writing a synopsisThe Incredible Shrinking Synopsis

by Marg McAlister


Here's a news flash: most editors prefer a synopsis to be shorter rather than longer. 


  • Because they read thousands of words every day - and any way of cutting that down is GOOD. 
  • Because they know that most plots can be summed up in a page or less - and the resulting lean, mean synopsis usually gives a clearer picture of the plot than something more bloated. 
  • And last but not least, because they know that being able to express a plot succinctly will speak volumes about a writer's skill and attitude. 

You will find that editors and competition organisers ask for synopses in a range of lengths. They may ask you to summarise your plot in: 

- one sentence
- one paragraph
- 100 words
- one single-spaced page
- one double-spaced page
- two pages
- five pages. 

1-2 page synopses are common. 

In the past, I have specified that clients or students should send me a synopsis that is no longer than one single-spaced page. I soon learned ALSO to specify that this should be in 12-pt Times Roman or Arial and 1 - 1.5" margins, or else I changed the requirement to a set number of words. Why? Because writers who couldn't meet the challenge to summarise their plot in no more than one single-spaced page tried to get around the 'problem' in many creative ways. For example, they'd use Arial Narrow instead of Arial, and would make it 9 pt instead of 12 pt. Or they'd shrink the margins to the minimum allowable for the page to still be printable. Sometimes they even decided that paragraphs used up too much white space - so I'd get a one-page solid block of text!

Editors are not fooled by tricks like this. More importantly, they are not impressed. Most likely they'll be annoyed, as they squint at a dense grey block of text in a teeny-tiny font! The result? Your synopsis gets tossed on the 'NO' pile.

Elizabeth Lyon, author of The Sell Your Novel Toolkit and Manuscript Makeover, says "When I have judged contests, I disqualify manuscripts that use teeny-tiny font or 3/4-inch margins. Note also that Times New Roman, or another font such as Georgia, Century Schoolbook, or Bookman Old Style, is preferred for paper submissions, while Arial is the font of choice for online submissions."

Bottom line: You MUST spend time honing your skills so you can write an effective synopsis of any length. No matter how short, it needs to be rich in meaning, rich in emotion, and rich in details that count. Every word must earn its keep. 

Here's what you have to do. Learn to: 

  • Summarise your plot in one pithy sentence. 
  • Paint the plot in broad brush strokes, with just enough telling details to add depth
  • Look for words or phrases that do the work of a sentence or paragraph
  • Learn to rephrase rather than to simply cut
  • Identify what can be safely omitted 
  • Summarise your plot in one sentence, 50 words, 100 words, 250 words and 500 words.

Here's another useful tip from Elizabeth Lyon:

Because so many writers think "plot" means a blow-by-blow of the events and action, make sure that you make your summaries show 'character-driven plots." Find a short clause to represent your protagonist's backstory and weakness such as "Divorced and distrustful."

Add a few descriptions to show your hero's uniqueness, i.e. "a couch potato by day, a cunning jaguar by night." End your synopsis with an indication of what your character has come to realize, that shows that weakness as healed, i.e. "To save himself and bring the killer to justice, John must have faith in his friends."

Writers work in different ways to achieve the same result. YOU might approach writing a synopsis in a range of lengths by building it from the ground up: starting with one all-encompassing sentence; ending with five pages. Another writer might find it easier to write it using a 'top down' approach--starting with a 500-word synopsis and whittling it down to one sentence. Tackle it in the way that works best for you. 

If you have your novel summarised in a variety of lengths, you will be well set to provide any editor or media person with exactly what he/she needs as soon as they ask. 


Have you told: 

WHAT happens? (Beginning, middle, end. Plots and subplots.) 

WHO it happens to? (Who is the main character? Whose story is it? Why is the action important to this person? What is at stake?)

WHERE it happens? (Where is the story set? Where does the main action take place? Does your synopsis conjure up a sense of place?) 

WHEN it happens? (What is the time frame of the novel--a day, a week, two years? When is it placed in history?) 

HOW it happens? (Do we get an insight into the way the main action is played out? Do we know how it all came about? Do we know how everything led up to the final scene?)

And last but not least: have you shown the emotional turning points?

FINAL WORD: Don't drive yourself crazy trying to capture too many details in a very short synopsis. You don't need to cover all the subplots, either. In short: write the best synopsis you can in the space available--and keep it moving!  

© Marg McAlister


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