Elements of a Great Synopsis

I’m entering the memoir category of Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest this year. A new addition to the contest is that each submission must be accompanied by a one page (double-spaced) synopsis. I haven’t written many of those so I got a couple books from the library to help me.

The other dilemma that I’m still trying to work out is that a synopsis usually talks about it’s main character, which in my case is me. But for this contest, the authors name cannot appear anywhere, so I’m either going to have to change from third to first person, or change my main character’s name for this submission. Any suggestions for my new name? Maybe I should just use my stripper name, Streak Illinois? I’m sure I can find something better, but right now it feels like an unnecessary distraction from the real goal: to get this thing polished and submitted by Feb. 18.

Back to the synopsis. The suggestions below are straight from Ch. 18 The Novel Synopsis by Rebecca Vinyard in The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals (Moira Allen Ed.). Somehow, my synopsis is supposed to contain each of the following thirteen elements and cannot exceed one page in length, double-spaced! So the trick is to jam all this information together in such a way that it doesn’t seem crammed, choppy, or rushed. Simple, right? Unfortunately, this book only gives examples of synopses that are several pages long, single-spaced. But I found some shorter examples here compiled by Charlotte Dillon.

1.       Set up

Premise, location, time frame, main characters backgrounds.

2.       Why?

Explain everything, if your character is angry, explain why.

3.       Characterization

Describe your character, not their looks, but their background, personality, occupation. Only primary characters in synopsis.

4.       Plot points

The major decision faced by your character or something unexpected and outside the experience of the character. Stick with the main theme, mention all major plot points. Leave out subplots.

5.       Conflict

The obstacles the main characters must overcome in order to achieve their goals.

6.       Emotion

Include it whenever possible to keep it from being a dull summary.

7.       Action

In the story, this is very important. But in a synopsis, only include it if there are significant consequences.

8.       Dialogue

A few lines of significant dialogue at the most, if any.

9.       Black Moment

A moment of reckoning, when it appears that your hero will never reach their goals and all is lost.

10.   Climax

The moment when your hero succeeds or the bad guy fails. Your character reaches their goal.

11.   Resolution

In a synopsis, don’t be coy, give away the ending. Tie up loose ends.

12.   Basics

Use present tense, avoid passive voice, and focus on flow and forward motion.

13.   Formatting

Double spaced is usually preferred but check Writers Guidelines for each submission. For general synopses, include contact information and word count on the upper left corner of the first page. Subsequent pages should include title, your last name, and page number in your header. But beware, in this literary contest, no author names should appear anywhere to reduce bias.

I’ll post my polished synopsis on this blog in a week or two for your generous feedback.


5 responses to “Elements of a Great Synopsis

  1. Lorraine,
    Yes the synopsis is a challenge–especially the one-pager. I found that the process of writing it really clarified the focus for my book; it truly was a worthwhile experience. But its much like getting a tooth drilled–worth it but painful.

  2. I agree with you Kim, great analogy. It has been a good exercise and I’m really happy with what I ended up with. Now I just have to polish my first 28 pages and send it in!

  3. A one page synopsis seems practically impossible. I blame excessive ADD in the PNW – judges don’t have the attention span for a two pager?

  4. I agree that one page is not much to work with considering all that’s supposed to appear in a synopsis. I was assuming that they must have A LOT of entries to read in this contest if they cut it down to a single page. But who knows….

  5. Pingback: Contests & Synopses | Lorraine Wilde

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