A Strong Synopsis: Reduce the Time it Takes to Write a First Draft

Posted by: Lia Keyes  :  Category: Synopsis Writing

After spending the last five years writing my first novel, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’d figured out how to write a synopsis sooner rather than later I could have cut that time in half.

If you figure out whether the story holds water before you begin to write, you can save so much heartache. I agonized over every story decision I had to make.

I couldn’t keep the story in my head because it was so jumbled.

Once I had a synopsis, I could see at a glance what needed to happen next. But as a new writer, figuring out how to write a synopsis was hard!  Just throwing myself into the writing of the pages and seeing where they took me was a lot more appealing, but I always ground to a halt after a few chapters because I didn’t know how to proceed.

If I hadn’t learned how to write a synopsis with Mary Buckham, author of  BREAK INTO FICTION (Adams Media, 2009), I would still be floundering. Mary and her co-author Dianna Love have designed a method of finding the essence of your story via a series of templates. By answering the templates’ questions I learned to harness the wild horse of story, and in my answers, as if by magic, appeared all its salient parts.

No longer did waver about how to make story decisions. The flaws in my story logic were so much easier to spot in template form. And no longer did I have to reduce 865 pages of unfocused first draft grunge into a sparkling one page synopsis. The template questions had already reduced the story for me. I now just had to weave them into a one page synopsis.

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. Because how you write the synopsis depends on who you’re writing it for:

  • Is it an agent or an editor?
  • What are their preferences with regard to how long a synopsis should be?

A Hollywood agent will be looking for different things than a literary agent. You have to do your research.

To make it easier for you I’ve condensed some of the information I found into a list.

What Is A Selling Synopsis?

A selling synopsis is a third person, present tense narrative summary of your book designed to help the agent or editor get a quick feel for the story without having to read the book itself. The active word in that sentence is ‘feel’. Inspire an emotional reaction from the overworked agent or editor. Aim to convey the spirit of the novel rather than trying to squeeze in every detail. You’re telling someone about your book, hoping to hook them into reading it.

How Long Should It Be?

This largely depends on the submission guidelines of the agent or editor you’re submitting to, which is why research is important before you begin.

Some are happy with 2-3 pages, double-spaced. Others are so busy they only want to see a one page, single-spaced synopsis.

If they like your one page synopsis, they may ask for a longer one. In that case an easy rule of thumb is to calculate one page for every 35 pages of manuscript with a maximum of eight pages. So if your book is 245 pages, double-spaced, your long synopsis would be about seven pages.

If your story is a plot-heavy thriller or mystery, you may benefit from submitting a longer synopsis, but you should still “give ‘em what they want”. If your one page synopsis intrigues, they’ll ask for a longer one. Be ready.

Synopsis Formatting:

  • In the upper left hand corner include: Synopsis of “Title” Genre:…. Word Count:… By: “Your Name”
  • A one page synopsis is single-spaced.
  • A long synopsis is double-spaced.
  • Both are third person, present tense.
  • Indent paragraphs.
  • No spaces between paragraphs
  • No cover page
  • No fancy headings or fonts.
  • Don’t cheat with font size to squeeze more words onto the page.
  • You may squeeze another line by reformatting the margins at the top and bottom of the page if you must, but keep it to one line.
  • Do not reformat the side margins. Readers like to use them to make notes.
  • Capitalize the character’s name when they first appear; use lower case after they’ve been introduced.
  • Give the same proportion of page space to the first act, second act and third act as your novel does.

What Should I Include And What Should I Leave Out?

Focus on the essential parts of the story: characters, hook, setting, conflict, plan, opposition, resolution. Theme will be apparent from the resolution.


  • Tone: If your book is light and breezy, make sure your synopsis is, too. Convey the spirit of the book through your use of language.
  • Character and Emotion: Give them a character to care about who has a clear goal and a knotty problem to solve.
  • Antagonist: Add an antagonist as fascinating as your protagonist is appealing, who has a lot to lose if your hero solves said problem.
  • Conflict and Arc: Take us through the five main turning points of the story, focusing on conflict.
  • Ending: Show how these work together to bring the story to resolution. This is not the time to tease the reader. An agent or editor wants to know you can tie things up and complete the emotional journey.


  • Don’t include dialogue, unless necessary; and then only provide soundbites.
  • Don’t lay out the story chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow.
  • Don’t include every character in your cast of thousands. Just focus on two or three.
  • Don’t include every subplot. Stick to the main plot, only introducing one subplot if it’s essential to conveying the main plot.
  • Don’t hold back on the puzzle pieces if you’re writing a mystery. The agent or editor reading your synopsis wants to know they fit together and can carry the story to resolution.

Synopsis Checklist:

  • Does the opening paragraph have a hook to get the reader’s attention and keep them reading?
  • Are your main character’s conflicts clearly defined?
  • Can your reader relate to your main character and worry about them?
  • Have you avoided all grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes?
  • Have you hit on the major scenes or plot points of the book?
  • Connect the dots by using summary to form transitions between the major plot points, making the synopsis easy to read and follow.
  • Did you resolve all the conflicts?
  • Did you use present tense?
  • Did you convey the spirit of the book?

When Is The Best Time To Write A Synopsis?

I like to make sure the story holds together before I write, but I’m not left-brained enough to outline. So the first synopsis I write forms a blueprint for the novel. It takes a lot less time to correct a weak storyline/conflict in synopsis form than it takes to fix it in outline or novel form.

But I expect the synopsis to change once I start writing. Allowing fluidity doesn’t negate the effort of writing the synopsis before you began. The first synopsis helps you to stay focused as you write, even as you deviate from the plot you first came up with. You’ll still have theme, character and arc to help you make decisions about the best way to go forward if you have several options.

Stories are often compared to taking a journey. There are many ways to get to the end. It just depends what experience you want to give your passengers:

  • Do they want to get there fast?
  • Do they want the scenic route?
  • Do they want to enjoy diversions along the way?
  • What is the theme of the journey?
  • Why did they decide to make the journey?

You had better give them what they want by journey’s end. Or they’ll never ride with you again.

Advice From The Experts:

Agent, Nathan Bransford: “A synopsis needs to do two things:

  1. It needs to cover all of the major characters and major plot points (including the ending)
  2. It needs to make the work come alive. If your synopsis reads like “and then this happened and then this happened” and it’s confusing and dull, well, you might want to revise that baby.”  Read more from Nathan here

Romance author, Kathy Carmichael: “I usually write a short synopsis at the partial stage, after 3 chapters or 50 pages of story. I don’t like waiting until the book is finished because simply by writing my synopsis, I’m reassured I have a whole and complete story. Once the book is completed, I generally write a second synopsis, longer, with a few more specifics.”  Look for Kathy’s Cheat Sheet here

Agent: Rachelle Gardner/Client: Gordon Carroll: ” Conflict-conflict-conflict! Motivation and conflict are often interrelated, but not always. Either way, this is where you get to showcase the conflict that causes tension that keeps people on the edge of their seat and sells books!”

Read Gordon’s article on writing synopses on Rachelle’s blog here:
Part One
|Part Two

To Round Things Up:

Nobody enjoys writing synopses. During the process of composing one we have to face whether the story holds up or not. It’s all too obvious in a synopsis whether the writer is in control of the elements of the story and, much like conducting an orchestra, one false or badly timed note can mar the total effect and reduce the emotional impact on the audience. But that’s no reason to avoid it.

Rather, it’s the reason to do it first, and continue to revise it as you complete each draft of your novel. Used in this way, writing a synopsis will save you a lot of time and heartache. The synopsis is not your enemy. It’s your best friend. The kind that tells you whether you have spinach between your teeth before you head out for a hot date.

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12 Responses to “A Strong Synopsis: Reduce the Time it Takes to Write a First Draft”

  1. claudine Says:

    Great article, Lia. Lots of great “meaty” details. Thanks! I love your comment that no one likes writing these. Funny how encouraging that is to hear.

  2. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    I know, right? It’s as much fun as flossing. But when you’ve perfected a good one, one that makes readers’ eyes light up and say “I’d read that!” you can return to the manuscript with greater confidence. Blocks and doubts evaporate. You know where you’re going. It’s a great feeling!
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..TRANSCRIPT: The Unique Appeal of Flawed Characters =-.

  3. michelle Says:

    thank you so much, the timing is perfect for me ’cause I have this plot all tangled up in my head, on my computer, and in my notebook! I need to straighten everything out and I am going to do it now!
    .-= michelle´s last blog ..I Love List-Making! =-.

  4. Lori Says:

    Twitter: loriwrites
    I’m still trying to figure out how to write a synopsis before. I had such a hard time after my first manuscript, much like you, I know better than to wait until I’m finished. I’ve been writing the synopsis concurrently, but I’m wondering if that’s leading to the effect mentioned above: “this happened, and then this happened, etc.” I’ll have to try your advice. Thanks!
    .-= Lori´s last blog ..When You Hit a Writing Wall =-.

  5. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    I’m using Lia’s tips and Mary Buckman’s book and Donald Mass’ notes to attempt a synopsis. Keep fingers crossed for me!

  6. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    Lori, I think most first drafts of synopses read a bit like ‘this happened, then this happened’, so don’t worry. What I’d like you to do is identify the five main turning points of your story, how they affect your main character emotionally, and how he/she is changed by the events. This gives the synopsis reader the “why should I care?” factor. The five main turning points are: The inciting incident, how he/she reacts by forming a plan, who obstructs the plan, the hero’s dark moment when he has to come up with a new plan, realizing that the old ways will no longer work, and how your main character overcomes (or fails to overcome) that obstruction to prevail or fail. In a tragedy, the hero never comes out of that black moment, never figures out the alternative route that would bring him or her success. That’s the tragedy. They can’t change.

    A synopsis shows an editor or agent that you’ve got the trajectory of change figured out, and the emotional arc of the character is complete. The events (this happened and then this happened) are only the means through which we show this evolution.

    Good luck!
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..TRANSCRIPT: The Unique Appeal of Flawed Characters =-.

  7. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes

    I see that you like list-making. :) So approach your synopsis by making a list of the elements that need to be there. You can shift those around more easily than a well-phrased succession of sentences and paragraphs. When you’re satisfied by the tone of the language and the contents of the list (when they show the emotional journey and change of the mc), THEN link them gracefully in prose that reflects the attitude of your mc and tone of your story.
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..TRANSCRIPT: The Unique Appeal of Flawed Characters =-.

  8. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    Birgitte, I love Mary Buckham and Don Maass’ easy-to-follow exercises. When I’m stuck they save me from a day without any writing at all. Even if I can’t write more pages for my WIP, doing the exercises is writing, and the more writing I do, of any sort, the better I know I’ll get. I’ve got all possible digits crossed for you! Go for it!
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..TRANSCRIPT: The Unique Appeal of Flawed Characters =-.

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