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Kim Tomsic

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How to Write a Synopsis: Advice from Industry Experts

Notes for Crafting a Winning Synopsis from Industry Experts:

Congratulations! You’ve written your 75,000 word master piece. Now in order to present it to industry professionals in a concise, enticing and engaging manner, you must par down your novel to one one-hundreth of its original size; approximately 750 words or less. There are many conflicting resources on formatting a synopsis, but the elements that are needed to compose a winning synopsis are agreed upon across party lines. Here’s my take on how to make sure you hit the highlights and other important facts.

WHAT TO INCLUDE IN YOUR SYNOPSIS: Make sure your synopsis covers the beginning, middle and the ending of your book. Don’t save your ending as a surprise. 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market a.k.a. CWIM (edited by Chuck Sambuchino) advises to make sure your synopsis includes hook, plot, theme, characterization, setting, conflict and resolution. The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas advises a synopsis should include “your book’s content, structure, tone and design if needed.” Furthermore Burt-Thomas says to “start your synopsis strong immediately, then fill in the details later.”

            The Fiction Writer’s Connection website has a great checklist for your synopsis. The list includes questions like:  Does your opening paragraph have a hook? Are your main character’s conflicts clearly defined? Have you hit your major themes and major plot points, and did you show how the conflict was resolved in the end?

            The Vivian Beck Agency also advises to start with a hook, and after you introduce your main character, they say to unveil your main character’s CONFLICT, MOTIVATION, and GOALS. The Body of your synopsis should include an ACTION, REACTION, and DECISION (check for these elements to suss out if you have an active or a passive main character).  Don’t forget to include the crisis and resolution to your story.

            Nathan Bransford (a one-time agent with Curtis Brown, and now published writer) says that a synopsis is not the time to detail every character in your story.  He says, “[a synopsis] needs to make the work come alive. If your synopsis reads like "and then this happened and then this happened" and it's confusing and dull, well, you might want to revise that baby.”

In regard to length, Nathan advises two to three pages, double spaced unless submission guidelines ask for something different.

CONFIRM THAT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER ISN’T A PINBALL: Read your synopsis and decide if your main character is responding to events, bouncing around like a pinball tossed in one precarious (perhaps exciting) direction after another, or if you’re main guy is driving the action. If he’s a pinball, then no matter how exciting the events may be, your guy is passive and that is not what the industry wants.

            Mary Kole from the Andrea Brown Agency often offers pitch-slam events at the conferences she attends. In a sit-down interview I enjoyed with Mary Kole at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, she offered a pearl of wisdom: make sure your main character is ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE. The advice seems obvious, yet so many writers have things happening to their main character vs. having the protagonist drive the story forward.

FORMATTING:  CWIM 2012 (Writer’s Digest Books) says to include your genre and word count on the upper right side, and your name, address, phone number and email address on the left side. Your title goes in all-caps in the center


First Last                                                                               Historical Fiction
1234 address                                                                           50,000 Words
City, State Zip
(303) 111-2222


Other formatting advice includes:

  • Don’t number your first page; begin numbering on second page;
  • Double space all text ,and use 12 point Times Roman with one-inch margins
  • Second page header is formatted like so: Your name/TITLE IN CAPS/Synopsis     2
  • The first time you introduce a character in the synopsis, have their name appear in all-caps (with normal formatting to follow);
  • And **open with a great hook and inciting incident.
  • Size-I keep hearing, “the briefer the better, but all elements must be there to sell your story.”  Guide to Query Letters  by Wendy Burt-Thomas says it’s typically one to two pages. 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market a.k.a. CWIM (edited by Chuck Sambuchino) has a glossary where synopsis is defined as “a page to a page and a half if single spaced” (odd definition since they also advise to double space your synopsis).
  • Write your synopsis in present tense
  • Use 12 point Times Roman


SYNOPSIS VS. QUERY: Make sure you know the difference between a synopsis and a query. A query letter is a single page, three paragraph letter that is meant to hook the reader into asking for more. The three paragraphs include The Book, The Hook, and The Cook. (1) Paragraph One: The book tells the title, the word count, and the genre. (2) The hook includes your logline and a few lines about your story (similar to what you might read on the jacketflap of a book). It does not tell your whole story.  (3) Paragraph Three: The cook is a paragraph about you, where you went to school, and any writing credentials you may have.

            The Synopsis, unlike your query, tells your entire story (beginning, middle, and end). The length of your synopsis will depend on agents/editors submission guidelines. You should practice writing a short, one page synopsis as well as a long, three to five page synopsis.

More Resources:

1 comment:

Elaine Pease said...

Some on-point advice that's very helpful. I almost feel like it should go: Hook, book, cook since, like a query, you want to grab that reader, be it an editor, agent or the jacket flap reader. Thanks for finding this one, Kim.

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