Capture the heart of your story and make it beat in 300 words.
An earlier post gives you 6 Good Reasons to Write a One-page Synopsis, including ways to use it in promotion and marketing. This post gives you advice on how to do it.
A synopsis is not a summary of the story but a composition of specific features and it has to be a tight piece of writing, so what are the key elements to go into it?
We need to create a golden ‘gobbet’: an archaic word for a small piece (a mouthful or gob-full) of raw meat, but it also means an extract from a text.
Some years ago, between jobs, skint and with rent to pay, I worked for a university as a gobbeter: reducing prolix research reports, academic treatise, even books into their 500 word essence. Derisory pay meant sharpening my paring knife to produce one a day, sometimes two. But that filleting tool was useful for constructing my own one-page synopses recently, together with a refresher on story structure. The five elements I came up with are given below – I find them equally applicable to non-fiction and fiction.
1. The moral premise or core value of your story: the principle change that occurs between the beginning and the end, and why. What Robert McKee calls the ‘controlling idea’ – ‘value plus cause’. For example, in George Orwell’s 1984, the controlling idea would be ‘Freedom [value] is lost because states controlled communication [cause].’ Almost a logline, though a logline goes further: still a single sentence, including ‘who’ and ‘how’ and sometimes ‘where’, and it will form the central part of the synopsis, but it is essential to be clear on the moral of the story before you write anything else.
In non-fiction about current issues – climate change for example – the controlling idea might be in the form of a prediction. A health book might have specific benefits as its moral premise.
2. The main challenge or conflict faced by the protagonist: including the stakes involved in his/her success or failure and how it is resolved, showing the principal plot line with crucial twists, and the ending. [Note: the ending should be given in a pitch to an agent or publisher so they can assess the conclusion, but not when using the piece for promotion – beware spoilers]. And it should all feed into the moral premise.
For non-fiction travel, or memoir, the main challenge might be physical, cultural, or psychological – an inner journey for example.
3. A thumbnail sketch of major characters: drawn with a few encapsulating words that make them attractive and intriguing to the reader. One way to do this in a confined space, while adding to the ‘atmosphere’ of the synopsis, is to derive metaphors and similes from the context of the story, or its setting. For example, describing an indigenous hunter in a tropical forest: ‘..his limbs tough and fibrous as bush rope.’ I could have used ‘lean and sinewy’ but that could be in New York or Birmingham, it doesn’t arise from his environment.
For a biographer writing an entire book about a character, a one-sentence portrait may be a major challenge, but it could reveal weaknesses and strengths in the manuscript. Other non-fiction ‘characters’ might be objects, commodities, animals, or places.
4. The theme of the book: what it is about, its interest and significance, with an indication of setting when that is central to the story. If most of the action takes place in the Gobi Desert, an historical period, another galaxy, or a Parisian sewer, that is worth mentioning.
In this definition, theme is more specific than genre and broader than moral premise because either of these can be explored in various ways with a different focus. The best way to describe theme is through action – corny old ‘show, not tell’ – and can be revealed in the one-page synopsis by including one or two crises and triumphs from the narrative.
5. Write in the style of the main work: giving readers an emotional experience of the story even in the brevity of a one-page synopsis. If the book is humorous, make the synopsis funny. If an action-packed thriller, use the same punchy language as in the story. Choice of verbs – for strength and as metaphors – is important: in a romance, an embrace may enfold; in a darker tale, it may crush.
Open with an original hook to grab attention, (beginning with a searching question has become a cliché; as everyone follows good ideas we must create new ones), and ensure in your final edit that the synopsis forms a logical sequence.
How much word allowance you spend on each element depends on the nature of the work, but it may be helpful to allocate a number of words to each, write those focused nuggets separately, and then weave them together to sing one song – the melody of your manuscript, the heartbeat of your story.
Most of us work with limited budgets, but if you hire an editor for nothing else, get a professional critique of your synopsis, whatever its length. It is the window on your work; if people can’t see into it they won’t walk through the door.
But that is only the first step. In reality, barring existing fame or a penchant for writing ‘mommy porn’, there are no guarantees our work will be discovered and read, however engaging the story, eloquent the writing or brilliant the synopsis. Luck plays a huge role in a writer’s financial success.
We each have our own reasons for, and methods of, writing. But for anyone obsessed by arranging words in distinctive ways, publications and sales are not the only measures of success. Love or hate the process, we write because we need to, if only for ourselves. As humans, we are made of stories and there is no avoiding the fact.
You will find more detailed guidance on writing a synopsis, along with many other writing, editing and marketing techniques relevant to fiction and narrative non-fiction in, Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author, available as an ebook and a paperback.
‘This is an essential ‘How To’ manual for writers of every sort.’ Anne Stormont, Words with JAM
‘A superb collection of everything one needs to know about writing.’ Self-Publishing Magazine