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Writing the Smart Synopsis

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on May 27, 2013

Do you hate writing a synopsis? If so, get used to it, because this tool is essential to your career as a writer. Not only is a synopsis necessary for a book proposal, but the sales force at your publishing house will use it to design your cover or to plan marketing materials for your book.

A synopsis is a complete narrative of your story told in present tense. A synopsis should include essential plot points plus your character’s emotional reactions. It can act as a writing guideline while not being so rigid that your story can’t change. When you finish the actual writing portion, you can return to the original synopsis and revise it to suit the finished storyline.

So how should you proceed?

Consider adding a log line (i.e. one liner story blurb) on your first page before the story begins.

If it’s the first book in a series, you might start with a short profile of your main character. For a mystery proposal, offer a few paragraphs about the sleuth. For a romance, this means writing a paragraph or two each on your hero and heroine. What brought them to this situation? What do they hope to accomplish? What is keeping them from reaching their goal?

Open the action with a hook. You already know this is crucial in your manuscript, but it applies to your synopsis as well.

Use action verbs. Your story should be engaging as you convey it to the reader.

Make sure the story flows in a logical manner from scene to scene.

Leave out unnecessary details like minor characters and their names, physical descriptions unless applicable to the storyline, subplots unless critical to the resolution of the main plot.

Avoid snippets of conversation, point-to-point description of your character’s every move, jumping from one place to another without any explanation, gratuitous sex, or threats on a character’s life unless they evolve from the story.

Include your character’s emotional responses and stay in her head as you would in the story. Use transitions if you switch viewpoints.

Show your character’s internal struggle as well as her external conflict. What’s inhibiting her from making a commitment to the hero? What is causing her to doubt her abilities? What lesson does she need to learn about herself in this story? Motivate your character’s actions so her responses seem logical.

Explain the ending. In a mystery, this means you tell whodunit and why. In a romance, it’ll be your dark moment and the resolution of the romantic conflict. You’ll want to describe how your character has changed or grown from this experience.

If you’re writing a romance, make sure you cover the goals and motivation of your hero and heroine, how they first meet, what leads up to the first kiss, complications that keep them apart, what they admire in each other as they progress to more intimacy, the black moment, and the resolution.

If you’re writing a traditional mystery, present the crime, introduce the suspects and hint at their secrets. Then show how the sleuth uncovers their hidden agendas and unravels the clues.

Here are a couple of sample synopsis openings.


Beauty salon owner Marla Shore greets her early morning client, grumpy Mrs. Kravitz. After wrapping the woman’s hair for a perm, she offers her a cup of coffee. Mrs. Kravitz accepts with her usual complaints. Hoping to escape from the woman’s demands, Marla heads into the storeroom. She is reaching for a clean towel when a strangled sound strikes her ears. She sprints back into the salon and halts in shock. Mrs. Kravitz is slumped in the shampoo chair, her bagged head lolling against the sink. Her face is stretched in a hideous grimace, her eyes staring sightlessly. With a jolt of horror, Marla realizes the woman is dead.


Nira Larsen’s day gets off to a bad start when she flunks her first two job interviews. She hopes she’ll land the next position as a makeup artist for a popular theme park in Orlando, Florida. As she searches for the personnel office, a squat wood building materializes at the designated address. Inside, a lovely blond woman named Algie greets her. As part of the interview, Algie instructs her to use the cosmetics supplied to make an ugly male look human.

When Nira balks, the brute tosses her onto a treatment table and ties her down. Algie demands to know how she is able to block their spell. Before Nira can ask what she means, the door crashes open and black-garbed men swarm inside.

After chasing away her assailants, their fierce leader approaches. He studies Nira with keen turquoise eyes that fascinate her. She’s not so pleased when he hauls her outside and thrusts her into a van. The log structure vanishes before her eyes.

Her abductor introduces himself as Zohar Thorald. He’s accompanied by five other hunks. They take her home, where Zohar offers her a job as their local tour guide. She figures they’re undercover agents aiding a federal investigation, perhaps into a weird cult. From their accents and cultural blunders, they must be foreigners. They can certainly use her help.


Writing a smart synopsis takes practice. It’s good to run this tool through your critique partners to make sure everything makes sense and the story flows logically. They’ll tell you if your character motivations are missing or if your plot has holes. Some writers are “pantsers” and don’t like to plan out so far in advance. I’m not one of them. I like to have a road map, even though the paths may change. With a synopsis, you know where you’re going. How you get there can still be a surprise, and that’s where the story magic happens.

So how many of you write a synopsis before beginning the story?


18 Responses to “Writing the Smart Synopsis”

  1. Nancy, this is such great advice–as usual! I’m bookmarking and will return when I have to write a new synopsis.

  2. I’m keeping this one, Nancy. The answer to your question is “yes,” I hate writing synopses, but it is essential to so many ways. When I submitted my last mystery, my publisher asked me to write a long, medium, short and very short synopsis. I groaned, but the exercise was valuable. I use them often to promote the book: in tweets, in Facebook messages, on guest blogs, for media releases, etc. However, most of the time I write mine when I’m finished with the book, except for one instance when I had written the first chapter for a contest in which a synopsis was required. I returned to that synopsis as a guideline when I got stuck. Thanks again for your wise words.

    • My synopses tend to be around 10 to 15 pages. It’s definitely harder to write short versions! I’ll also do some long and short blurbs for promotional purposes. Your points are well made. There’s no excuse for Writer’s Block when a synopsis can show you where to go.

  3. robakers said

    Great Article. You stated the synopses are between 10 to 15 pages. Can I assume that is the long one? How long are the medium and short versions? Also, which one do you submit to agents and publishers?

    Thank you for everything you write. I really enjoy your views and the information you provide.

  4. I’ve only written a one-page synopsis. After seeing one done on Star Wars, I figured I should be able to do it since my storyline was not nearly as grandiose nor complicated. Synopses are also much easier to do for a fellow writer’s work. Besides the one synopsis, my WIP has two outlines (the second replacing the first when I decided I didn’t like THAT story very much at all). The story snagged when I realized I needed a bit more knowledge on how things had really happened (the main character is also an amateur sleuth, and the story is in first person, and she doesn’t know what happened, but someone does and it seemed prudent that the author better know whodunit, too, or the story might end up with one of those endings that make the reader groan). I have a friend who prefers flying by the seat of her pants, and it seems a police procedural would work pretty well that way since the steps are logical/procedural. While an amateur might occasionally use logic, it won’t be a procedure that many are familiar with imho, and I wouldn’t want the MC to slip-slide away into my attention-deficit habits while looking into a murder. As the author, that would leave a lot of “film clips” on the floor and a lot of re-writing to smooth the transitions needed to make those remaining rewritten clips make sense! I can’t see doing that to myself on my first novel. It would be very discouraging. However, I can tell you that writing a second outline, while helping the storyline, has me bogged down as I have now combined two beginnings and can’t quite fit some of the pieces together right now. Imagine if it was an entire novel! I am not sure I understand what a log-line is or how it is used.

    • Here is my log line for Shear Murder: A wedding turns deadly when hairstylist Marla Shore discovers a dead body under the cake table.
      It’s those short blurbs like you see in TV Guide. You can use them in tweets, FB posts, etc. As for the synopsis, it takes me a while to fit the pieces together, too. Eventually it all works out, but it can be a struggle to get there. Writing the synopsis makes me delve into character motivations. I do follow a logical progression for the sleuth’s investigation. But it also allows you to plant clues and determine ahead of time how the sleuth will uncover the killer at the end. If you’re having problems, consider consulting your critique partners or getting some if you don’t have anyone. Bouncing ideas around with others may generate answers or even take your story in a new direction.

  5. June Shaw said

    Great suggestions, Nancy! I’m certainly keeping them.

    I don’t particularly like to write a synopsis, but maybe your ideas will make my next one more pleasant.

  6. Johnathan McFarland said

    I did not have a synopsis for my story before I started writing. I just had this great idea for a movie. Writing a synopsis has not been easy. I am excited to take your advice, but I am writing a sci-fi series and hope to see it become a TV show and/or a movie. I would appreciate any help in the matter.

    • We all hope our books will turn into movies or TV shows someday, but as there are thousands of books out there, the chances are small. How far along are you on your series? Have you joined any professional writing organizations? Are you writing a sci fi series of novels or scripts/treatments?

  7. […] Here’s some great advice from Writing the Smart Synopsis by Nancy J. Cohen: […]

  8. Nancy, I read and save many of your articles. Not being an outliner, I’m working at writing a good synopsis that will steer me to the end of the next book. Thanks always for your posts.

  9. […] Writing the Smart Synopsis ( […]

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