Be clear and concise. Make sure you get all of the important information in the story that helps the reader to understand what’s happening, and follow the plot and nothing more. You don’t need to show your creative writing talent here. Presumably if the editor or agent is reading your synopsis, they’ve already read the first three chapters or a partial of your manuscript and know that you can write. Now they want to be sure you have a complete story with a plot that works. Stick to the point. In this case as they say, “less is more.”
  2. Get out of your character’s head. Tell the story yourself. Your character’s point of view isn’t necessary in the synopsis and can be distracting. Get out of your character’s head, or get your character out of your head…whichever way it works for you. Your synopsis should be in third person. Again, this point connects to the non-fiction writing I’ve done. Almost all of my non-fiction is written in third person.
  3. Have a clear timeline. Foreshadowing in a synopsis is unnecessary and can be confusing. Make sure that events happen in a logical order, and the reader isn’t left to figure things out. If you say the heroine is going to a major event in two weeks, make sure she does in your synopsis. If it was important enough to mention, it needs to happen and in a timely way. The timeline may be clear in your book, but if it’s not in the synopsis, you may kill the story for the editor or agent reading it.
  4. There are NO HARD AND FAST RULES. It’s true and not surprising. What annoys one agent may be ideal to another. What an editor hates in one synopsis, may work for her in another. So put together a professional presentation—something you feel truly represents your work—and put a stamp on it or hit send.

One of the things that really came out in the workshop is that writing a synopsis is the process of ‘letting go.’ You’ve finished your book. You’ve edited. Now it’s ready to go out into the world without you. It’s time to let go and move on to the next book.

I’m not always good at letting go, whether it’s letting go of my kids…or my size 5 clothes from another decade…or writing with a pen and paper. But now that I understand the process (and realize much of what I need to do I’ve done before in my non-fiction writing), I’m not as intimidated by the project.

Thank you, Jim McCarthy and the writer’s who allowed him to publicly critique their work.

So, what about you? Which part of the process sends you into a tailspin? What have you learned that has made it easier? How good are you at letting go?

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2 Responses to “Tips for Writing a Synopsis”


  1. What great information, Tari! Thanks for sharing.

    I think I mentioned here before that some distance helps too–I’m learning this in my synopsis class. Dulling the details a bit goes back to what you say about writing a resume and knowing so much about the subject you’re writing about. If you can dull the details so only the major points stand out, it’s a bit easier.

    I say this, but I have yet to attempt a real synopsis–only writing samples for class assignments.

  2. taristhread Says:

    We’re in this together…..I agree about pulling back. Re-reading my first manuscript definitely gave me that distance, I think I can write a synopsis for it more easily….but as you said, I say this…but have yet to attempt!

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