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The Hack’s Guide to Writing a Synopsis

Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

After three years, five different hairstyles, six pounds of weight loss, seven pounds of weight gain, a new home purchase, lots of marriage counseling, thousands of cups of coffee, and lots of sleepless nights, you’ve finally finished your book. Now it’s time to distill that experience into a single page. That’s right, it’s time to write a synopsis!

The typical synopsis is 2,000 words, though some people want a synopsis that’s only 1,000 words. I’ve seen a few agents and editors request a 500-word synopsis, but you should avoid working with these people because they are clearly sociopaths who enjoy destroying writers’ minds.

Preparation

For practice, start by writing a synopsis of works you already know. You can get your juices flowing by synopsizing other great works of art. For example:

    • The Mona Lisa: A woman politely listens to someone explaining something she already knows.
    • Abbey Road: A bassist is murdered by his bandmates, and as the lights go out, he glimpses the face of the talentless lookalike the band hires to cover up the crime.

First Paragraph

Start with your protagonist, their central conflict, and the setting. You only have a page or two, so you’ve got to keep it short. “Annie was in a race against time to get from Florida to California in 36 hours, and she can’t take a plane for some reason. She’ll have to navigate America’s scenic highways and byways, which SOME readers can’t be bothered to read about right now, but they’re really something, take my word for it.”

Characters

Remember your rich cast of supporting characters? The folks you now relate to better than your own family? Well, now they’ll know how your flesh-and-blood family feels as you undersell, oversimplify, and completely ignore several of them. You can explain to them later why you had to reduce them to a series of first names, personality quirks, and plot utility. “It’s for work!” you’ll say when they object to being belittled and disregarded. Your characters will tell you they understand. They understand all too well.

photo by Sarah Deer

Plot

Now it’s time to summarize your plot. This is where a lot of writers get into trouble. They’ve designed the perfect mousetrap, and now they’re being asked to write it like it’s an IKEA instruction manual. Remember the Rule of Threes, by which I mean you should use as many three-word sentences as possible. “A chase ensues.” “A werewolf appears.” “Sandy’s car explodes.” “Liz orders pizza.” In just three words, you can encompass the basic elements of any story: a person, an interesting action, and a third thing.

The End

In the final paragraph, you’ll resolve the conflicts and wrap up the story. Because you have assuredly overwritten the prior sections of the synopsis, you’ve got a sentence or two at most to play with. Let your frustration with the format be your fuel, and don’t get discouraged. This part is important! As everyone knows, the best way to impress the person who will decide the fate of your novel is to eliminate all your sparkling prose and spoil the ending for them.

What are your tips for writing a synopsis? Share your tips in the comments!

About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.