Writing the Fiction Synopsis

Writing the Fiction Synopsis

Pam McCutcheon

May 2014 $10.99
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-471

Available in E-book ONLY. This item is not available directly from BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books.

Never dread a synopsis again!

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Never dread a synopsis again! Pam McCutcheon, multi-published author and acclaimed guru of the synopsis, guides you step-by-step through the process of creating the synopsis you need to understand your novel and market your manuscript.

Updated and revised, this second edition is organized as an interactive workbook using extensive examples and worksheets to help you create and understand:


  • What a synopsis is and why you need one
  • What to put in your synopsis, what to leave out, and why
  • How to include plot and character development in your synopsis
  • How to add tone, mood, and considerations important to your genre
  • Three methods to start your synopsis
  • The key to a good synopsis
  • How to write a back cover blurb
  • How to use the plotting board to build your synopsis



"Must have craft!" —Debra Dixon, award-winning author of GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

"Bravo! Pam McCutcheon has decoded the synopsis! Writing the Fiction Synopsis is packed with useful information helpful to both the professional and novice writer. I wish I’d had this informative book years ago. Writing the Fiction Synopsis is a must-have tool for all writers. Pam McCutcheon has given a writers a cure for the synopsis headache." — Maggie Osborne, award-winning author of more than 40 books

"I’d been to Pam McCutcheon’s online workshop on synopsis and found it really helpful, so I bought this book, too. (Watch out everyone, I’m going to gush.) This is by far the best book I’ve ever seen on writing a synopsis!! And like you and many others, I've gone nuts trying to get my synopsis to say what it needs to say in an interesting and concise way without making it a yawner. I’m also one of those authors who writes a rough synopsis as a road map after I've written about 3 chapters of a book to keep me on track. This book makes it so easy. If you buy one book on writing a synopsis, buy this one.” — Lisa Mondello, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

"Writing the Fiction Synopsis is destined to be a classic!" — Karen Fox, RITA-nominated romance author



Chapter One

Getting Started

"I usually request a five-page, double-spaced synopsis. One of my pet peeves is authors who don’t follow instructions and send shorter or longer synopses. Always send exactly what an agent requests. Otherwise, you send the signal you can’t or won’t follow instructions.”

—Denise Marcil, President, Denise Marcil Literary Agency

Most writers hate writing synopses, and no wonder. After you’ve agonized over several hundred pages to make your prose absolutely perfect, how could you possibly distill that down to a measly ten or twenty pages? Or, worse yet, one or two pages?

By the time you’ve written the book, everything seems important. So the hard part isn’t determining what to put into the synopsis—it’s figuring out what to leave out. Some people need to write a few chapters before they write the synopsis; others need to write the entire book first. It doesn’t matter how or when you do settle down to write your synopsis. The important thing to remember is that any method is right... if it works for you.

However, throughout the following chapters, I’ll assume your manuscript is complete and you’re using this book to write a synopsis of an existing story line. But if you write the synopsis at an earlier stage of the process, don’t worry. You can also use this method to develop a story from scratch.

What is a synopsis?

Simply put, a synopsis is a way of relating your story in a logical, chronological manner that hits the high points of plot and character development and resolution.

How is that different from an outline? Many people use the terms interchangeably, but in my mind, they’re two entirely different things. An outline, used primarily in nonfiction proposals and research papers, tellswhat happens in a dry, detached manner. A synopsis, on the other hand, is a narrative that shows your story’s progress from start to finish by describing how character development and emotion affect plot development and vice versa.

Think of these elements like cascading dominos. Each domino of plot and character in the synopsis affects the one after it, which affects the one after it, and so forth. Your synopsis should show how you set up all the dominos, then knock them down one by one.

One of the obvious advantages of using the narrative synopsis is that it’s friendlier than an outline and reads as if you’re describing the story across a dining room table to a friend. It’s also far more interesting than a dry listing of the plot points. However, there’s nothing wrong with organizing your thoughts by using an outline to begin the synopsis process. Later, I’ll show you how to start with an outline and progress to the narrative form of the synopsis.

Why do you need a synopsis?

For the authors who wish to be published traditionally, through a publishing house like Random House, Harlequin, Penguin and others, the most obvious answer is because the editor insists on having one. That’s true, but it’s not just an arbitrary whim. If you submit a partial manuscript (the first three chapters or so), the editor obviously needs the synopsis to understand how the story evolves beyond the third chapter and how it ends. That’s the primary purpose of a synopsis—to allow them a sneak preview of your story.

Then why do you need to submit a synopsis with a full manuscript? After all, the editor has the whole story right there in front of her. Well, she may not have time to read several hundred pages right away and a good synopsis will recount your story in a concise, comprehensible manner. This allows her to determine quickly if the book is right for her house/line and if she wants to read any further. Even editors who start by reading the chapters will probably, if sufficiently intrigued, turn to the synopsis after a chapter or two to see if you can pull off the rest of the story.

Later, your synopsis may be used inside the publishing house to pitch your story to a committee or the senior editor/publisher to convince them to buy it. If everything goes right and they purchase your book, they may use the synopsis to write the back cover blurb and/or provide it to the art department for use in developing your cover art.

For self-published or indie authors who don’t want to submit to traditional publishers (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to explore all avenues for your work), you probably won’t need to write a full synopsis unless you work from a synopsis as you write. You will, however, need to write another kind of synopsis—a back cover blurb.

As you can see, the synopsis serves a variety of useful purposes, not the least of which is convincing the publisher or reader to buy your book. Therefore, it behooves you to put as much effort into writing a synopsis as you did in writing your book.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, and I can hear the groans now. I’m sorry, but there’s no getting around it. Though we writers may argue that our scintillating prose should be the primary consideration in accepting or rejecting the story, the fact is that the synopsis is also a vital part of the decision-making process.

So, putting extra effort into writing the best synopsis you can only makes sense. A muddy, confusing synopsis will only detract from your story. Give the editor/reader a complete, clear synopsis, and you’ll ensure their attention is placed where it belongs—on your writing.

Understanding the market

We’ll make the assumption that you’re writing commercial popular fiction (as opposed to literary), using traditional story structure, and that you want to sell your book. To give yourself the best shot at doing that, you need to understand the genre and market you plan to target (for both indie authors and those traditionally-published) as well as the editors’ submission preferences. Literary fiction would follow the same general format, but may not have the same sort of plot points or character resolution found in popular fiction.

I know market research may seem basic to some of you, but I’ve seen many beginners skip this step and end up wasting a lot of time targeting their work incorrectly or sending their manuscript to the wrong people—or marketing your book to the wrong reader. If you don’t want the editor to immediately discard your submission because you didn’t do your homework, then do your market research up front.

So, take a look at your manuscript and ask yourself which houses publish your kind of story and what genre it falls into. At this point, I often hear people say their book is so wonderful and unique that it defies genre considerations. If so, then how will a publisher be able to market it?

How will a reader find your book and know it’s "their” kind of read? Indie authors, concerned about getting the widest possible exposure, may be reluctant to put their work into one small category for fear their work won’t be seen by a wide enough number of people. That would be a mistake. Unless you harness the power of keywords to describe your genre as specifically as possible, you risk missing the very readers who would be most interested in your book. Readers can’t buy you if they can’t find you. After all, when you go into a bookstore, do you browse the entire store, looking for a novel to read? Most people don’t. They look in their favorite genre sections (mystery, romance, science fiction/fantasy, etc.) for the type of reading experience they want. The same applies to your book, whether we’re talking a bricks and mortar store, or an online vendor such as Amazon.

Here’s a well-kept secret: most publishing houses aren’t in the business of publishing wonderful books—they’re in the business of making money. And if they can’t figure out how to market your genre-busting book, they won’t buy it.

So, how do you begin your research homework? You need to know two primary things: your book’s genre and, for traditional publishing, potential publishers.

Determining the genre

There are a couple of ways to determine the genre of your story. The best way is to read widely in it.

Think about it. If you don’t read mysteries, how could you know what the publisher’s—and reader’s—expectations are? Do you know the difference between amateur sleuth, police procedural, woman in jeopardy, cozy and other types of mysteries? If not, how will you pitch it to an editor?

The same holds true for other genres. You need to understand them in order to write them. Many beginners make the mistake of saying, "anyone could write a (pick any genre).” In actuality, each has its own set of reader expectations and if you don’t meet them, you won’t satisfy the reader... or the publisher.

There are books available on most genres that will spell out these expectations for you and simplify your research, but I suggest you use them only to crystallize your understanding. Nothing substitutes for being a fan and reader in the field you’re writing in.

Okay, so what should you do if you’ve written a romantic science fiction mystery that has lots of action and adventure and is set in the west? You’d be glad to target only one genre... if you could only figure out which one.

You need to determine your focus. If the story concentrates on the developing love relationship between a man and a woman and everything else is subordinate, then the story is a romance. If the focus is on the scientific premise you’ve created and how society has evolved because of it, the book is probably a science fiction novel. And if the main thrust is on solving a murder, you might want to market the novel as a mystery.

You get the idea. The main thing to remember is to determine what genre your book fits into so you can target your synopsis—and your submissions—to the publishers and readers who are most likely to buy them.

Of course, there are a great many cross-genre books written these days, but in each case, you need to know the primary genre so booksellers know where to shelve it, and you can slot it in the appropriate category in online venues.

Let’s look at our three movies to give you an example of what I’m talking about. If you were writing these stories in novel form, what genre would you put them in?

The American President is about the developing relationship between two people. There are other elements in it, but since this is where the focus lies and it has the required happy ending, I think the story falls into the romance genre.

How about Speed? It also has a romantic element with a happy ending, but that’s not the primary focus of the story. Since everything hinges on how to get the passengers off the speeding bus before it explodes, I’d call this one a suspense/thriller.

Star Wars has many different elements in it—science fiction, romance, suspense and action/adventure, but where’s the focus? Since it’s primarily concentrated on the futuristic-type universe, and the characters and plot revolve around the fight between the light and dark side of a distinctive science fiction or fantasy element (The Force), I’d call it science fiction. More specifically, I’d place it in the subgenre known as space opera, though it might also be called science fantasy.

We’re going to begin our synopsis process by jotting down important information in a Worksheet. I’ve filled out a Preliminary Worksheet for each of these three movies at the end of this chapter so that you can study them. I have also provided a blank worksheet in Appendix A for you to use in creating your own story’s worksheet, or you can find them online on my website or the publisher’s website. Take a moment to print one out. Or grab a piece of paper and just fill in your title, genre, word count (round off the word count on your computer to the nearest round number) and setting/time period. I’ll explain how to fill out the rest later.

Finding potential publishers

For those seeking traditional publication, now you know what genre your story falls into, but who publishes that genre? In other words, who might be interested in buying your book? There are several ways to find out. First, ask yourself if there are any published books similar to yours. Not exactly alike (that would be the death knell), but similar in genre, theme, plot structure, length, tone, etc. For example, have you written a cozy mystery like those by Donna Andrews? An epic fantasy series like Game of Thrones? A paranormal romance series like The Twilight Saga? A post-apocalyptic young adult novel like The Hunger Games?

Whatever the book is which you judge to be similar to yours or a "read alike,” open it to the copyright page and find out who published it, then jot the information down on your Preliminary Worksheet under "Publisher.” Chances are, the publishing house is interested in acquiring similar books.

The only problem with this method is that, if the books are old, the house may no longer be publishing the same type. To get more current data, you could look for the most recent Writer’s Market, Novel &Short Story Writers Market or one of the specific genre market guides. These books are updated annually and list publisher addresses, phone numbers, recently published titles, what they’re interested in acquiring, and their submission requirements. However, sources for any books on the publishing marketplace could be out of date since these market books are usually published once a year at most. These days, most publishers will have a section of their website dedicated to providing submission information for authors who wish to write for them. I recommend you try there first.

The best way to keep abreast of what the houses are buying this month (and where the editors are working this week) is to investigate what support is available in your specific genre. Most of them have local and national writing organizations, trade publications, genre-specific conferences and classes, and/or Internet news groups, blogs and loops.

How does all this relate to writing a synopsis? Well, now that you know what genre your story fits into and who is likely to buy it, you need to know how they prefer to receive your submission.

Do they want a query letter first? If so, should you send it with or without a synopsis? Would they rather see the first three chapters and a two-page synopsis? The entire manuscript and a twenty-page synopsis? Do they accept un-agented material or simultaneous submissions?

There seems to be as many preferences as there are editors, so take a few minutes to check those guidelines. Guidelines also vary widely, but most houses and editors will not only tell you their manuscript submission requirements, but often give more specific information as to what type of books they’re looking for in each of their lines. In turn, that will help you understand what to include in your synopsis.

Publisher research examples

I used guidelines obtained online to learn there are several markets that might be interested in a story such as The American President. Let’s say the story is somewhere around 75,000 to 85,000 words. For this example, let’s say the publishers I thought would be most interested in The American Presidentare Harlequin Desire or Bell Bridge Books. Note these aren’t the only markets, just the ones this example plans on targeting first. Next, I completed the Preliminary Worksheets based on their guidelines and included a copy of one worksheet at the end of this chapter. Here’s an example of the market portion for The American President:

I did the same for the other two movies. When completing these worksheets, I assumed the writer was un-agented, so I eliminated those houses that required agented submissions (which unfortunately include many of the major publishers). Kensington and Carina Press seemed the most likely markets for Speed, while Tor and Ace/Roc seemed the best bets for Star Wars. Don’t forget to include the line/imprint and editor’s name (spell it correctly!) in your submission.

Now it’s your turn. Take some time to research the potential publishers for your book, determine their submission requirements, and fill in the appropriate blanks on the lower Market section of the Preliminary Worksheet.

Determining the log line

Now you know who your market is, have some idea of what they’re looking for, and what they require in the way of a synopsis. Next, you might want to think about your story’s log line. This will help you maintain a consistent focus and tone throughout the synopsis.

There are many ways to define a log line, but I think of it as a concise answer to the question, "What is your story about?” It might help to think of the log line as the "high concept” used in Hollywood—the hook that will sell your story to readers. It’s probably also the idea that generated your story to begin with.

Here are some examples of log lines I have created that might have spurred the creation of popular movies:

An FBI trainee must trade personal information to a jailed cannibalistic psychopath in exchange for information on how to find a serial killer who skins his female victims. (The Silence of the Lambs)

A young girl volunteers to fight to the death against twenty-three other teenagers in the annual televised Hunger Games where only one is allowed to survive. (The Hunger Games)

In World War II, an archeologist is hired to find the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis use it to conquer the world. (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Notice that these have three things in common:

Character: Who the story is about

Goal: What the character wants

Conflict: What’s keeping the character from reaching their goal

Note that I didn’t use the characters’ names in the log line examples. Unless your character is a famous historical figure, the person’s name is irrelevant. It’s more important to give an idea of who the character is. So, in The Silence of the Lambs for example, it’s not necessary to know that the main characters’ names are Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, because that tells us nothing about them. What’s more important is that an FBI trainee is matching wits with a cannibalistic psychopath.

In some cases, the goal and conflict may not be stated specifically, but are still implied. Let’s look at those examples again, this time showing you where these elements are:

An FBI trainee[character] must trade personal information [internal conflict] to a jailed cannibalistic psychopath [external conflict] in exchange for information on how to find a serial killer [goal] who skins his female victims. (The Silence of the Lambs)

A young girl [character] volunteers to fight to the death [conflict] against twenty-three other teenagers in the annual televised Hunger Games where only one is allowed to survive [goal]. (The Hunger Games)

In World War II, an archeologist [character] is hired to find the lost Ark of the Covenant [goal]before the Nazis use it to conquer the world [conflict]. (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Obviously, these three elements can come in any order; it’s your job to determine the most effective way to write the log line to intrigue the editor and eventually the reader.

Log line examples

Now let’s look at our three movies and determine how to show their characters, goals and conflicts.

The American President. We could choose either the President, Andrew Shepherd, or the woman he is attracted to, Sydney Ellen Wade, as the main character. However, the movie seems focused primarily on the President, so let’s choose him as the primary character.

What does he want? To win reelection. What’s his conflict? He meets and falls in love with an intriguing woman. Dating her contains all sorts of pitfalls, especially since she’s an environmental lobbyist, and it’s complicated even more by the fact that it’s an election year.

So, the log line might be: The President jeopardizes his reelection when he falls in love with an environmental lobbyist.

Speed. We have a few characters to choose from here, too. We could focus on the cop, the woman who’s driving the bus, or the bomber. But since we’ve decided this is a thriller, we want to look at the stakes. The lives of all the bus passengers are at risk, so I’d call them the "character” for the purposes of the log line.

What’s their goal? Obviously, to get off the speeding bus before it blows up. What’s keeping them from escaping? The bus will explode if it falls below fifty miles per hour or if anyone attempts to get off.

So, here’s how I might write the log line: The passengers on a speeding bus will blow up if it falls below 50 mph.

Star Wars. There are many characters to choose from in this movie as well. Though the story seems to be primarily about Luke Skywalker, the scope is much bigger than that, affecting all the rebels and the entire universe.

What’s their goal? To save the universe. Their conflict? The evil emperor and his minion, Darth Vader, are trying to subjugate them. So, this is how I’d write the log line: A ragtag band of rebels are the only hope of saving the universe from incredible evil.

You might have come up with different statements than I did for each one of these movies and that’s fine. The point here is that the log line you establish will give you the focus you need to write the synopsis. Not incidentally, it will also help you answer the question, "What’s your story about?” which might come in handy in a query letter, a face-to-face session with an editor or agent, or radio interview!

Take a look at the example below for Speed, then go to the blank Preliminary Worksheet and note your log line at the top.


Determining the theme

For the purposes of this book, think of the theme as the point you’re trying to make. It might be expressed as the story question, an aphorism or maxim, or it may simply be what the main character learns at the end of the story. The theme will help keep you focused as you determine what to include in your synopsis.

Some examples:

Is war ever justified?

Love conquers all

There’s no place like home

Have faith in God and He will provide

You will find the strength you need within yourself

Nice guys finish last

Liars never prosper

Let’s look at some specifics now, with regard to our movies:

The American President. There are a couple of themes here. One is evident throughout the story as the storyteller contrasts President Shepherd’s need to win reelection with his desire to do what’s best for the country and keep his campaign promises. It can be summed up by the statement Shepherd makes at the press conference at the end. He says, "I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job.” Or, to put it another way: The ends don’t justify the means. The other theme is the story question: Can the President of the United States date like a normal man?

Speed. Besides the basic good versus evil sort of theme, I think this story can best be characterized by what the main character learns. Jack relies on his partner, Harry, to do his thinking for him, while Jack acts on gut instinct. Harry sums this up at one point when he says, "Guts will only get you so far. Then, they’ll get you killed.” In other words, Jack must learn to think before he acts, or: Look before you leap.

Star Wars. I don’t have anything incredibly insightful to say here. The theme is very simple throughout the series: Good will triumph over evil. ’Nuff said.

I’ve jotted these themes down on the Preliminary Worksheets for each of the three examples; an example using Star Wars is below.

Now you try it. Don’t be afraid to use well-known proverbs or even clichés. The reason clichés have become so commonplace is because they reveal truisms or attitudes held by a great many people. So, by using them (or even slightly disguising them as shown in the first two examples above), you’re tapping into universal belief systems which will help your reader identify even more with your story.

Once you’ve completed that, we’ll talk about characters and their role in the synopsis.





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