Reposted from June 28, 2014:
Many writers appear to experience great emotional pain and deep, conflicted feelings when told they have to write a synopsis. It is the chore that every writer dreads, and few feel that they are truly good at completing, but it doesn’t have to be that way!
Here’s my rule of thumb for writing a (relatively) painless synopsis:
- Summarize each chapter in 1-3 sentences. Wherever possible, use only one sentence.
- Take your elevator pitch (if you have one for this story already; if not, write one), and keeping that elevator pitch handy,
- pare those sentences down to an accurate 1-2 page description of your story that gets rid of:
- all mention of secondary characters.
- all mention of lesser story arcs and plot points
- all unnecessary nouns, verbiage, adverbs, adjectives, and other descriptive phrases (with a few exceptions)
You should have left:
- Major character(s)
- went here
- did this
- experienced conflict
- while feeling this
- and found resolution
- with this end result
- written as interestingly as possible to hook your potential audience.
Not every chapter will be mentioned in the end result, but if you’ve done a good job, your synopsis will accurately reflect your book’s contents (including the ending) while not telling all.
Here’s part of my synopsis for A Shadow On The Land as an example:
Bjorn Horsa is Eiathan’s Heir, the promised king who must put his own life on the line to save the kingdom of Astarkand from the implacable, ageless foe the Kandians call Woden. King Olaf of Astarkand should abdicate in Bjorn’s favor, but Bjorn didn’t arrive in time to rescue Olaf’s half-brother from beheading by Woden’s priest. Olaf hates Bjorn for coming too late and wants revenge. He secretly builds a fleet to ravage the rich southern lands Bjorn left to reach Astarkand.
Bjorn navigates royal politics and intrigue, and waits on God’s timing.
Challenged to a duel by Weinolf, the king’s spoiled heir, Bjorn wins the fight but loses any hope of the king’s favor. Instead, the king grants ne’er-do-well Kresic a farm in exchange for a map he steals from Bjorn.
When Olaf’s navy mutinies and sails too early, the king unfairly sentences Bjorn to death. Bjorn and his men dig out from their cellar-prison and flee north. Nicar, Bjorn’s second cousin falls behind, taking refuge on Kresic’s abandoned farm.
The king discovers Bjorn’s escape. Weinolf’s life is put in danger when the tunnel collapses…
Do you see the level of detail here?
It’s also important to note that the fewer names you have to include in a synopsis, the better. Any time a new name is introduced, it’s important to explain who the new character is, and why they’re vital to the story line. If you can get away with describing a secondary character by their role in the story, i.e., the guard or the priest, then it’s better not to name them.