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The Secret to Writing an Awesome Synopsis is...

Grumpy Cat!

(just kidding)

Is there anything that causes more angst or grumpiness for a writer (querying, agented, published, whatever) than having to write a synopsis for a novel? The questions and self-doubt are endless. How long are they supposed to be? Single spaced or double spaced? What do you put in? Leave out? How do you make it sound interesting? Make it make sense? Make it feel relevant


human who has to write a synopsis
Synopses are tough. Very tough. But, as I’ve been learning, they’re also really, really useful. My brilliantly smart agent always asks for a summary of my ideas, and while my initial reaction to this request is a Grumpy Cat™ face, there is no other process that helps me hone in on what the heck I’m trying to do and if the pieces actually fit together the way that I intend for them to. But I had to teach myself how to write a synopsis, because I really didn’t know what I was doing.

My first few tries were a mess. Just rambling “and then this happens, and this happens and then other stuff THE END” and I quickly realized I needed some outside help. Personally, I learn best from past experience, but barring that, I also learn from watching someone else model whatever it is I want to do. So, in the midst my synopsis-writing struggle, I decide to track down some successful synopses to read and deconstruct.

My goal was to find summaries of books that were in the same vein as what I write (dark, messy, psychological, and rather sad), but I had a hard time finding anything that helped. So I decided to expand my search to films. In my mind, no one does cinematic psychological suspense like Alfred Hitchcock and in hunting some of his stuff down, I stumbled upon the SparkNotes plot summary of Vertigo.

This was my lightbulb moment. As I read the summary, I already knew what was going to happen, but yet, gah, the ending still got me! (You can read the SparkNotes overview here…but don’t if you haven’t seen Vertigo! Watch the film first.) The way it's written isn't voicey or clever or peppered with beautiful prose: it's very matter-of-fact. What works is the story.

What I took away from this is that if you can write a summary of your novel in such plain, simple terms and still have a reader breathlessly follow and completely understand the emotional arc of your characters, then that is a successful synopsis. A synopsis isn’t about stringing scenes together: it’s about showing off your conflict, structure, pacing, rising tension, and character motivations in a way that feels wholly organic and inevitable.

What about you? Do you have any secrets or tips for writing a synopsis? 

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Great idea! My tip is that it needs to flow or else it will feel really jerky and stop/go-ish which is hard to want to read. I think we try to squeeze in too many plot points into just a page or two and it becomes: And then she did this. Then this happened to her. Then the bad guy got them. boring! You hit it perfectly with saying you find examples of books that have the same tone and figure out how they do that. Love that idea.

    1. Ah, that's a great definitely has to flow and that's hard when you want to get every detail in. Thank you!

  2. When a friend and I were talking about crafting verbal pitches, I remember saying that you want your audience to hear one of those suspenseful "dum-Dum-DUM" chords in their head as all the pieces of the story fall into place. Along with all the questions and possibilities. And that only happens if you hit all the important notes and leave out the distracting filler!

    1. I love the idea of verbal pitches (they're scary, too!). I bet reading a synopsis out loud to somebody would really highlight the confusing parts.

  3. This is a great idea! For me the query letter and synopsis are definitely the most difficult part of my writing process.

  4. Great idea, looking for the spark notes. I finished a one page synopsis yesterday. A one-pager. I'd probably enjoy it more-if there wasn't so much riding on it. It is a good skill. Nice post. thanks.


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