The One-Page Synopsis

Nancy J. Cohen

My mystery publisher requires a one-page double-spaced synopsis along with a manuscript submission. That’s probably harder for me to write than the book. My normal synopsis runs about fifteen pages on average. I write this guideline before starting the story, and later I attach it to my art department’s request for a full synopsis. In the meantime, how does one condense this bulk of material into a single page? Here’s my method for a traditional mystery.


First I’ll give the book title, my name, and the series title a few lines down from the top and centered. Then I’ll offer a tag line that sums up the plot. We’ll use Shear Murder as an example.

A wedding turns deadly when hairstylist Marla Shore discovers a dead body under the cake table.

The Setup
This initial paragraph presents the setup for the story.

Hairstylist Marla Shore is playing bridesmaid at her friend Jill’s wedding when she discovers the bride’s sister stabbed to death under the cake table. Torrie had plenty of people who might have wanted her dead, including her own sister who threatened her just before the ceremony.

The Personal Motive
Why does your sleuth get involved?

At Jill’s request, Marla agrees to help solve the case. With her own wedding four weeks away, her salon expanding into day spa services, and her relatives bickering over nuptial details, she has enough to do. When Jill is arrested for Torrie’s murder, though, Marla has no choice but to unmask the killer.

The Suspects
Here’s where I give a brief profile and possible motive for each of the main suspects.

Jill and Torrie owned a piece of commercial property. Their cousin Kevin, a Realtor, was trying to find them a new tenant. Meanwhile, Jill’s uncle Eddy, a shady attorney, has been urging them to sell. Now Torrie’s husband Scott has inherited his wife’s share. Scott has another motive besides greed. Torrie had announced her plan to leave him for another man, Griff Beasley. Griff was a photographer at Jill’s wedding and Torrie’s colleague. Griff implicates Hally, another coworker. Hally and Torrie were competing for a promotion. [Somebody else ends up dead here, but that’s a spoiler.]

clip_image003The Big Reveal
The final paragraph, which I won’t share with you in the hopes you’ll read the book, is where the clues lead to the killer, and the protagonist has her insight about what she’s learned. This last is important for emotional resonance, not only with your readers but also with your editor.

Further Tips: Leave out character names except for your main players, and don’t include subplots. If you’re writing romance, the mid-section would include major plot twists along with the resultant emotional turning points. So now share your tips. What else would you include or not include in your one page synopsis?


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Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane



He’s flummoxed because these aren’t his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed (word of the day courtesy of James Scott Bell) by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.


Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis


1.) The Basics – Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.


2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.


3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.


4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.



[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]

A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.


5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?



LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]


6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.


EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):


VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.


CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.


7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it at TKZ before at this LINK – I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.


Key Questions for a 3-Act ‘”W” structure:

Act 1 – How does your book start?

Act 1 – What is the point of no return for your character(s)?

Act 1 – What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?

Act 2 – How will you up the stakes?

Act 2 – What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?

Act 3 – Do I have a plot twist for my readers?

Act 3 – How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?


8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”


Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.


For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.


Synopsis Writing Made Easy

James Scott Bell

Every author I know hates writing a synopsis. They hate having to try to boil down their beloved story into 2 – 3 double spaced pages. They agonize over it, moan about it in public, throw fits, start the occasional bar fight. They would rather run in front of the bulls at Pamplona, wearing clogs, than write a short overview of their novel.

But don’t buy your airline tickets to Spain just yet, because it’s really not that hard. If you’ll just follow these guidelines, you’ll always have a solid synopsis, one you can show to any agent or editor and leave them wanting more.

A good synopsis is what I call “back cover copy on steroids.” It’s intended to “sell the sizzle” and give just enough of the steak to create confidence in the project.

This is not the same thing as a detailed outline, or treatment, which is much more substantial. The synopsis is a selling document. So approach it that way from the outset.

Before You Write the Synopsis

Build a foundation. Start from the ground up, one brick at a time.

Your first brick is a one sentence summary of your book. If you can’t boil your book down into a single, compelling sentence, you are not ready to write it or sell it.

Second, expand that one sentence into back cover copy. That’s about 250 words of copy meant to sell your book to a harried consumer. You can easily learn to do this by getting books of similar genre from the library and reading the cover or dust jacket copy. Or read descriptions of such books on Read a lot of these, studying the form. Write your own back cover copy. Work it until you have something that would make a consumer want to buy the book.

Now you’re ready to write the synopsis.

The Parts of the Synopsis

1. The Opening paragraph

This tells us who the main character is, what he does (vocation), what he’s like. Then one line on what the character wants at the present moment. A day before the story opens, what is the character going for? Goals? Drives?

Every Lead needs the above things. This first paragraph sets up the rest of the synopsis. Here’s an example. (Note: The first time you introduce a character, use the full name and put it in ALL CAPS):

WALTER NEFF is a hotshot insurance salesman on the make for more business. He likes making money and having the occasional fling with women he makes house calls on. Even if they’re married.

2. Second paragraph

The Disturbance. (See my post on the subject). 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 from sunbathing. She gets dressed and meets with 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 do mean main. The synopsis is not the place to detail all the subplots, though you should certainly mention the important ones briefly and show how they complicate the main plot.

You obviously have a lot of freedom in this section. You’re going to be covering at least a page and a half with main plot material, the “sizzle” of the story. In the case of our example (obviously from the movie version of Double Indemnity) you’d stick to the plot to murder the husband and collect the insurance money, and the opposition represented by Barton Keyes, the sharp-eyed adjuster who can smell a scheme from miles away.

Here’s an example of one such paragraph from the middle of the synopsis:

Walter comes in to work the next day, and sitting in the hallway the last man he wants to see—Jackson, the guy from the train who talked to him in the dark. Keyes 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 is raising Cain. And Walter knows all about how dangerous that little man is—to him and Phyllis.

4. Final Battle paragraph

Toward the end you write about the “final battle.” It’s the darkest 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.

5. Resolution

The last paragraphs (try to keep it to one or two) tell how the story ends. Don’t leave that out in your synopsis. Agents and editors want to know how you’re going to wrap things up.

Walter confronts Phyllis about her lover. Phyllis shoots Walter, wounding him, but can’t finish the job. Running to his arms she states 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.

And there you have it. A quick, easy guide to crafting a synopsis. Just remember:

• Don’t try to tell everything, especially with regard to subplots.

• Aim for 2 – 3 pages, double spaced. If you go to four pages no one’s going to arrest you, but you may be pulled over for holding up traffic.

• Rewrite and rewrite until it sounds like the marketing copy on dust jackets and back covers of similar books. Give it to some faithful readers for feedback. Make sure they, and you, are jazzed by it.

• Send it out when requested, then wait for the offer to see the full manuscript. While you wait, be working on the synopsis of your next novel.

So what about you? How do you feel about the “dreaded synopsis”?

I’d rather have a root canal

By Joe Moore

The dreaded synopsis. It’s the nasty part of writing fiction that everyone hates. After all, if someone wants to know what your book is about, just read it. Right? The synopsis is right up there with getting a root canal. It’s painful and taxing. But it’s also a fact of life that you’re going to have to produce one sooner or later. Especially if you’re a first-time author. Most writers feel that creating a synopsis is harder than actually writing the book. I agree.

Clare touched on it with her July post. Here’s another look at the task we love to hate.

dentist So what is a synopsis?

It’s taking your book’s 80,000 to 120,000 words and condensing them down to a few pages—a brief description of what your book is about. Imagine draining 99.9% of a human body away and still convey the person’s looks, thoughts and personality. A daunting task at best.

How do you get the job done? First, start by accepting the fact that you have to do it. In order to successfully market your new book, you must be able to tell the story in just a few paragraphs or pages. Barring any unusual submission requirements for a particular agent or publisher, a formal synopsis usually runs a page or two. A great time to write your synopsis is as you do your final read-through before declaring mission accomplished—that the book is done. As you finish reading each chapter, write a paragraph or two describing what happened in that chapter—what was the essence of the chapter as it relates to character, motivation and plot. Keep it short such as: Bob and Mary met for the first time. She thought he was a bore. He thought she was self-centered. They had no choice but to work together.

Also be aware of any emotional threads running through the chapter; love, hate, revenge, etc. and make note of them. But always keep it short.

Once you’ve finished the read-through of your manuscript and making subsequent notes for your synopsis, you will have created a chapter-by-chapter outline. (Don’t you wish you had had it before you began writing your book?) So what you’ve done is condense your manuscript into a manageable overview that hits on all the important points dealing with character development and plot. And it contains the emotional threads that make up the human aspect of your story.

Next step: read your chapter-by-chapter outline and determine the most important elements in your story. If you’ve correctly noted what each chapter contains regarding character, plot, and emotions (motivations), it shouldn’t take too many reads to determine the items that were critical in moving the story forward. Again, keep this new set of notes short and simple.

Even after you’ve completed this task, your fledgling synopsis is probably too long and a bit disjointed. So what you have to do next is blend all the key points together into a short narrative. Here’s one way to do it. Imagine that it’s your job to write the cover blurb that goes on the back of your book. You need it to contain enough information that anyone reading it will become interested in reading the whole book. Begin with your main character and the crisis that she faces. Explain why your character behaves as she does. Touch on the main elements that moved the story forward by referring to your chapter-by-chapter list of events. Always make clear what’s at stake—reveal the “story question”. Remember that you have to tell the whole story in the synopsis. Unlike a real cover blurb where there are no spoilers, the synopsis is going to an agent or editor. You must tell them how the story ends. This is no time to be coy. Tell it all.

A synopsis is a selling tool. It must tell your story in a very short amount of words and still get across the essence of the tale. But even more important, it must show that you can write—it is an example of your skill and craftsmanship. It confirms that you know what your story is about and can express emotion. That you understand plot and character development and human motivation.

What a synopsis is not is the classic elevator pitch or the TV Guide one-sentence description. Instead, it’s the distilled, condensed soul of your book in a few paragraphs.

So, you writers out there—do you enjoy writing a synopsis? Any additional tips on getting through the task without slitting your wrists? Once you’ve been published, does your publisher still require a synopsis before they issue a contract on your next book? If so, do you stick to the synopsis or does the end product differ from the original?

Crafting The Synopsis

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week I sent my agent a synopsis for my new WIP – a proposed YA novel that blends history, fantasy and suspense. I haven’t actually written it yet but I crafted a synopsis to achieve two things: First, to get feedback from my agent on my idea for the book and second, to focus my own mind.

The concept of writing a synopsis of a book that has yet to be written may seem strange to many people but I find it an invaluable first step. For me the synopsis precedes a more detailed chapter outline (as you can see I’m a planner) but also provides a global view that helps solidify in my mind the key elements for the novel: the tone, characters and setting for the book. Though my synopsis provides an overview of the plot it doesn’t go into any more detail than the summary you might find on the dust jacket of a book. In the case of my YA novel, I found I could craft the synopsis even though, as yet, I have no real idea how the problem presented is actually resolved.

In many ways I find writing a synopsis harder than writing the book itself – for it has to be a succinct encapsulation of all the facets of the story and should also be a vehicle for presenting the ‘hook’ or premise that will (hopefully!) generate excitement for the project. I spent many, many hours tearing my hair out over my first synopsis (for Consequences of Sin) which I was going to use at a (helpful but horrific) speed dating for agent session. I ended up handing it over at lunch to the woman who would go on to be my first agent and I truly think it was the synopsis that ‘sold’ her on the idea for the book. Though producing that first synopsis was a stressful experience it taught me the value of the exercise and now I prepare a synopsis before I write each book.

To me the value of the process is threefold:

  • It forces me to compress my ideas into one or two unifying themes that give an overall flavor for the tone of the book.
  • It provides me with the one to two line ‘hook’ that I can then use when pitching the idea and which my agent can also use when talking to editors and others about the project. I also send my agent multiple project synopses to get input on which is the best, strategically, to work on next.
  • It already starts me thinking about how I will frame the book – and by this I mean in marketing terms: What kind of book is it? How would a publisher categorize and market it? What other books is it likely to be compared to?

Now this may all sound very anal and weird but I find the exercise to be a critical first step for me. It comes after I’ve done my initial research and once the idea I have for the book has crystallized in my own mind, even if the details of plot still remain unknown.

So how about you? Does anyone else put together a synopsis at the beginning of a project? How difficult is it for you to distill down your book into a one page description? What elements do you think make a synopsis compelling?