Synopsis: An Idea Is Good. A Plan Is Better.

The other day I was corresponding with a writer who’d contacted me though my website. She had a manuscript. And she knew she needed an edit.

Edit, though, is too broad a term. People contact me for an edit all the time. Most first-time writers are wise, now, to the idea of hiring an editor, but they’re not yet completely clear on what that means or how it will help or even how much it will involve them.

I can start with definitions, of course—a developmental editor does this, a copyeditor does that—but the fact is, if a writer hasn’t seen developmental work in action, she still won’t know what to expect. (And, yes, in spite of what you may have read elsewhere, you do need developmental work before you hire a copyeditor.)

So to get started, I always ask for a one-page synopsis. When I suggested this to my prospective client, she didn’t have one ready to go, but said she’d work on it. A few days later I received this note:

Writing the synopsis is proving both painful and very useful. It’s like climbing a mountain, looking down, and seeing everything in the valley. The synopsis made me see the plot for what it really is: ragged and full of holes.

This immediately endeared her to me. Writing a synopsis is a very good exercise for writers, not least for precisely the reason my author mentions: when you “talk your way through” your plot, often holes or other awkward moments become apparent.

Because—it’s OK, you can admit it, we’re all friends here—I know you haven’t outlined the thing. Most of y’all start writing your idea. And an idea’s good! But a plan is better. A synopsis can help you see the plan you didn’t know you had (or reveal that you need more of one).

I’ve written about the synopsis before.* There are some excellent links in that post (check the update too), but here’s a little template you can consider as you write your synopsis, derived from some thoughts about plot.**)

Once upon a time there was ___ / the protagonist
Every day, ___ / the protagonist in his stable world/milieu
One day, ___ / the inciting incident
Because of that, ___ / the story-worthy problem is revealed
Because of that, ___ / the protagonist experiences struggle and conflict
Until finally, ___ / the conflict is resolved, not without sacrifice, and order is restored

I believe you could use this template to construct your synopsis—before you write the first word. Or even after, to look for your ragged edges and holes. But at some (ahem) rather early point you need a reality check. Have you written the book you intended to write?

This happens more than you might think. My friend Nat—author N. K. Traver—experienced it. She’d written quite a bit on her novel—and then, she says:

I decided I didn’t like the direction the already written pages were going and scrapped them. I rewrote them and scrapped them again. More rewriting. More deleting … before I admitted to my agent that I wasn’t as excited about the book as I used to be.

She suggested I outline the story, which, as an improvisational writer, is something I’d never done before. So I tried it. I wrote up a very loose, most-important-plot-points-only synopsis that was about 5 pages long, and it helped me see the MC’s character arc and how the book would end. I started to think maybe things would be okay. I even got a little bit excited about it.

Can you see how a “very loose, most-important-plot-points-only synopsis” is like the template above? I can. It’s a planning after the fact, but now it’s a plan that can be adjusted for maximum impact.

Note we’re still making a distinction between an editorial synopsis and a marketing synopsis, but I think even writing the marketing copy is helpful; it can help you see your material in a new light. What’s the hook? What’s the premise of your story in one sentence? This exercise makes you think about your story using “different muscles”—and will bring elements of your plot into sharp focus.

Let me encourage you, then, to write that synopsis. You may be surprised at what you reveal. And you’re going to need it when you talk to an agent or editor anyway.

* That post was fun because it yielded a hilarious comment from a gentleman (can I call him a troll if he actually identified himself?) billing himself as a publisher/editor who rebutted every single thing I said … absolutely incorrectly. (Delete!)

** I’ve expanded  on a piece written by a screenwriter at Pixar.


Tweet: Synopsis: An idea’s good! But a plan is better.
Tweet: A synopsis helps you see the plan you didn’t know you had—or reveal you need more of one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Sacha Black says:

    Ahhh Jamie, you are nothing, if not extremely well timed. I am doing a writing course, and the current assignment is just this, write a synopsis. Lucky for me I am also writing a novel, so this post was perfectly timed. I too, went grey overnight trying to construct a synopsis. It’s not that I didn’t have a plan, I did… I had written one paragraph per chapter by way of summary to keep me on track. But you know how these things go… Characters have a mind of their own, and quite frankly their ideas are often better than mind. So I tweaked and changed, deleted and edited. Before you know it, whilst the main plot line was basically intact, the story was quite different. Entire characters killed off, new ones bought in….And of course, I wrote the first word some six months prior to this point, at roughly 60K, and what with having a one year old to contend with and a full time job, I cant for the life of me remember what I wrote or what the tweaks were… Cue the wrist slapping for not writing a chapter summary after each finished chapter – yeah, lesson well and truly learnt. My other grey inducing problem, is trying to condense it into just one or two pages two is hard enough, if I had to do one (which I am sure I will at somepoint in the future) I think I would have a heart attack! It’s just so hard trying to step back from something you have invested so much in. And thanks to you, I am pretty sure I know the difference between a developmental and copy edit, in that the first gets the plot right (yes??? :s) and the second checks for grammar and factual inconsistencies?) or is the grammar a line edit? Clearly I still have a lot to learn! Another cracking post, Jamie :)

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Hahahaha. I love hearing from you! And you know, I write these things weeks in advance … Sometimes my timing is good, and sometimes by the time I get around to posting, 3 other bloggers have beat me to it. (sigh)

  2. […] months ago I got an email from an author who was writing her synopsis to send to me for commentary. “Writing the synopsis is proving both painful and very useful,” […]

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  1. By How a To-Do List Is Like a Book* on 27 March, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    […] months ago I got an email from an author who was writing her synopsis to send to me for commentary. “Writing the synopsis is proving both painful and very useful,” […]