Monday, July 12, 2010

Synopsis writing

A request from a writer wanted me to take the time to discuss synopsis writing. For me, I am always amazed at the struggled writers have with writing a synopsis. I honestly have to say, I see there being two reasons for this struggle. Either we have writers who are pantsters and really have no clue on their story, or, probably more common than not, the writers are making this harder than it seems to be.

Let's start with the idea of the synopsis. Simply put, it is a paragraph format outline of the story. In a short space, the writer tells the editor or agent what the story is about. That's it. Nothing more. A synopsis is not a chance to show us your voice, or your writing style. It is not a chance for you to be creative or witty, it is strictly information.

Editors and agents use a synopsis to get a clear picture of the central story arc. We want to see the beginning, middle and the end in a compact space. Often an editor or agent may start a story and see some hints at something worthwhile but then sometimes things start to fall apart. At that point they will grab that synopsis and see if the problem is the writing or the story. Sometimes we can spot a small bump in the road that could easily be fixed. If that is the case, then we might be willing to keep reading.

In my case, I always use the synopsis to see if the story is actually destined for success or not. Some people have great 250 word blurbs but the synopsis shows me the story might not have a direction, or it might be full of small scenes that are apparently there to just build the word count.

As far as a format goes, there is no one way of doing it. What is important is to get the main character and/or characters out there as soon as possible. Give the editor or agent a chance to see the GMC of each of the characters. The opening paragraphs are also designed to get that main story conflict out there as well as the world building and setting elements.

From that point on, you need to just give the reader the main plot elements that take the reader through the entire story, from the beginning to the end. We don't need to see all of the secondary characters, we don't need to see the details of all their smaller interactions. Just the main part.

If you struggle with this, take each of the chapters in your book and think about what the main thing is that happens in the story. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of that event. Now, start splicing it together.

Remember, the goal is to tell the story. Yes, there should be some fluency to all of this, but the real goal is to just tell the story.

Here is a sample synopsis for Bronwyn Scott's latest book UNTAMED ROGUE, SCANDALOUS MISTRESS.

Wild hearts are often the hardest to tame.

Crispin Ramsden’s always been wild. Not even a prolific military career changed that, and certainly no woman would. Crispin had no illusions about himself. He enjoyed the freedom to come and go as he pleased, to answer to nothing but the call to adventure. He only needed the clothes on his back and a good horse to be happy. The life he led held no room or appeal for a wife.

That was why he had left three years ago. Feeling smothered by his two brothers recent marriages (both of them love matches—egads!) and the expectation that he’d be the next to fall, Crisipin spent the intervening years actively avoiding his matrimonial fate in the near reaches of the British empire. Acting as an independent agent for the Crown, he dispensed valuable but quiet services where needed and when funds demanded it. Now, an inheritance from a distant relation finally lures him home with his prize possession in tow….an exquisite Arabian stallion cannily ‘won’ from a desert Chieftain who wouldn’t mind having it back.

Crispin doesn’t intend to stay---just long enough to settle the issue of the inheritance, see the growing brood of nieces and nephews and to race his Arabian. But fate and a woman conspire against him. In Aurora Calhoun, Crispin discovers a woman of exceptional character, a passion worth fighting for, and an unspoken dream realized.

A self made woman in a man-made world

Aurora Calhoun’s always been obstinate, outspoken, and in possession of an uncommon amount of sense when it comes to horses and men; not exactly the ideal attributes sought after by the marriage minded gentleman of London.

Not that she cares. A husband is the last thing she wants. After four years of hard work and hard won battles against gender stereotypes and prejudices, she’s finally established a small riding school for women in the Cotswolds—with no meager thanks to the Countess of Dursley whose sister, Petra Branscombe, is one of her leading students. Aurora doesn’t limit her teaching exclusively to equestrian technique. She’s determined to show her students how to apply their equine skills in their relationships with men. They might have come to her stables in order to learn how to look pretty sitting side saddle in a riding habit, but they’ll leave with understanding that there’s more to life than following in a man’s wake.

Unfortunately, while the patronesses of her establishment are grateful for the varied angles of Aurora’s ‘curriculum,’ the male portion of the neighborhood isn’t as accepting.
It’s one thing if the riding school is a harmless activity supported by the countess and her sister, it’s entirely another when Aurora’s teachings lead to dissension in the private homes of the district’s leading citizens who don’t appreciate the new found outspokenness of their daughters, wives and sweethearts. Things come to a head when one wealthy landowner’s daughter refuses an arranged marriage to a poverty-stricken peer.

A general uprising of a village’s male populace is no new event for Aurora. Sometimes, it’s effectively squelched. Other times, it hastens her departure to a new location. She’s moved several times already and this wouldn’t be the last even though she wishes this time it could be different. Thanks to Peyton Ramsden, the earl of Dursley, and his wife Tessa, she feels at home here. She’s even managed to acquire a few real friends. It would be a shame to leave, especially when it would mean leaving the perplexing and aggravating Crispin Ramsden behind.

By rights, she should despise him the most. From the day he arrives at her school and challenges her lesson on riding astride, to the constant battles of wit, he vexes her like no other. Yet, she’d be foolish to deny that the growing attraction between them is about more than acquiring his stallion as stud for her prize brood mare. They have more in common than Aurora finds comfortable and the desire that sizzles whenever they’re together is positively explosive and demanding—it will be appeased. But can she trust him?

Someone in the village has tipped her hand and let out the ‘real’ lessons advocated at her riding school. This time, Aurora has more than deflated male egos to contend with. This time, someone’s angry enough to extract revenge. The revenge starts simply enough with some minor thefts from the stable, and escalates to an attempt to injure Aurora. As the stakes rise, Aurora discovers there are limits to her abilities to ferret out the enemy. She needs a man with the ‘inside track’ to help identify her foe before irrevocable damage can be done. Can she trust Crispin to stand as her ally or is he the one guilty for giving away her secret? In private, they argue about her covert lessons in male management but when she is publicly threatened, Crispin unexpectedly stands up for her—with his fists.

Crispin stands her ally but it’s too late to save the stables. When a fire in the night claims Aurora’s livelihood and very nearly her life, it is Crispin who risks himself to pull her and the horses out of the flames. Aurora must finally decide if she’ll follow her usual pattern of moving on or if she’ll accept Crispin into her heart and stay by his side. Crispin has made her an honorable proposal of marriage (which was no doubt prompted by the tragedy of the fire, in Aurora’s mind) and shares her love of horses. His newly inherited estate is the perfect place for pursuing their dreams of a premiere equestrian center.

The decision seems simple on the surface, but it requires her to do the one thing she’s sworn never to do—give a man priority in her life. The passion that flares with Crispin is powerful and overwhelming. If she gives into it, it will, without question, change her. Dare she risk it? The wildest of hearts are the hardest ones to tame and the easiest ones to break.

Hope this helps!



  1. Thank you. It does help. I think the problem is the conflicting information out there. No more than three names. Give all the major plot points, but do it in an interesting way. Just the facts. Showcase your voice. Don't worry about voice.

  2. Thank you for this post.

    I have just finished my query letter. Now I am about to play around with my synopsis draft. I have put it off endless times. Your information has helped reduce the size of the mountain. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you, Scott. I have a question about synopsis length. You have said you like 3 to 4 pages, and I've seen everything from 1 page to “as many as it takes to tell the story.” If I can show you my story in 2 pages and you've asked for 3, would it be better to pad my synopsis to make it 3 pages, or send the 2 pager?


  4. Julie,
    Again, remember that there really is no right or wrong way. The idea is to keep it simple and just tell the story.

  5. Ann,

    Do not pad the synopsis. if you have it in 2 pages then keep it there.


  6. Before starting to write, I start with a 1 page present-tense "treatment" and then expand to a 3 to 5 page treatment. The treatments tend to be more action-oriented, while the synopsis focuses strongly on the characters. Thanks for demonstrating the distinction!

  7. I hate to say it, but this synopsis isn't what everyone's been asking for. They want the synopsis to include the ending of the story. This one only hints at it.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. It comes at a most perfect time for me. Your advice, as always, is very much appreciated!