Every author I know hates writing a synopsis.
They hate trying to boil down their beloved story into two to three double-spaced pages. They agonize over it, throw fits, and start the occasional fight. They would rather run in front of the bulls at Pamplona than write an overview of their novel.
But don’t buy your ticket to Spain just yet, because it’s really not that hard. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll always have a solid synopsis — one you can proudly show any agent or editor.
1. Opening Paragraph
WALTER NEFF is a hotshot insurance salesman on the make for more business. He likes making money and having the occasional fling with women on whom he makes house calls. Even if they’re married.
2. Second Paragraph
What is the incident that gets the story rolling?
One afternoon he calls on a client and finds the client’s wife, delicious blonde PHYLLIS DEITRICHSON, wrapped in a revealing towel while sunbathing. She gets dressed and meets him in the living room. During his pitch, Neff makes little comments about her looks, and a game of sexual cat and mouse ensues. One thing for sure, when Walter Neff leaves the house he knows he’s gone overboard for Mrs. Phyllis Deitrichson.
3. Basic Plot Paragraphs
Now you lay out the main plot, and I mean main. The synopsis is not the place to detail all the subplots, though you should mention them briefly. Write about them in a way that shows how they complicate the main plot.
Phyllis and Walter engineer her husband’s death, and Walter dresses like Deitrichson, getting on a train as part of the scheme. A man on the train speaks to him in the dark, interrupting his plans, but eventually he succeeds in jumping from the train. He and Phyllis then plant the body.
Walter comes in to work the next day, and sitting in the hallway is the last man he wants to see — Jackson, the guy from the train who talked to him in the dark. BARTON KEYES, the smartest claims man in the business and Walter’s superior, has brought Jackson in because the account of the “accident” is starting to stink. Walter has to keep from being recognized as Jackson tells his story. Keyes slowly pulls in the net, though around whom he doesn’t know yet. All he knows is that the “little man” inside him tells him this is murder. And Walter knows all about how dangerous that little man is—to him and Phyllis.
4. Final Battle Paragraph
Here you cover the biggest crisis point your lead character faces: what’s at stake, why it’s a battle to the death. (It should at least feel that way to the character).
With Keyes closing in, Walter and Phyllis grow increasingly agitated. They try to meet in secret, but the strain begins to show. The seeds of distrust are sown. Then Walter discovers that Phyllis is seeing another lover. Now he must choose whether to run or take out his revenge — even if it sends him to the gas chamber.
The last paragraphs (try to keep it to one or two) tell how the story ends.
Walter confronts Phyllis about her lover. Phyllis shoots Walter, wounding him, but can’t finish the job. Running to his arms she declares her love for him. He doesn’t buy it. “Good-bye, baby,” he says, then shoots her in the gut.
Losing blood, Walter dictates a confession to Keyes at the office late at night, then turns to see Keyes listening. Walter tries to get out, but doesn’t make it past the front door. Keyes calmly calls the police.
Rewrite and rewrite until your synopsis sounds like the marketing copy on dust jackets and back covers, only on steroids.
James Scott Bell is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying, and Watch Your Back. A winner of the Christy Award, he has been a finalist for the International Thriller Writers Award. He has written popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books including: Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers, and Conflict & Suspense. At the 2014 Writing for the Soul conference, he will teach six classes on the craft of fiction:
● Why Your Plot Stakes Must Be Death
● Three Pillars of Perfect Structure
● Page Turning Techniques of the Pros
● Scene Building Through Fear
● Essentials of Great Dialogue
● How to Build an E-book Career
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