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Writing a synopsis, and how it differs from a pitch

Your pitch is 250 words about your book meant to whet the appetite of readers. It’s a less-gimmicky book blurb. (We often call it the query even though the query letter includes word count, genre, comps, and one-sentence bio.)

A synopsis is a run-down of the entire plot, start to finish.

Most agents ask for a synopsis: it’s an important part of our decision process. We use a synopsis to assess your plotting and pacing when the pages aren’t enough.

I also use it to check the ending, especially with anti-heroes, horror, or thrillers. It doesn’t need to end happily, but it needs to end well-written.

Writing a Synopsis

There are several ways to write a synopsis. You write one sentence for each chapter, then refine that into a cohesive summary. Or you can summarize the plot from memory, mentally sorting out unimportant bits. Some people are great at this.

Or you can zoom out and hit the seven major plot points, adding detail until the paragraph becomes a page. That’s what I’ll teach you today.

Opinions vary on the best way to parse plot: 7-point plot, 5-point plot, three Acts, and W (or M) structure.

They’re all the same.

‘W’ visualizes the three Acts. Those Acts fit snugly around plot points 1-3, 4-5, and 6-7. Five-point structure ignores 1 (introduction) and 7 (denouement) since they’re more phases than points. Even the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey fit into the mold.

Plot is plot. No matter how much two stories differ, they’ll share the basic structure of beginning, middle, and end. These elements are what make it a story.

I prefer seven-point plotting because it’s the most inclusive. For a synopsis, that’s what we need.

The Seven Points

Each of the seven points will (should) come at precise places. Point #2 comes at the 25% mark. If you need help figuring out each plot point, go to where it should be and record what happens on that page.

  1. Hook: intro phase. Introduce the protagonist and throw her into an initial conflict. We don’t know what’s happening yet: everything is a microcosm of the plot to come. Capture our attention: the hook builds momentum for the story. Call and Rejection of the Call happen here.
  2. Journey’s Start: 25% mark. The conflict becomes real and throws the protagonist into the bigger story. It’s her point of no return. This puts us on track to reach the story’s climactic end.
  3. First Pinch: 37%. Introduce the antagonist. The protagonist meets the first resistance to her participation. This is her First Test. It’s shows her what she has yet to learn. Despite small losses, she’s usually victorious. Act One ends on a high note.
  4. Midpoint Shake-up: 50%. Everything changes. Her perspective changes; new information comes to light; someone betrays her; or she gets unexpected aid. Action-wise, it’s the wind-up before the pitch.
  5. Second Pinch:  63%. The protagonist meets strong resistance from the antagonist again. This is the Second Test. Despite recent growth, she loses, or only wins at great cost. The mentor often leaves or dies. Act Two ends on a low note. The Darkest Hour follows this.
  6. Final Clue: 75%. The protagonist gets the last tool or piece of information, paving the way for the finale. She’s ready to finish this. The tension changes: we no longer ask what but when. The protagonist takes full control of the story here.
  7. Denouement: end phase. This includes both climax and resolution. After #6, we know everything we need to know and the fight is inevitable. Suspense reaches a breaking point as we wait to see who wins. Afterwards, tie up loose ends and answer remaining questions.

Here’s an example from THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. Notice the red-herring antagonist (the other children) obscuring the true evil (the Capitol).

  1. Hook: Katniss sacrifices herself to the Hunger Games to save her sister’s life.
  2. Journey’s Start: The mentor forces Katniss to get along with Peeta and they begin training for the Games.
  3. First Pinch: Katniss and Peeta discuss whether they can stay ‘themselves’ while the Capitol forces them to kill. She believes they are nothing more than pawns.
  4. Midpoint Shake-up: Rue helps Katniss and they team up.
  5. Second Pinch:  Rue dies. Katniss realizes she doesn’t hate the other contestants: she hates the Capitol.
  6. Final Clue: The Feast occurs and Katniss retrieves medicine to save Peeta’s life.
  7. Denouement: The last survivors, Katniss and Peeta decide to commit suicide together, which forces the gamemakers to let both win. Katniss and Peeta return home as reluctant heroes.

Fleshing It Out

We now have a rough synopsis one-third of a page long. The only thing left is to add the details that string the points together.

The Careers teaming up against Katniss. Peeta’s betrayal. Destroying the Careers stash with Rue. Killing the last Career with Peeta. That’s all you need. Keep it simple, like this.

Notice everything I left out. Prim and Gale. Peeta and Katniss’s relationship. Katniss’s eerie like-mindedness with Haymitch. His positive character arc. Not even all the kills are listed.

A synopsis should be one page, one and a half at most.

If you must leave out an important subplot, fine. As long as the synopsis makes sense, you’re golden.

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