Writing the Dreaded Synopsis

 So this weekend I was able to steal a little time to force myself into a desk chair and write the synopsis for Adam and Simone’s story, Earning Wings. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t pretty. But it had to be done.

So what’s a synopsis? For my non-writer friends, a synopsis is a 5- to 10-page summary of your book, which you send to prospective editors and/or agents so they don’t have to read the whole thing. It describes the main characters, tells all the conflicts, how the conflicts are resolved, and explains how your book ends.

And it’s painful to write.

The reason it’s so hard to write is that you’ve just spent a year or two (or three!) wrestling with every single word of this 300-page story, so to write it again — in some kind of abbreviated format — is a little excruciating. Especially because you don’t know what to leave in or take out. You know you need to stick to “bare bones” to keep it to 10 pages or less, but you also wish you could include that great scene that has all the flavor of the book, and omg, I have to include the dialogue where they first fall in love, and what about that funny secondary character when he does xyz, etc., etc. … It’s killer.

Plus it always ends up sounding terribly simplistic: then this happens, then this happens, then he says this, then she says that. The reason we became writers is because we don’t tell stories that way — we love to weave in the setting, the dialogue, the descriptions — so to tell a “summary,” or synopsis, goes against every writer bone in your body.

Anyway, I never had a synopsis for any of my works in progress. (Or good synopses, anyway — I’d made an attempt to write one or two, but they just went on and on and on …)

But I definitely need one at this juncture for Adam and Simone — it’s critical if you want to find an agent — so I’m kind of stuck now.

So I started one this weekend.

Between the time I made my first attempt to write one and this weekend, however, I took a great writing course from Judy Duarte called “Matchmaker 101.” The focus of the class was not on synopsis writing — it was how to come up with two great characters for a romance who could be diametrically opposed for great conflict but who could also conceivably fall in love — but part of this exercise was to write a synopsis for a future book.

Whaaa? A synopsis for a future book?

It had never occurred to me to write the synopsis first. But Judy insisted this was the way to go. After your first sale, you’re not writing on spec anymore — you send in your idea, with your synopsis, and your editor tells you yeah, go write that one. You don’t write the whole book and then say, how’s this? (No one would have time for that!) So she said we should all learn how to write the synopsis first.

I couldn’t quite imagine how this would work. I’m a “pantser,” after all, writing by the seat of my pants. (The writing world is made up of “plotters” and “pantsers,” about a 50-50 split.) Pantsers never know what’s going to happen to their characters next — part of the joy of writing for us. But that approach has also gotten me into hot water, so I was willing to give Judy’s approach a try.

What I found was that it was kind of fun writing a synopsis first, and I really liked her layout for writing one. She suggested this for romance:

  • One page describing your hero’s history, what brought him to page 1 of your book — include his general personality, a little of his romantic/sexual history, and his wound from his past that’s made him who he is.
  • One page describing your heroine’s history, what brought her to page 1 of your book — include her general personality, a little of her romantic/sexual history, and her wound from her past that’s made her who she is.
  • Then launch into “Our story begins when. …”


Now I have to admit, for the future book, I didn’t get much past the two character descriptions, but I can see how this could work beautifully. The reason it works is that you’ve already told enough about your characters that the conflicts now are completely obvious (or will be to the editor/agent), so you can expend very few words to list all the conflicts that are going to arise, without having to explain all the backstory. Then you just have to summarize your ending and how you’ll wrap up the conflicts.


(Well … er … it’s a lot easier said than done, but I’m getting there. …)

The other joy of this approach, for me, was discovering that my imagination runs just as wild while writing these one-page character descriptions for characters I haven’t “met” yet. That surprised me. It was fun. It was as fun as writing the actual pages, so the joy of discovery was still there.

And — biggest bonus with this approach — is that when I finish a new book, I won’t have the “dreaded synopsis” looming. It’ll already be done. Hallelulah.

But, alas, I didn’t do this for Adam-Simone and Fin-Giselle, so I’m back to the dreaded approach of summarizing a book already written. (Or in Fin-Giselle’s case, 80% written.) But Judy’s approach works rather well for a book already written, too. I wrote one page about Adam and his history and wound, one page about Simone and her wound, then launched into “Our story begins when…” It hasn’t been quite as excruciating, I must admit.

But it’s still dreaded. …

I’ll let you know when I emerge.

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3 thoughts on “Writing the Dreaded Synopsis

  1. I imagine it will be a lot easier to transform from a pantser into a plotter once you’ve got that first contract/advance under your belt!

    Is it standard to include an excerpt or two in a synopsis? Hopefully the Matchmaker 101 class provided a few samples of successful synopses. (Was that an online Mediabistro class, by chance?)

    I am starting to craft pitch letters for some travel/food articles, and those are a challenge. Different scale, but I can appreciate what you’re going through.

    Good luck! Would love to read a finalized synopsis, if you are sharing…

  2. That’s great that you learned something new for the future, but I am sure whatever you come up with on this book will be great!

  3. Thanks for your support, friends!

    Barbara, generally there aren’t excerpts in the synopsis — the entire thing is simply supposed to be an “excerpt” of sorts, and is supposed to give a sense of your writing style. But you have to condense so much that it never really feels like an excerpt, you know? And actually, your pitch letters — or queries — are definitely a taste of that, so you probably can appreciate what I’m whining about! 🙂 The class, by the way, wasn’t MediaBistro, but it was an online class. I think I found it through one of the Romance Writers of America groups. They have tons of fun online classes to take! And as for sharing, yeah, maybe I will. You guys can help critique! But I have to let it “rest” for a few days and then come back at it for a second draft — I’ll probably do the next draft next weekend.

    Debi — Thanks for all your support! You know how badly I want to get this book pubbed! 🙂

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