Writing a Novel Synopsis
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
To apply for Writers' Block 2018 you'll need a one page synopsis of your story idea.
One page!? Telling the whole story of my novel!? A novel that, let's be honest, doesn't even exist yet outside of my beautiful imagination!?
Well, yes. But don't panic. We don't expect you to know all the ins and outs of your story at this stage, but it's useful to us to see where you think your story is going to go, and hopefully it will be useful to you, too.
What should you put in the synopsis?
Let's break this down. What do we (and you) need to know about your story at this stage?
1. What, where and when?
What sort of book are you writing? Young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, cosy crime?
Where is it set? Middlesbrough, Mauritius, space, the lost floating island of Bimbleton?
When is it set? 1832, 2018, the third year of the reign of Mad Queen Penelope? Or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
These are good details to get sorted in your first sentence.
2. Who is your story about?
Write a paragraph telling us who your protagonist is, what their situation is, and what they want at the beginning of their story.
Note: It's important that your protagonist wants something, even if it's just for everything to stay the same, because this is what will propel them through your plot.
Luke Skywalker is a young orphaned farmhand on a desolate planet, who dreams of leaving home to become a fighter pilot next year.
Harry Potter is an ordinary boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs at his Aunt and Uncle's house, which he thinks is normal for someone like him who's parents have been killed in a 'car crash'.
Bridget Jones is a thirty-something woman living in London who decides to change her life for the new year by vowing to lose weight, improve her career, stop smoking, and finally, to find a boyfriend.
3. What sets the story in motion?
Next, we'll need to know what the INCITING INCIDENT is. In story terms, the inciting incident is the event that kicks off your protagonist's journey, turning their situation into a story.
Write a sentence or two telling us what that incident is.
In Harry Potter, the acceptance letter for Hogwarts arrives. Harry is a wizard!
In Star Wars, Luke discovers a message from Princess Leia to Obi Wan Kenobi, asking for help.
4. The Quest.
So now the inciting incident has happened, what's your protagonist gonna do about it?
If their budgie has been kidnapped, they must save the budgie. If the prince is trapped in an enchanted tower, they must find him and set him free. If they're going to find a boyfriend, they must get a new haircut and start going to aquafit twice a week.
Write a sentence or two describing what your protagonist must achieve to get them to the end of your story.
5. The Stakes.
But what if they don't succeed? What are the stakes? Why should we care whether or not your protagonist's quest is successful?
Will the world blow up? Will they be stuck in a loveless relationship for the rest of their lives? Will they have to get a new budgie?
Describe the stakes of your story in a sentence or two.
6. The Complications.
Woo! All right! We're half a page in and already we know who your story is about, what they have to do, and what the big deal is if they can't do it.
Next, tell us what's getting in the way. Or, if you like, the plot.
Every story is about someone who wants something. But if that thing is too easy to get, then we've got a fairly boring story.
So in this section, you can tell us about the antagonist - the villain, the baddie - if there is one. Tell us what they want, and how that clashes with your protagonists' plans. You can tell us about the stuff your protagonist tries to do to achieve their aims, and the people, events or personal character flaws that will get in their way.
You know, just everything that will happen in your story.
Oh man, we're three paragraphs in and now I'm supposed to tell the whole story in one paragraph?
Yes. Kind of.
You are not going to be able to cram in every incident and character so try to concentrate on what your protagonist MUST do to get to the end of the story, and what stands in their way.
They do this. But they are stopped by that. So they do this. But that happens. So then they do this, but so much that happens it's like every that in the world has conspired against them. It's an army of that. It's a swirling thatstorm that leaves them literally covered in that.
Try to avoid too many character names and overly-specific details in this section, because a) it can get confusing for your reader and b) you've got no room for it!
Also, avoid dialogue. Even if it's really, really great dialogue, we don't need to be eavesdropping on conversations at this point. It's action, action, action.
Write that paragraph. Or two if you must.
7. Where does it all go wrong?
Every story has a point, usually around three-quarters of the way through, when everything goes to hell in a handcart. It's the FML moment. It's the point at which defeat seems certain. The antagonist has the upper hand. Your protagonist is battered, exhausted, backed into a corner.
Have a think about what that moment might look like in your story. You might not know for sure what that moment is, but at this stage, sod it, make something up. We're writers, that's what we do.
Write it in a sentence!
8. The Climax.
We're nearly there! The climax is where your protagonist draws upon everything they've learned throughout the course of the story, and puts it into action as they race full-tilt towards your novel's conclusion.
And yes, you do have to tell us what that conclusion is.
Please, don't tease us with "Will Milly defeat the evil Dr Dingleberry and save the land of Woah from his deadly Deathbreath?"
Just tell us that she will, and how. Or tell us that she won't, and why.
In two sentences.
9. Read it. Reread it. Rewrite it. A few times.
Well look at you! You've followed this template and written a brilliantly-structured bunch of sentences about your story. You're done!
Or are you?
A wise woman once said: writing is rewriting. But it's also reading. Read your synopsis. Read it out loud. Read it to your Mum. Phone random people in the middle of the night, and read it to them. If they don't hang up, then you've got yourself an intiguing, coherent synopsis. If they do hang up, rewrite it and try someone else.
Rewrite it for clarity - do we really know who this story is about, and what they have to do? Do we really need to name all fifty characters? Do we really need to include every conversation?
Rewrite it for brevity - have we used twenty emojis where a single emoji would do (don't use emojis)?
Rewrite it for excitement - have we used boring, passive language like meets, talks, discovers where we could use words like fights, must, struggles, runs, interrogates...
And then... and then get it sent to us.