Synopsis: What I’ve Learned So Far

I spent the weekend working on the first draft of my synopsis for my online class. I’m very happy with the class and the teacher, so, for those of you who were wondering, it’s Teresa  Bodwell’s “Developing the Selling Query Letter and Synopsis,” offered through Savvy Authors.

Carolyn Donnell, a fellow member of the South Bay CWC club, asked me if I was going to blog about writing a synopsis. My first reaction was that, as I said, I was taking the class because I didn’t know how to write one! Then I started thinking and writing and, of course, came up with a few things that are working for me, so…time to share.

Just remember, these are random things I’ve tried, I’ve done, or I’ve thought about as I wrote this weekend. These are not in any order, or intended in any way as a lesson. And, fair warning, this post gets fairly long. Even for me. My recommendation: TAKE A CLASS! A fairly quick one, like Teresa’s, so those deadlines are actually real motivators, and push yourself to go through the steps. I’m not going to end up with a finished product after this, but I will definitely be ready to take what I’ve got and send it through my critique group a few times until it is polished and ready.

Here’s what I played with/learned so far:

  • Write a pitch paragraph first, as if you need that query letter today. Even if you don’t. The class had us write a query letter, and I basically used the one that’s been relatively successful for me in the past, but–obviously–I had to come up with a totally new pitch. It helped to remind me where I need the power and conflict to be in the story, even if it’s not there yet. Which it’s not. Yet.
  • Collect your building blocks. If you don’t have them yet, get out the table saw and the paint and make them. I used this post from Helene Boudreau to get started collecting plot points, then added to those with the chapter on “Dissecting the Synopsis” in Elizabeth Lyon’s The Sell Your Novel Toolkit and the article recommended in the class–Lori Devoti’s “Plotting and Synopsis Point by Point.” (Go to her website and you’ll find it here, in her writing articles.)
    Both Lyon and Devoti base their tools on the hero’s journey, which is a good way, I think, to keep tension and rising conflict in mind as you’re plotting/synopsizing.)
  • Track your characters. So far, in my first draft, the middle is pretty muddy, especially when it comes to what everybody’s doing to make Caro’s life harder and what she’s doing in reaction. So I knew I needed to work on that, or the synopsis was going to turn out just as vague and wishy-washy. NOT my objective here. The only way I know to do this kind of plotting is to keep going back to your main characters and thinking of SOMETHING they can do to impact your MC’s life, to create an obstacle. And it has to be something specific, something concrete that can turn into an action–a real plot point.
  • Keep thinking about cause and effect. I really think this is what drives a synopsis. (Yes, okay, it’s what drives the story, too, but it’s still the first draft, okay? Sheesh!) So in my table, where I was throwing in the actions of the characters, I added a column to show what Caro would do in response to each of the problems/obstacles someone else was creating. Funny enough, a lot of those responses were things she is already doing in the book; it’s just that so far, she’s sort of doing it all for no real reason except I tell her to. Now, I think, I’m a lot closer to the causes that create the effects.
  • Pile on the problems. I think we all have a tendency to back away from complications, which is–of course–the exact opposite of what we need to do for our stories. This was the chance, for me, to make things worse and worse for Caro, without letting myself think too much about the fact that, eventually, I’ll have to write these things!
  • One of the things they tell you about formatting a synopsis is that the first time you write a character’s name, you should put it in all caps. They also tell you not to use a character’s name unless they’re really important to the plot. Well, as I worked, it seemed obvious that if I mentioned a character twice, it was much simpler (and made the writing cleaner) to just give them a name. And, guess what, if I wasn’t going to mention them twice (as in 1) they cause a problem and 2) Caro has to deal with/resolve the problem at a later point), then they probably weren’t important enough to the plot to be in the synopsis. I actually “killed off” one, maybe two characters, in the story, just by seeing that they create no situation for Caro to follow through on.
  • As you start writing the actual synopsis, put your hero in the forefront of your brain as the one in charge, the one directing/causing the action and keep her there. If you start a sentence with the action of another character, make sure that your MC shows up quickly in that paragraph, as reacting to that action. Your hero has to drive the synopsis–those agents and editors want to know that she is powerful and strong and capable of taking on all these people and beating them. Yes, of course, she has to hit bad spots; she has to make mistakes and learn from them, but she also has to be acting constantly. If she’s not doing that in your synopsis, they’re going to have a hard time believing she’ll do it in your book.
  • Don’t worry about length. Not yet. I’m writing this synopsis for the SCBWI WIP grant, which requires a synopsis of no more than 750 words. Right now, mine is somewhere between 800 and 900 words. Okay, I can trim. I will trim. But first I need to get the darned thing written. I need to submit it to the class and find out what’s confusing, what’s weak, what’s too crowded. I need to rewrite it and send it through my critique group several times. (Head’s up, guys, it’ll be in your laps soon!) And then, yes, I’ll trim. If you’re shooting for a 3-page synopsis, and you end up with a page to start, great! Layer in a couple more important plot points, add layers to your hero’s conflict, check if anyone’s subplot really is critical to the story. Just don’t check the word count while you’re writing the first draft. Later, dudes, later.
  • Jump around. Normally, I’m a huge advocate of NOT revising while you write. For me, though, I found that it helped to go back and forth between the earlier sections of the synopsis and the later ones. As I got closer to the end of the middle, to the crisis and climax, I would find myself adding a character or an important plot point and realize that was the first time I was mentioning them. In other words, I hadn’t seeded the problem, hadn’t introduced a character that was turning out to be important. So I’d back up, find a place I THOUGHT might be an okay place to weave in an early mention, and I’d drop something into the paragraph. And, yes, when I went back for a quick re-read before submitting the synopsis to the class, I moved a few things around. But I could do that, because they were there. You have to get all the puzzle pieces on the table, face up, before you can figure out what to do with them.

So there you have it. A long, overly detailed, slightly chaotic synopsis “lesson.” The most important thing that I got out of this exercise, besides–yes, a decent first draft–was the realization that this is another one of those places we have to push ourselves. Consolidating an entire story, especially one you don’t fully know, is hard. Intimidating. SCARY. And….? It’s the time to tell yourself, “So what?” How badly do you want to make trips to Chicago for research? How much do you want to be able to shut yourself into museums and libraries, to walk around neighborhoods, to talk to experts? How great would it be to get a grant that would make all this easier? And, bottom line–how badly do you want to figure out your plot and write a story with power.

Yeah, pretty badly.

I told myself that I would take this class, write this synopsis, not just because of the grant, but also because it would help me move forward on this book, help me get a tighter plot before I started revising (which is maybe a dozen more 1st-draft scenes away?). And guess what…I was actually telling myself the truth! I am so happy with all the plot points I came up with, the connections I saw, and the force that my MC is becoming. The story is actually starting to make sense.

What about you? Do you write a synopsis before an agent/editor asks you for one? At what stage/draft do you find it the most helpful? And what does it do for you, for your vision of the story?


  1. claudine says:

    Love this post!!! Very meaty. It’s helping pull lots of things together for me, just reading this. I’m in a surge of how-to-write books, as well as conferring with my brilliant friends on plot. This will help me bigtime, as you say: the synopsis is the plot, is the story.
    Thanks for sharing.


  2. nrhatch says:

    Excellent post.

    Thanks, Becky (and Carolyn!)


  3. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I never write a synopsis unless I have to, and then I write it after I write the book. In fact, it’s one of the first things I do upon finishing a book: come up with the one-paragraph and one-sentence synopses, at least (because those will be used in promotion).


    • beckylevine says:

      I’ve never done it this early before, Jenn, and I wouldn’t have (I don’t think) if it weren’t for the grant. But I’m finding it really helpful and it’s making me feel more confident about the next draft. Which I needed!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: