Writers often dread writing a synopsis. After carefully composing scenes, fleshing out characters and establishing relationships, now we’re supposed to summarize the whole thing in under two pages? Plus, the stakes feel high. If a literary agent doesn’t love the synopsis, will your book ever reach publication?
But writing a synopsis should be done long before you’re ready to query agents. More than just a tool to sell your book, your synopsis is a roadmap to the next, stronger draft. After reaching the end of your manuscript for the first time—whether the process took 30 days of NaNoWriMo or several years of your life—sit down and write a synopsis.
Querying with a synopsis shows agents and publishers that your story hangs together. There’s a strong, intriguing beginning, an engaging middle, and a satisfying ending. The events make sense in the order they’re revealed. Effects have causes. Twists are genuinely surprising. Writing a synopsis for yourself after the first or second draft demonstrates the same elements—and reveals plot holes, unmotivated characters, and where the book gets (sorry!) boring. Then you can reverse-engineer from this simpler version of the book to fix those problems in the manuscript in your next draft.
Here’s a relatively pain-free way to write your synopsis while also identifying plot holes in your book, something I learned from Matt Stone and Trey Parker. You might not love the foul-mouthed humor of South Park and The Book of Mormon, but Stone and Parker are brilliant at story structure. Every scene is vital to the plot; every set-up pays off. In a visit to a film class at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, they tell the students to list the beats (the events) of their stories.
Trey Parker: …and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re [in trouble]. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘OK, this happens’ right? And then this happens.’ No, no, no. It should be ‘This happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
Matt Stone: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Pull out your manuscript draft and list the major events. You don’t have to get into the weeds of individual conversations—stick to the key actions and choices.
Then try connecting each event to the next with a “But” “Therefore” “So” or “Because.” Is anything an “And then…” instead?
If a pair of events join with “and then…” your book is boring at that moment. If you’re writing a novel, figure out what the protagonist or antagonist needs to accomplish at that moment—if they need to react to something that just happened, can that reaction be an action or a choice instead of merely emotional impact? Could they initiate a new action?
Think about the difference between:
Anne Shirley is an orphan who goes to live with a new family. She finds out they might not want her after all, and then she tries to win them over. Also, she imagines a lot of stuff.
Anne Shirley can’t wait to meet her new family BUT they requested a boy orphan THEREFORE she must prove she’s loveable SO they’ll keep her. BUT she has a terrible temper THEREFORE when she’s teased about her hair she explodes…BUT she’s also very imaginative and can empathize with hurting and being hurt, THEREFORE her extravagant apologies win people over…
In a memoir, your connections may even jump through time.
My husband was an addict THEREFORE I went to Al-Anon to cope BUT I fell in love with another woman whose husband was also an addict. BECAUSE I wanted to stick out the marriage vows I gave her up. [AND THEN I recommitted to my marriage. AND THEN we fought about his addiction AND THEN we moved AND THEN we fought about money AND THEN we fought about the kids.] BUT ten years later she called me out of the blue BECAUSE she’d seen my husband’s obituary.
And you know what our imaginary memoirist just learned writing her synopsis? That Act Two of the memoir has more drama if the author cuts everything in brackets and opens with a phone call where two people pick their way through an emotional minefield and the reader finds out the husband (finally!) died when the Other Woman mentions it. After identifying that drama and tension in the synopsis, the writer can revise Act Two to open with the phone ringing instead the funeral of a guy the reader doesn’t like. Then the memoirist might examine the end of Act One, thinking, Hmmm, how can I leave the reader in suspense about whether or not he dies? Maybe the memoir has more tension if Act One ends with the hope of recommitting, instead of making the reader slog through another 10 years of failing marriage. If the opening scene of Act Two includes telling the Other Woman, “It didn’t get better,” then in four words the writer has done the work of forty boring pages of the same marital fight again and again.
As your final step in the But-Therefore-Because process, look back at any events in your book that didn’t make the list of important actions and choices. Make them earn their place. Why must this event be in the book? Does it duplicate the dramatic purpose of something on the list? Killing one’s darlings is much easier when you know they genuinely aren’t needed— and you’ll save precious writing hours by not bothering to revise events that aren’t needed in the book.
As writers, by focusing on cause and effect, we discover the basic structure of the book, just as an artist sketches in black and white before breaking out the paints. The simple lines of a sketch show where their proportions are off, or how many people can fit in a landscape before it looks cluttered. Problems are easier to find and fix on this simplified map.
Writing a synopsis from a first or second draft clearly demonstrates where your story shines and where it’s stuck. Find your twists and your turning points with a list. Make sure the biggest “But” “Because” and “Therefore” moments are big in the manuscript, too. And do it before wasting your writing time polishing scenes that are just “And Then.”
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.