By Elana Johnson
The word synopsis brings almost any writer to his or her knees. What does the agent or editor want, exactly? A few simple tips can take the mystery—and the pain—out of writing a synopsis.
It’s really hard to think of your creative work in a business sense—but that’s all a synopsis is. It’s a business summary of your work. That’s the first thing to remember: A synopsis is not a creative endeavor. It’s a straightforward explanation of what happens in your novel so the marketing people can get their heads around how to sell your book (go here to read about the nonfiction equivalent—book proposals; note that you may hear the term proposal relevant to fiction, but your synopsis is the key element in that scenario—something to worry about when you actually have an agent).
With that in mind, just buckle down and write. Some agents don’t specify how long they want a synopsis to be, but the most common lengths are one to three pages. A one-page synopsis should be 500 words; a two-page synopsis, 1,000 words; and a three-page synopsis, 1,500 words.
A synopsis has its own unique format. Follow these guidelines:
- Put contact information, page numbers, and project title in the header/footer
- Put the project title in ALL CAPS on the first line
- Return twice and begin the synopsis
- Put character names in ALL CAPS on first reference
- Use block-style paragraphs (in other words, don’t indent)
- Use a hard return between paragraphs
Here’s an example:
Narrow your focus to two things: character and plot. Then structure your synopsis around the following ten things:
- Setup for main character
- Inciting event—introduce the main conflict
- Main character’s debate—state the consequences
- Introduce secondary characters that matter (some don’t!)
- End of Act One—turning point
- Midpoint moment
- Scene that raises the stakes
- Villain and hero come face-to-face
- Main conflict solved
To begin, use those ten elements to write the entire synopsis without worrying about word count. You can always delete things later. Things you think are important at first might not be; you’re simply trying to tell what happens in the story. Remember: the synopsis should reveal how the book ends, something that you don’t do in a query letter.
Below is a sample synopsis:
Synopsis for How to Train Your Dragon, Using the 10 Items Above
This synopsis is 689 words and is less than 1.5 pages.
1. Setup for main character
HICCUP lives in the Viking village of Berk, which is attacked by dragons that steal food and set things on fire. The villagers—who are led by Hiccup’s father, STOICK—fight the dragons off. Hiccup hauls out a bolas-shooting cannon and shoots a dragon out of the night sky.
2. Inciting event—introduce the main conflict (Hiccup can’t make himself kill the dragon)
The dragon lands in the woods near the village, and no one believes that Hiccup hit anything. The next day, Hiccup goes looking for the dragon. It turns out to be a rare and deadly Night Fury, but Hiccup can’t make himself kill it. Instead he releases it, and it spares him before flying off.
3. Main character’s debate
Hiccup finds the dragon, which he names TOOTHLESS, holed up in a valley because it’s been injured and can’t fly. He keeps his new dragon a secret, and while sketching it, Hiccup realizes that it’s missing a tail fin. After much trial and error, Hiccup builds and perfects a saddle, a control mechanism for the tail fin, and a safety harness.
4. Introduce secondary characters that matter
Meanwhile, Hiccup’s father has signed him up for dragon training with GOBBER—Hiccup’s blacksmith master—which is very different from the training he’s already doing with Toothless. He must learn to do what all Vikings do: Fight and kill dragons.
At first, he’s the worst student in the class. Since Hiccup has always been an accident-prone klutz, this comes as no surprise to his classmates, especially ASTRID, the girl Hiccup has a crush on.
5. End of Act One (turning point)
Before long, Hiccup is able to use the things he’s learned while working with Toothless to soothe the school’s practice dragons. It turns out dragons are just big softies: they like to be petted, they like to roll in the grass, and they love fish (but hate eels).
6. Midpoint moment
When Stoick returns from a failed search for the fabled nest of the dragons, he’s surprised and thrilled to hear that his son is doing well at dragon training. But Hiccup can’t explain that his success at dragon school came from the most unlikely place—his pet dragon.
7. Stakes-raising scene
When Hiccup subdues a practice dragon, unintentionally earning the privilege of killing it before the entire village, he’s horrified and decides to flee with Toothless. However, Astrid follows him and discovers Toothless. Hiccup takes her flying, and they get caught up in a flock of dragons. The dragons fly inside a mountainous island and drop food into a pit, which turns out to contain a huge, terrifying, and very hungry dragon—they’ve found the nest Hiccup’s father was looking for.
When they get home, Hiccup convinces Astrid not to reveal the location of the dragon nest. Before she goes, she punches him in the arm for kidnapping her. Then she kisses him for everything else that happened.
8. Villain (dragons) and hero (Hiccup) come face-to-face
At the dragon-killing ceremony, Hiccup discards his weapons in an attempt to show the Vikings that dragons only fight to defend themselves, but his father intervenes, and the dragon attacks. Toothless comes to Hiccup’s rescue and is on the verge of killing Stoick when Hiccup calls Toothless off.
9. Main conflict solved
Despite Hiccup’s protests, Stoick resolves to use Toothless to find the nest again. He loads a chained Toothless on his ship, and the Viking fleet sails off with the village warriors, leaving Hiccup behind. He and Astrid and their other classmates mount the practice dragons and fly in pursuit of the fleet.
At the dragons’ island, Stoick releases the giant dragon and realizes that he’s made a mistake. While Stoick and Gobber prepare to sacrifice themselves to distract the dragon, Hiccup arrives to join the battle.
Toothless and Hiccup go after the giant dragon, drawing it up into the clouds and away from the Vikings, where Toothless releases a blast into the giant dragon’s open mouth and it crashes and burns. Hiccup falls, and Toothless catches him.
Back at home, Hiccup and Toothless go out into the village, which is full of swooping, frolicking dragons; the Vikings now treat them as pets. Astrid greets Hiccup with a kiss. Supplied by Gobber with a new tail fin prosthetic and saddle for Toothless, Hiccup takes flight with Astrid and his friends as he celebrates the new alliance of Vikings and Dragons.
Do This Now
- Write one paragraph—or, for a real challenge, only one sentence!—for each of the numbered items above. Just doing that might give you the short two-page synopsis you’re looking for. And if not, cut and trim, trim and cut until you’ve got it down to a manageable size.
- Now that you’ve written the synopsis, comb through it. Eliminate everything that isn’t absolutely crucial to the momentum of the story. Don’t be afraid to delete or to combine some things to create a shorter synopsis.
- Give your synopsis to your writing partners so they can help you. Best is to ask someone who has not read your book to edit your synopsis; with an eye for unnecessary details, he or she can help you cut your synopsis down to size.
We want to hear from you! What single tip above gave you the most help in writing a winning synopsis?
Elana Johnson’s work, including Possession, Surrender, Abandon, and Regret is available now everywhere books are sold. Her popular e-book, From the Query to the Call, is also available for download, as well as a Possession short story, “Resist.” School teacher by day, query ninja by night, you can find her online at her personal blog or Twitter. She also cofounded the QueryTracker blog, WriteOnCon, and contributes to the League of Extraordinary Writers.