romance · synopsis · writers · writing tips

How to write a synopsis without stressing

Well, the good news is I’ve finally finished writing my latest book!  Hooray!  The bad news is, now I have to write the synopsis :( which is causing me as much stress as writing the whole novel.

helena fairfax, how to write a synopsis, romanceYou might know already that publishers and editors need to read a synopsis of a book first before they  make a decision on reading the rest of a manuscript.  There are some authors who like to get the synopsis down first before they write the actual book.  There’s a good case for doing this.  If you’ve already written your synopsis, it means you’re confident you have a structured plan, with your conflict, story arc, etc already worked out in advance.

I’ve tried writing the synopsis first, but can’t get this to work for me.  I’ve come to realise that I’m more of a “secret planner”.  When we go on holiday, for example, I have a good idea in my head of what we’re going to do every day, even though nothing’s written down.  I am a little bit over-organised (my husband would be the first to agree!), and that’s maybe not so good on holiday, but when it comes to writing a book my planning in my head works well.

I prefer to keep my book plan in my head.  This way, if my book starts to change, and I have a great idea for deepening the conflict for example, I don’t get all wound up because now I’ve veered from my synopsis and will have to rewrite it.  I’ve found by trial and error that this way of writing works very well for me.

So, now I have 85,000 words of a book, and I have to summarise the lot in one page.  And this doesn’t mean summarising the plot.  (If only! That would be easy.)

Here’s everything that needs to go into the one page.  Since my novel is a romance, I’m making the list fit the romance genre, but the gist applies to any fiction.

Synopsis check list

helena fairfax, how to write a synopsis, romanceThe “inciting incident” that starts the whole story.
The heroine’s goal and the thing she desires most
A description of the heroine’s character at the start of the story (note: you don’t need a physical description unless it’s relevant to the story)
The hero’s entry into the story, description of his character and goal, and how this is different from the heroine’s (ie the source of the conflict between them)
A description of their relationship at the start of the story, and the conflict that will keep them apart until the final page.
Show the events that intensify the conflict between the two characters

Show how their relationship develops into love despite the conflict.
Show how their relationship is tested in the course of the story because of the source of conflict, so that the reader wonders how on earth the HEA will be achieved.
Show the climactic point, in which the worst thing that could happen for the heroine does happen.  The thing she wants most – her goal – is now in direct conflict with the goal of the hero, so that the reader thinks this is impossible to resolve.
Show how either the hero or heroine (or both) takes a leap of faith and changes so that the conflict can be resolved.  (Does he or she adopt a new approach or take some uncharacteristic action?)

Show the resolution or the aftermath of the climax, leading to the HEA.
Other things to show in the synopsis
Besides all the above, I also need to show I have an original idea for my story and interesting main characters.  The theme of my story is how we overcome our fears, so I need to show how this theme runs through the novel.  Oh, and finally, I need to write the whole lot in the tone and style my novel is written in.
So, you can see why I’ve been stressing about this synopsis for quite a while!  Since agents and publishers can get literally dozens of submissions every day, the synopsis and query letter are massively important for making yours stand out from the crowd.
If you’re a writer, do you hate writing the synopsis as much as I do?  Do you have any tips on getting the synopsis down without stressing?  Do you think I’ve covered everything in my check list?  If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

14 thoughts on “How to write a synopsis without stressing

  1. Gosh – that sounds a little complicated put like that, Helena! The best advice I was given/read was to keep to the main characters’ story outline – like a tree trunk – bringing in their problems and a little about how they solve them. I keep mine to one page in 1.5 spacing and about three paragraphs (if possible!). By the way, I think you’ve just described the way I work – keeping everything in my head.


    1. Oh, thanks for the advice, Ros! Maybe I’m just trying to cram too much in, and that’s probably why I’m stressing!
      I’ll have another (!) go at it today. I really hate this part of submitting a book – as you can probably tell!


  2. Best of luck Helena for finishing your synopsis. Your post on how to go about it gives readers like me an insight into what writers go through. I would probably write a draft synopsis before I started the book and then revisit it at the end and chop and change it to suit, but then I have never been through the process. :)


    1. Thanks, Tina! I didn’t think of it from a reader’s perspective, but that’s a good point. As a reader I analyse books more these days, to see how the author has made the story work. I make rough notes before I start writing, but nothing so detailed as a synopsis. I might have a go at writing some flash fiction – that might help me summarise a story!


  3. Helena, first of all congratulations on finishing your book! That’s great news.

    Any author who writes a synopsis before the book is written and stays on course throughout, sounds extremely rigid to me. Someone like that I can’t even get my head around that.

    Thanks for writing a blog to help authors with the dreaded synopsis.

    Curl up with a killer – Cozy Mysteries
    The Ginseng Conspiracy by Susan Bernhardt


    1. Thanks very much, Susan! I hope the blog is a help. I’m not an expert – if only! :( And I agree, working to a synopsis in advance seems a bit rigid, but everyone has to find their own way of working, and maybe people think mine is too unstructured. As long as it all works out in the end!


  4. Great finished the book! No I couldn’t write the synopsis BEFORE tackling writing the story…that would be amazing, but my brain doesn’t work that way.You have certainly included a lot of info to think about for composing the pitch. I think you’re in a writers group. Those folks can probably write the synopsis better than you can because the author is too close to it to see the big picture. I know one gal, Tess Grant, in our group can boil down the thousands of words into a clear, engaging synopsis for every one of us, but not for her stories! Go figure. I’m sending you a handout on pitch synopsis from Muse con 2011 by Joanne Brothwell. It simplifies the process.


    1. JQ, that’s a great idea to get someone else to run an eye over it. Thanks so much for emailing the handout! Just skimmed through and loved this bit:
      “Grab them by the throat in the beginning, lift them off their feet in the middle, and leave your fingerprints on their necks at the end.”
      Ha! May need to rework a little :) Actually, I just spent an hour going over it, and I think it’s not too bad now. I’ll leave it for a day, and look with a fresh eye in the morning. Thanks so much for your help with this!


      1. Susan, that is a great idea, but I don’t know how to get ahold of the woman who wrote it. I’ll google her and see what I can find. Thanks for the suggestion.


  5. Thank you Helena. This is a great post, and very topical for me too! I have kind of written my synopsis, but it’s not very good so I’ll have to start all over again. Your advice is exactly what I needed! I read a ‘How to write a synopsis’ book not long ago and the author recommended to start with the ‘heart’ of the story. What makes it unique? What is the one sentence that defines your story, your hero and heroin? Then to build up from there. Easier said than done..Good luck and.I look forward to seeing you soon!


    1. Oh, what a great idea about the first line, Marie! Thanks for the tip. I’ve rewritten it (again :) ) I’m very much looking forward to hearing about your next story. Congrats on the recent great reviews of A Lion’s Embrace. .Hope this week went well. See you soon!


  6. Congrats on finishing another book, Helena. Are you finished with the first draft or so or have you finished with edits and rewrites? Both are important and worth celebrating. You can’t do the second without the first. :) I’m about to submit my third book to MIU and pulled up earlier lists of what needed to be there and yep! There it was. Synopsis! I didn’t think I’d ever started one, but was pleased to find a one pager (12 pt double spaced). I assume when you say one page, you mean single spaced. I like your outline you’ve got above and I’m going to check mine out for some of that. I’ve interpreted classes I’ve had on writing the synopsis, to mean to include the actions taking place. (Not all, obviously, but the most important ones.) I also only use the names of the H & H. I think I’ve got the conflict spelled out for both, but I’m going go back and check. Thanks for this. Hope JQ can find the woman and share what she taught on this most fun subject for all of us. I also agree with JQ about someone else’s eye on this, the query letter, and the blasted 20 word log line!
    CPs or others have the distance you need to do all of these well. I’ll FB and Tweet.


    1. Hi Marsha, you’re right, it’s a really fun subject! :) I still have the query letter to do, too! It’s worth spending a lot of time on,.because even if your book is brilliant, no one will read it if they don’t like the synopsis. I’m going to pass it on to someone else through, as you and JQ suggest. Thanks for your useful comment. Good luck with book three!


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