Synopsis Made Easy – I Promise!

Okay, fellow proposal peeps, it’s time to jump in and work together on crafting a perfect proposal. Many of you echoed what I’ve heard over and over through the years: “I hate writing the synopsis!”

This is especially painful because you need a short synopsis/summary that runs around 50-60 words—but still gives the gist of your story, mind you–and then a more detailed synopsis that can run a few pages long.

First, let’s tackle the really hard one: the Short Synopsis/Summary.

So, how do you encapsulate your wonderful book into so few words? Even more important, how do you make those words compelling? One way to do that is to consider movie trailers. Trailers are specifically designed to capture the core audience for movies. Even more than that, they’re crafted with the intent of leaving you, the audience, wondering how soon you can buy a ticket! How do they do that? Well, I watched a host of trailers as I prepared to write this blog (thanks for all that fun, folks!), and I have to say, those who produce movie trailers obviously know their core audience well. They know what matters to them, what will trigger a response, and what will get them to pull out the bucks for a ticket. And they all, regardless of genre, seem to use the following three elements. They give their audience:

  • Just enough of the character to form a connection
  • Just enough of the story to intrigue
  • Just enough of what’s at stake to make us feel we have to know what happens

The challenge for us is that we don’t have the visuals or sound tracks or actors to go along with our synopses. But we can (and should!) know our audience well. And we can use the three elements above to make our synopses powerful.

So, as an example, my book Shattered Justice is a suspense novel about a sheriff’s deputy who loses everything that matters to him, who now struggles to believe in God’s justice in the face of that loss. His struggle is resolved when the small mountain community where he lives now is overrun by some really bad people, and the townsfolk turn to Dan for help. Obviously, there’s a lot more to the story, but that’s the main gist. And I could just use what I wrote as a short synopsis, but it lacks…

Well, everything. It lacks punch and emotion. It won’t make anyone care all that much about the book. So now let’s apply the three elements:

Just enough of the character:

Sheriff’s deputy Dan Justice has spent his life seeking justice for others…

He’s in law enforcement. That means he helps those who are victims, those who’ve been hurt by others. The fact that he seeks justice for others implies he’s strong and honorable. A warrior. Right away we know he’s someone we can root for.

Just enough of the story:

but when everything he loves is ripped away

Notice the emotive words: everything that matters most. We’re wondering what those things are. His family? His faith? And he didn’t lose just a few of them, but all. Everything. What’s more, those things aren’t just taken away, they’re ripped away. And note that this is in present tense, not past tense. This is a recent trauma.

anger and despair take over.

Most of us can relate to that. Those are powerful, universal emotions. As is the idea of being taken over by dark emotions when your world is devastated.

Where is God’s justice for him?

A simple, powerful question. You can almost feel his rage, his demand that God give an accounting.

Just enough of what’s at stake:

Then a small town under assault turns to him for help.

So here are the first stakes. A small town in danger. Under assault. People who’ve probably known each other all their lives, now at risk. Needing to be saved. All the things he’s focused on as a lawman. Things we believe he can’t turn his back on.

Dan must do what he can, even if it costs him the only thing he has left to give…

Yay, for the hero! We knew he couldn’t resist answering the call!

His life.

And the greatest stakes of all. Life or death. Notice I didn’t use the old “non-question question” at the end. Something like: Can Dan overcome his anger to help those in need once more?  The reason we call that a non-question question is because the answer, obviously, will be yes. Let’s steer clear of those kinds of things. Instead, give us the real question, the real stakes, that will leave us hanging. And remember, this is a suspense novel. It’s possible dear ol’ Dan could give his life for these folks.

So here you have it, coming in at 63 words, my short synopsis for Shattered Justice,:

Sheriff’s deputy Dan Justice has spent his life seeking justice for others, but when everything he loves is ripped away, anger and despair take over.

Where is God’s justice for him?

Then a small town under assault turns to him for help. Dan must do what he can, even if it costs him the only thing he has left to give…

His life.

Now, the beauty of doing the short synopsis/summary first, is that you can then build on it for your longer story synopsis. Fill in the details, but be strategic. Only include the information what will add impact and emotion for the reader—namely the editor/agent reading your proposal. Include key characters, information that’s necessary, not extraneous, pivotal scenes. For Shattered Justice, I’d explain some of what Dan lost, and how he lost it. I’d include the fact that he has two sisters who are struggling to help him. Praying for him. I’d describe the people of the town who will come to mean something to Dan. And I’d include about the villain, then end with the resolution. And yes, you want to give away the ending in your proposal. This isn’t marketing copy, friends. This is what will let the editor/agent know that you’ve got the story figured out.

So, your turn. Give us a short synopsis, but keep it to 65 words or less.

Okay? Have at it!

 

 

29 Responses to Synopsis Made Easy – I Promise!

  1. Jennifer Zarifeh Major September 3, 2014 at 4:43 am #

    In a galaxy far, far away…okay, wrong one, back in a bit.

  2. Jennifer Sienes September 3, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    Her father’s will is clear: do what he demands, or lose everything, including guardianship of her younger sister. But there’s a force at work—an evil set on destroying her and her sister. If only she knew whether the enigmatic man helping them is a friend—
    Or a deadly foe…

  3. Jan Cline September 3, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    Hana, a young Japanese American woman, has spent three years with her family in a desolate internment camp. Her beloved father is taken to prison just as they hear all internees will soon be free to go home. Convinced God has abandoned them, she alone must keep the family together, despite turmoil and unthinkable tragedy, to prepare for life outside the barbed wire fence.

  4. Marilyn Read September 3, 2014 at 7:29 am #

    Okay, it worked. I have to buy a copy of your book! So glad you are tackling the problem areas of proposals.

    How do we make it work for three books rolled into one volume? We have four women, mothers and daughters, struggling to find God’s plan for each in the man’s world that was Spanish California (books I and II about the mothers and book III about the daughters.) Two of the women are Spanish aristocrats and the others Native Californians. Obviously their stories are very different . Do we focus on commonalities?

    Thanks, Marilyn

  5. Jeanne Takenaka September 3, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    Great post, Karen. Your tips are helpful. I don’t mind writing synopses, but honing it down to 65 words is a challenge! I haven’t quite nailed it, but here’s what I’ve got:

    Non profit manager Tiana Emory lives under the shadow of her past. When her late husband’s friend and promise-breaker begs Tiana to help his nonprofit organization weather a scandal, she agrees. Only to earn funds to provide treatment for her chronically ill daughter. Someone knows her secrets and threatens to reveal them. Is living in freedom worth letting go of all that makes her feel safe?

  6. Debra L. Butterfield September 3, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Karen,
    Terrific stuff. I think we should write a short synopsis before we ever start our story. It would certainly help us keep our plot on track.

    • Ruby September 11, 2014 at 5:26 am #

      I always write the synopsis first, then the outline, then the book. You are right, Debra, it helps immensely to keep the plot on track.

  7. Joe Plemon September 3, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Mine might be too short, but here it is.

    Nationally renowned Pastor Andy Jenkins is living the dream life until paparazzi catch him kissing the wrong woman. The ensuing controversy forces him to decide what in life is worth fighting for – a battle which costs him far more than he could ever have imagined.

  8. Theresa Santy September 3, 2014 at 8:34 am #

    Oh my gosh, Karen! You are awesome. Do you know how many hours I’ve sweated over synopsis-writing? You have just made my life a whole lot easier. Ok, so here’s my mini pitch. It’s a rough draft, but man oh man…this is so much better than the stuttering babble I’ve been pitching at parties lately. (Thank you!)

    Kristen Addison Craemer has been running from her past since she was six. She’s tired now, and therapy, drugs, and alcohol have stopped working. Then she meets Ethan, whose confidence in God she can’t understand. How can there be a God whose plan includes all of this? In order to find the answer, Kristen must stop running and face her demons, before it’s too late.

  9. Naomi Musch September 3, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Oh, tough one! Here goes mine for MIST O’ER THE VOYAGEUR:

    Fearing a cruel suitor, Brigitte Marchal disguises herself as a voyageur to escape from Montreal. NW Company fur trader Rene DuFour uncovers her secret and offers safety at his brother Claude’s Lake Superior trading post. But Indian wars, Claude’s own designs, a mysterious Metis man, and terror of being returned to her suitor’s clutches plague her, all while she hides her growing feelings for Rene.

  10. Wendy Macdonald September 3, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    Karen, I loved seeing how you sharpened up your short synopsis. It has inspired me to tweak mine. Here it goes…

    Wade, a young, handsome police officer, bored of traffic patrol, leads his first homicide investigation desperate for a career breakthrough. His lovely work partner, Brianne, is desperate to break into his heart, but she doesn’t realize his faith stands between them. The investigation turns deadly when their private lives and the killer’s intersect near the scene of the crime.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  11. DIANA HARKNESS September 3, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Great help on writing a synopsis. That’s the most difficult endeavor for me. But here’s mine.

    Eli is alone in the world with only sheep for company. Even Yahweh has left him. Then when he has reached the depths of despair and loneliness, Yahweh comes, not in a still small voice, not with comfort and encouragement, but with a burning love so painful, yet Eli begs for more, and a dream that threatens Eli’s life. He is desperate to find the meaning of the dream, but his search leads him down paths laden with murder and torture, prophets and kings, and answers he cannot understand. Will he do the right thing even when his choice will cause death to those he has grown to love?

  12. Terri September 3, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    The war claimed Heidi’s husband. She finds new life caring for evacuated children, spiced with the occasional act of passive resistance against the Nazi regime she despises. One day a man she knew from her high school days in America asks for her help. Aiding downed enemy airmen is punishable by execution, but she agrees. Then they’re betrayed.

  13. Sandy Faye Mauck September 3, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    I hope I am getting it, Karen. I feel like you made it clear, today…

    Widow Katie Jensen has endured patiently under her oppressive uncle. But when she is forced to gather her two little ones and run, she comes to an enchanting town where they are embraced by a kind grandmother and her charming grandson.

    But will her blessings be thwarted by a vengeful beauty who joins forces with an old enemy to plot her demise?

  14. m. rochellino September 3, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

    Title: Children of the Son

    Short synopsis:

    ABANDONED. NEGLECTED. MARGINALIZED.

    Mother had abandoned four year old Lorenzo and two brothers into dysfunction, alcoholism, racism and crime of the urban slum.

    HATED. BRUTALIZED. HARDENED.

    Just a teenager, he was ready-made for war in Vietnam.

    SEARCHING. YEARNING. ACHING.

    He found his Father in heaven. Still praying to know a mother’s love, will his young life end as it began, an abandoned throwaway child?

  15. Jenelle. M September 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    My word, this is challenging but a wonderful exercise to get the mojo going. Such good pitches here!

    Coming in at 64 words:

    On her 18th birthday, Kinsley McClellan will realize her lifelong dream of escaping her cramped kingdom she’s been bound to since birth. But the day before, her fortress is attacked and her family is captured by the evil Mordants carrying out the curse cast on the realm a century ago. The last thing Kinsley wants is to be anyone’s savior. Yet here she is.

  16. Karen Ball September 4, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    You guys did a great job!

    JenniferZM–you’re so funny!

    Jennifer S–Perfect, pal. I love it!

    Jan–You’ve got a great start here, but it needs more punch. Something like:

    It’s _________ in __________. (give us the year and location to position this story’s time setting) After three years in a desolate internment camp, Hana _________’s(give us her last name, which will show they’re Japanese Americans) family receives the news they’ve longed for: all internees will soon be freed! But the promise of freedom doesn’t come soon enough for Hana’s beloved father, who is taken to prison. Now Hana struggles to keep the family together. But how can she help her family endure turmoil and unthinkable tragedy as they prepare for life outside the barbed wire fence? How can she do any of this…
    When the God she trusted has so clearly abandoned them?

    Marilyn–you focus on the primary story theme and that this is a story about an ensemble of women. So something like:
    Four very different women struggle to find God’s place for them in the man’s world that is (give us the date) Spanish California. (I don’t know if this next bit is accurate, but it gives you an idea of how to show the struggles…) For (give the two names), aristocracy is not a place of privilege, but a prison. And for (names), being Native Californian means _________________(give the struggle). As their stories intersect, ______________. (give the main story struggle here).
    Hope that helps!

    Jeanne: let’s add more punch to the first line:
    Tiana Emory longs to escape the shadow of her past, to leave her secrets behind and never fear them again.
    Now, tell us what the struggle is. Is she unable to care for her daughter? Is her daughter at risk? What gives her purpose? And what is the obstacle to that purpose. And rather than the non question question at the end, give us her true fear. Something like–What will it cost her to let go of the safety she knows to embrace freedom?

    Debra–thanks, and that’s a great idea!

    Joe–it’s a bit short, but you’ve got a great basis. How about:
    Pastor Andy Jenkins is living the dream. Nationally renown, a home and family everyone envies, a church bursting at the seams, he’s riding high. Until paparazzi catch him kissing the wrong woman.
    As his perfect world collapses, Andy must decide what is real, what he’ll fight for. But that decision is just the beginning.
    There’s a battle coming…
    One that will cost him more than he could ever have imagined.

    Theresa–thanks so much! Your synopsis is really close. What do you think about the following edits?
    Kristen Addison Craemer has been running from her past since she was six–and she’s exhausted. Therapy, drugs, and alcohol have stopped working. Just as she’s about to give up, she meets Ethan. His confidence in God makes no sense! How can there be a God whose plan includes all she’s been through? But something deep inside won’t let her go. Something that tells her there’s only way way to peace…
    Kristen must stop running and face her demons.
    Before it’s too late.

    Naomi, you’re close too. See what you think:
    Desperate to escape a cruel suitor, Brigitte Marchal disguises herself as a voyageur and escapes Montreal.
    When fur trader Rene DuFour discovers her secret, he offers her safety at his brother Claude’s Lake Superior trading post.
    But Brigitte is far from safe: Indian wars, Claude’s designs, and the terror of being returned to her suitor’s clutches (why would they return her to him?) plague her. Almost as much as her growing feelings for Rene…

    Wendy–you need to focus more on the story struggle. Don’t tell us the officer is handsome or that his partner is lovely, rather focus on their internal struggles or external dangers. I’d also avoid saying that Brianne is desperate. You’ve got a strong ending, though. I really like:
    …but she doesn’t realize his faith stands between them. The investigation turns deadly when their lives and the killer’s intersect–near the scene of the crime.

    Diana–you need to clarify your synopsis a bit. I’m not clear, after reading it, what the genre is, or really what the story struggle is. It feels like biblical fiction, then it seems to go into the supernatural realm. So I encourage you to take another look at the three elements. Who is Eli? What is his primary struggle? What is the obstacle/risk? What is the overwhelming story question? Hope that helps.

    Terri, let’s refine the focus of the story a bit. First, tell us which war this is. Then…
    The war claimed Heidi’s husband, but she finds new purpose caring for evacuated children. And in occasional acts of passive resistance against the Nazi regime she despises. Then a man comes to her, someone she knew and trusted years ago–and asks for her help in aiding downed enemy airmen. Though doing what this man asks is punishable by execution, she agrees…
    Never dreaming betrayal is already on its way.

    Sandy–I like yours a lot, but I’m left a bit confused by it. Using words like “enchanting” gives us the sense that this is a heartwarming story. But then the last line seems to move more toward suspense. Is the woman really plotting the heroine’s demise? In what sense? Just massage it a bit to make the genre clear.

    M–I like the intrigue of your synopsis. I especially like the lead in lists. However, rather than repeating another list of issues after the first lead in, I’d suggest the following. Also, we need a little more information in the last section. Did he find God during the war? How old is he in the last section. At first I thought it was him as an old man, then I read “his young life.” But why would it end as it began if he found his heavenly father? My suggestion for the first section :

    ABANDONED. NEGLECTED. MARGINALIZED.

    Mother abandoned four-year-old Lorenzo and his two brothers to the darkness and crime of the urban slum.

    Jenelle–Good basis, but now you need to jazz it up. Give us the emotions:

    Kinsley McClellan is free! Well, almost. Tomorrow, when she turned 18, she would finally realize her lifelong dream of escaping the cramped kingdom she’s been bound to since birth. Then her fortress is attacked and her family is captured by the evil Mordants! The curse cast on the realm a century ago is coming true before Kinsley’s eyes. The last thing she wants is to be anyone’s savior. Yet here she is–one day short of freedom, and about to fight the realm’s most fearsome enemies.
    Life as a princess is SO unfair!

    Thanks, everyone, for participating! This has been fun!

    • Jeanne Takenaka September 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

      Karen, thanks so much for your feedback! It’s gold. 🙂 And, it’s much appreciated!

  17. Karen Ball September 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    P.S. I had indents in the post when I wrote it, but then they disappeared when I posted. Sorry it’s a bit difficult to read.

    Karen

    • Sandy Faye Mauck September 4, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      Thank you so much, Karen. You read it right. And I can see the confusion. It is a heartwarming romance with humor but with very heartless enemies. Not heavy on the suspense. Perhaps changing the last line to say more simply….

      But will her blessings be thwarted by a vengeful beauty intent on seeing her gone whatever the cost?

    • Jan Cline September 4, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      Wonderful help! Thanks so much.

  18. m. rochellino September 4, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    Karen, very appreciated comments. I was motivated to really consider each piece of information in the short synopsis and determine what was crucial and what was not.

    Here is my 64 word rewrite:

    ABANDONED. NEGLECTED. MARGINALIZED.

    A helpless innocent child abandoned by mother to the darkness and crime of the urban slum.

    HATED. BRUTALIZED. HARDENED.

    A violent hostile teenager ready-made for war in Vietnam.

    SEARCHING. YEARNING. ACHING.

    An enlightened young man still longing to know a mother’s love. Will his perilous life end unfulfilled as an abandoned throwaway soul or blossom into a destiny of true greatness?

    Your generous advice is quite welcome. I look forward to your comment on the rewrite.

    Proverbs 1:5 let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance—

    Proverbs 9:9 Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.

    Thank you. God Bless!

  19. LeAnne Bristow September 4, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Sorry I’m late, but I just had to try this. (60 words)

    Youth pastor Marc Elliot wants redemption for his teenage rebelliousness. And to find the woman he left behind ten years ago.
    When a family tragedy brings Breanna Davis back to Lometa, Texas, she must face all the people who abandoned her, including her son’s father.
    Can they discover the true meaning of forgiveness and give their love a second chance?

  20. Wendy Macdonald September 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Thank you so much, Karen. I will edit out the description and focus on the hook. Great advice. ❀

  21. Pamela Gossiaux September 9, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Okay, I’m chiming in late, but here’s mine: (It’s more like 69 words…I tried!) 🙂

    After an abusive childhood, horse-trainer Francie Carlson spent her life seeking to keep herself and others safe. When she finally puts her trust in Christ, tragedy strikes and her world- and faith – are shattered.

    Surrounded by broken people and broken horses, Francie must find the faith inside her to help them heal, and face a decision that will test her morals, her faith, and her one true love.

  22. Cathy March 13, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    Surrendered to the powerful Consortium before she was even born, the Recorder has been trained from infancy to document and observe. After an accident leaves her without the protection of the Consortium, without resources, without even a name, she learns to navigate society on her own. When a murder investigation reveals an engineered virus, she must find a way to protect her friends — without losing herself as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Learning about Synopsis (or Synopses, as in plural) | joeplemon.com - September 4, 2014

    […] I learned in Writing Fiction for Dummies that I need a synopsis for my book, but I learned yesterday that I actually need two synopses — a short one (less than 65 words) as an enticement to read the book (much like a movie trailer) and a longer synopsis which simply explains the book so an agent will know that I have a complete and logical story to my book.  Thank you Karen Ball for your enlightening and educational post Synopsis Made Easy — I Promise! […]

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