Thursday, June 25, 2009

Writing a Synopsis Doesn't Have to Kill You

You pitched this really great story idea to an editor, and now she wants to see, gulp, a SYNOPSIS. For most authors, writing a synopsis is like being asked to kneel on tacks for a week. In fact, it's probably worse, but several years ago I discovered a technique that made it considerably less painful.

At the time, I’d been working primarily on film scripts and the style of writing had become second nature. I loved the techniques of quick cuts and sparse narratives. When I was asked for a rapid turn-around on a synopsis and sample chapters for my novel, ONE SMALL VICTORY, I was seized with a sudden panic. I didn’t even have a working outline for this book. How could I even begin to put this proposal together on a tight deadline?

That’s when I got the idea to use some of the scripting techniques I’d become so comfortable with. First, I started a rough outline of the story in the form of “story beats.” Some people use index cards for each beat, but I prefer to work on a legal pad making a numbered list. For example:


1. Mike is killed in a car accident
2. Jenny’s reaction
3. Jenny finds out drugs were involved

I usually put three to four beats on one page with room between for adding notes as the story develops.

Working on the rest of the plot I finished the initial list before going through it and deciding which elements needed to be included in the synopsis. When that was determined, I started putting meat on the story beats by answering a few basic questions. What happens in this scene and why? What purpose does it serve in the story? What is it saying about the characters?

Taking my first story beat, I added the layers; setting the scene, focusing the tension and conflict, and visualizing the interplay between the characters. This step in the process turned out something like: Mike Jasick, riding in a car driven by his friend who is taking drugs, is killed when the car careens off a country road, goes airborne, and crashes into an embankment.

Notice that I wasn’t concerned with the quality of the actual writing at this point, just the quality of the story development. After a little more thinking about the characters and visualizing how the first few scenes would play out, I decided that opening the synopsis with the reaction from Jenny – story beat two – would be better because of the emotional connection that makes with readers. So this is what I ended up with as the opening sentence with the other two story beats covered in the next two: Life can change in just an instant. That's the harsh reality that Jenny Jasick faces when her son, Michael, is killed in an automobile accident. Then, as if grief isn't enough, drugs are found in the car.

After I finished the synopsis, I decided to use some of the same techniques in writing the sample chapters. I was really struggling with the narrative transitions because film scripts don’t use them. They have this handy little tool called a “cut to” that I’d been using for several months. Instead of sitting here watching my cursor blink as I tried to come up with a transition, I thought why not use “cut to” then take it out in the final draft.

The initial writing of the chapters went incredibly faster this way. It kept the action flowing and helped me stay focused on the essential elements of each scene. In the second go-round I added character emotions and reactions to the action, keeping it focused so the motivation for later action was developed. As I mentally scrambled to find the transitions, I realized that I didn’t need to transition every scene. I could just drop down a couple of extra spaces and jump into the next one.

Some of these techniques obviously wouldn’t work for every novel, but they are good tools for stepping up the pacing for mysteries, thrillers, horror, and some contemporary mainstream. I think a modified form would even work well for romantic suspense and science fiction. And using the story beats is definitely an asset when outlining and writing a dynamite synopsis.

Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for and ForeWord Magazine. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. I liked this post. I outline my story, so I think I'll just use bits and pieces of it, but I like your idea here. The advice I can take from this is not to worry about the actual writing until I have the basic storyline down. Thanks.

    Lynnette Labelle

  2. Great advice. Thanks :)

  3. Thank you so much! I've been sitting here sketching the outline of my next novel and getting a bit bogged down so your post couldn't have arrived at a better time. (Goes off singing 'I can see clearly now'...)

  4. Great idea. Makes it much easier to outline your book, plus helps you to cut out the stuff that you don't need.

    Straight From Hel

  5. Most excellent post! Thank you so much for this. I'm rotten at writing synopses, and I think this is just the help I need.

  6. Most excellent post! Thank you so much for this. I'm rotten at writing synopses, and I think this is just the help I need.


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