Writing Synopses: Trimming Words

All novel writers will be faced with writing the dreaded synopsis. These story summaries strike fear into writers for two reasons: They require intimate knowledge of the story and they must be short and succinct.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss some hacks to make writing synopses more effective.

Find Your Story

Writers can find many synopsis templates, advice and examples in resource books or online. In the past ten years, however, the information asked for in synopses has trended toward minimalism. That’s why it’s important to know what your story is about.

You may say, “I wrote it! Of course I know what my story is about.” Yet in my decades of teaching fiction, I’ve come across so many novel writers who can’t express their story’s essence in 500 words or less. That’s right—you have 500 words (one page single-spaced or two double) all written in PRESENT TENSE to convince that agent to request your manuscript.

The best method I know for winnowing out your core story is with a little query letter trick from former agent Nathan Bransford. Here it is:  [Agent name], [genre], [personalized tidbit about agent], [title], [word count], [protagonist name], [description of protagonist], [setting], [complicating incident], [verb], [villain], [protagonist’s quest], [protagonist’s goal]. Insert your story’s particulars and your story’s one sentence core becomes evident. Yes, this method also works on those darned query letters.

Junk it Through

When you have your “twenty-five words or less” sentence, you can then divide your story into three acts and devote one-third of 500 words (around 165 or so words) to fleshing out each act. Some writers will chafe at such a mechanical approach, but the information will be much more discoverable than some long and winding treatise.

Start writing each major plot point without too much restraint. In other words, you can shoot for approximate word count, but remember, you’re going to edit after you draft the synopsis. If you end up with hundreds of extra words per act, don’t stress. In the next phase you’ll weed out unnecessary bits.

Remember, a synopsis is not like a query or a book blurb. In queries and blurbs, you’re allowed to create mystery and curiosity by leaving out story outcome. Don’t do this with a synopsis. Agents will want and need to know if you are able to write a story arc to the ending. In synopses, you must include the climax and resolution.

Trim to Fit

After your draft is complete, let the synopsis sit for at least a day, ideally at least a week. In that time, you’ll be able to separate yourself and revise the synopsis with a more objective eye. In cutting out extra to fit the format, start by identifying the five major plot points. Whatever you have drafted that is in between those points usually can be eliminated.

Next, look for adverbs and adjectives and phrases that could be either more specific or crossed out completely. Ask yourself if the modifiers are crucial to understanding the basic story. Do the same for prepositional phrases. To save space, a phrase such as “He travels to the house of the king,” becomes, “he travels to the king’s house.” Use contractions as you can. These “little” things can streamline your synopsis.

Finally, revise for emotion. If your synopsis is full of dull exposition, it may end up on the reject pile. Sift through your synopsis and try to present all the vital info through the lens of your Protagonist. That character’s moods, attitudes, self-esteem and world-view should permeate the facts of your story in a way that piques interest and elicits emotions from the reader.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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