Book Gadget v0.72

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A "Secret" Formula for Creating a Short Synopsis for Your Book

If you're like most authors, summarizing your book in a couple of sentences is a daunting task.  However, if you're going to sell your book, it's simply something you have to do.  If you choose to go the traditional route, agents and editors alike are bombarded with so many queries that if they find themselves having to do much mental work to understand the gist of your book, they will simply pass on to the next one.  The same goes for self-publishing--all the retailers and distributors require short descriptions of your book.  For example, Smashwords requires a description that can be no more than 400 characters, including spaces!  That's short, folks!
To help you do this, I want to share a formula I learned a long time ago, one that was created in Hollywood.  I can tell you from my dealings with the people in the movie industry that when it comes to stories and story structure, they really know their stuff.
Each and every story is composed of the same five basic elements.  If you can identify them in their purest, simplest forms, you will be well on your way to writing a good two-sentence synopsis of your book, regardless of its length or complexity.
The five elements are:  a (1) hero who finds himself stuck in a (2)  situation  from which he wants to free himself by achieving a (3)  goal.  However, there is a (4) villain who wants to stop him from this, and if he's successful, will cause the hero to experience a (5)  disaster
Actually, what I've just written above IS the two sentence synopsis which will work for any story, no matter how complex the plot or characters may seem.
Before I go further, I want to stop for a moment and address the "Is this a formula?" question that will undoubtedly come up in many writers' minds.   Anyone with any experience in writing (or painting or composing music, etc.)  knows that formulas do not work when creating a new piece of art, that the most you can hope for is a cookie-cutter type result that will be mediocre, at best.  
However, what we are doing here is summarizing a piece of art that has already been created.  Because we know that each and every story must contain these five elements, if we can step back from our own story and identify them, it makes the job of summarizing the story much easier.
The only thing formulaic about this approach is the order in which the information is presented, and the structure of the sentences.  You can change this around later and make the synopsis appear as original and unique as you desire.
So, back to the method.  Another way to write this compressed synopsis is to move the goal into the second sentence into the form of a question, as follows:
Hero finds herself stuck in situation from which she wants to free herself.  Can she achieve goal, or will  villain stop her and cause her to experience disaster?
All you have to do is identify the elements and plug them in to create the most basic  two sentence synopsis for your own story.  By the way, you don't have to put the second sentence in the form of a question--you could write,  She must achieve goal, or villain will stop her and cause her to experience disaster.    I posed  it as a question only because it emphasizes the main narrative question in the story--discovering the answer to that sticky issue is what keeps readers turning the pages until (hopefully) they reach the very end of your book.
The best way to demonstrate the process of creating a two-sentence synopsis is with a real example.  As virtually everyone knows the story of  The Wizard of Oz, let's use that.  The five elements are:
HERO  Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl
SITUATION Finds herself transported to faraway land called Oz.
GOAL  To find her way back to Kansas
VILLAIN  The witch
DISASTER  To be stuck in Oz forever
Plugging the elements into the two-sentence structure, we have:
Dorothy, a farm girl,  finds herself transported to a faraway land called Oz.  Will the witch kill her before she can find her way back to Kansas?
Now, before you begin to think that this sounds too simplistic for your story, or if you don't believe your book contains one or more of these elements, or that they seem too melodramatic, etc.--you're wrong.   Your story has all five elements, or it would not be a story.    
Your story must have a hero, even if that hero happens to be a cat.   And your hero must be stuck in an untenable situation and develop a goal to escape that situation, or you have nothing but a character study, not a story.   The untenable situation could be something as mundane as boredom or as abstract as a blocked unconscious need to act out rebelliousness.  But that untenable situation is there, and the hero must have a goal to escape it.  Furthermore, if there is nothing to stop the hero from achieving her goal (i.e., a villain), then you have no conflict.   No conflict, no story.   
Granted, some of your story elements may require some thought to identify.  For example, your villain might be society as a whole, Mother Nature, or even your hero's self-doubt.  Similarly, your disaster could be little more than your hero having to live with an unbearable self-concept or overwhelming guilt.  It's also important to remember that the "disaster" is  seen through the eyes of the hero.  This is usually the worst possible scenario he or she can envision at the beginning of the story, but may in fact be the just outcome, or the outcome that does the hero the most good in the long run.
Back to The Wizard of Oz.    While the two sentence synopsis we wrote is accurate, it is also painfully dull.   This because we started with the five story elements distilled into their absolute minimal forms (done intentionally by me for the purpose of this exercise).  To jazz it up, let's go through the list and expand each element:
HERO - Dorothy isn't just a farm girl, she's a lonely, wistful farm girl
SITUATION - Dorothy isn't merely transported to Oz, but is whisked away by a tornado and dropped there.  Also, Oz is far more than a faraway land, it's  a magical but frightening place, full of strange characters, little people call Munchkins and witches, both "good" and "bad."
GOAL - Dorothy's main goal is to get back to Kansas, but she soon learns that only the  great and powerful Wizard of Oz can help her do that, and he lives in Emerald City, a long and dangerous journey from her starting point (You'll note that in any story, the hero's main goal breaks down into a series of sub-goals).
VILLAIN - The witch is more than "just a witch"--she is the Wicked Witch of the West.
DISASTER - Dorothy's possible fate is actually worse than  being stuck in Oz forever--the Wicked Witch of the West is determined to kill her.
So, let's plug these expanded elements into the original formula.
Dorothy, a lonely, wistful farm girl, is whisked away by a tornado and dropped into in a faraway land called Oz,  a magical but frightening place, filled with strange  and wonderful characters--little people called Munchkins, and witches that are both good and bad.   Can Dorothy make the long and dangerous journey to Emerald City to see the Wizard, the only one who can help her return to Kansas, or will the Wicked Witch of the West kill her first?
Note that we still have exactly the same structure as before which does make the synopsis read a bit clumsily.  But you have to admit it's a lot more colorful and engaging.  For better reading flow, the first sentence can be rearranged as follows:
When a tornado strikes her home in Kansas, a lonely, wistful farm girl named Dorothy finds herself transported to a faraway land called Oz, a magical but frightening place, filled with strange and wonderful characters--little people called Munchkins, and witches that are both good and bad.   Can Dorothy make the long and dangerous journey to Emerald City to see the Wizard, the only one who can help her return to Kansas, or will the Wicked Witch of the West kill her first?
Once you have this much, you can keep expanding, rearranging, and enriching the synopsis to make it as long and original-sounding as you like.  You can pull in more information--for example, that Dorothy's house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East (which sets up the motivation of why the Wicked which of the West loathes Dorothy, as the two witches were sisters), and you can break the main goal down into sub-goals (for example, that Dorothy is only told that she must "follow the Yellow Brick Road" to reach Emerald City, and that once she does manage to see the Wizard, he tells her she must bring him the Wicked Witch's broom in order to prove her worthiness, and so on)
In my query letters, I always include a two sentence synopsis similar to that above in terms of detail, then usually expand on it in another paragraph and introduce more subtle elements.  In this second paragraph, I always try to point out the villain's motivation to stop the hero (as above) and also the most important character conflict.  Although I did not do this above for The Wizard of Oz, the most important character conflict in that story might be between Dorothy and the wizard--after she does manage to return with the witch's broom, he gives her the runaround, and she must find the courage within herself to stand up to him and demand that he deliver on his promise.
 The two-sentence synopsis method takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you will find the task of writing synopses--of any length--much easier.  In fact, now I often write this type of two-sentence synopsis as soon as my story idea has jelled, because the "top down" approach helps me stay focused as I begin the actual process of putting it into words.
One word of caution:  if you are having trouble generating interest in your book, resist the urge to "reposition" the story to make it more appealing to agents who represent other genres.  For example, if you had written The Wizard of Oz and could not get  any fantasy genre agents to read it, you could compose the following short synopsis to make it into an edgy thriller:
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three total strangers to kill again.
I'm joking, of course, but you get the idea.   Such repositioning misleads agents and wastes their time.
To see the two-sentence synopsis method applied to ten different well-known stories from literature and film, go to  Story Synopsis Quiz.  All ten of these synopses are written in exactly the same form as I have outlined here.  To practice, you might try writing up a few from your favorite books, plays and films.





75 comments:

  1. This is so helpful, thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thanks, Mike.

    This is the best advice on creating a synopsis I've read. Starting the dreaded synopsis is the hardest for me, and you've given me a great place to start. You've also shown a great way of expanding the synopsis into any length.

    I think this is a great way to create a pitch, also.

    Thanks for a great post!
    ~Melissa

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  3. Thanks for the feedback, Melissa, I'm glad this was helpful

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  4. Mike, This was excellent. Short and sweet.
    Thank you!

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  5. Four years I have been grappling with an epic fantasy. I wish I had done this before writing a single word.

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  6. Awesome advice Mike, thanks again! I am always trying to think of the best way to summarize my story for a potential reader. You want to express the complexity of your story that you worked so hard to create, but at the same time you don't want to lose their interest by bogging them down with information overload. It is indeed an art to be able to deliver a balance of the complex quality of your work and why it should capture your reader's intrigue in just a few sentences...I will definitely have fun practicing this!

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  7. It's a brilliant formula, and well illustrated here. I think I first ran across it in Dwight V. Swain's "Tricks & Techniques of the Selling Writer." It worked back then, and it still works today. Many thanks!

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  8. Very informative post!!
    --Jessica McHugh

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  9. Amazing post. I am going to try this. The synopsis is always the hardest part in my opinion.

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  10. THIS is a great post. I think it will help me when writing reviews . THank you ツ New follower.

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  11. Laughing at the 'edgy thriller' interpretation.

    This is a good way to create the back cover blurb also.

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  12. oops, I posted that comment with a profile that is abandoned, dusty with non-use...

    I like the slant @BooksandBeyond saw - the ability to use this in reviews also...

    And still laughing at 'teams up with three strangers to kill again'.

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  13. I've been struggling with one of these for the last week and you've hit the nail on the head. Thanks!

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  14. Perfect. If you don't mind, I'm gonna steal this and use it at home. :)

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  15. I wish I'd found this post several month ago. It would've saved me oodles of grief. Thanks.

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  16. Thanks for sending the direct link to me, this is an excellent post about a great stumbling block for many writers, I'm sure many people will benefit from the formula you've suggested Mike : )

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  17. Simple, effective method and gives you a crisp paragraph for your query letter. Very useful post.

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  18. Put simply: wow! This is the best show and tell post about writing a synopsis that I've read. Greatly informative and effective. Thanks.

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  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  20. Hi Mike,

    I don't know if you remember me - I was in your Entrepreneurial class at Queen Mary in 2009. Glad to see your blog and thank you for this post - 'twas quite helpful.

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  21. This is a great post. I printed it out before and keep it handy as I write my novels. Thanks Mike.

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  22. What a helpful post! We all struggle with queries. Thanks for the tips:)
    -Jenna @ Fans of Fiction

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  23. Writing the novel was easy. Telling what it's about in less than 200 words overloads my brain. Thanks for your clear and concise tip. Guess you know what I'll be doing tomorrow

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  24. Nice one, Mike - I'll try this with my new novel . . . thanks! Best Regards, Scott Hunter

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  25. Thanks for sharing that with us, Mike, it's a great help.

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  26. Oh my God!!! You are a freaking genius. Thank you so much for sharing this. Hope you don't mind but I am sharing this on my blog. This is fantastic.

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  27. I've added this to my favorites! Thanks!

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  28. Love this--thank you! It'll make writing my blurb so much easier. :)

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  29. This was a very helpful post. I'm sure incorporating these elements will increase the chances of catching someones attention.

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  30. Wow! A big thank you, Mike. This might be the most useful bit of writing advice I have ever come across. I just tried it...and in ten minutes had a workable synopsis for a ms. I have tried to write one for--for two years :-) Wow...just wow... speechless.

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  31. Fantastic post! Thank you so much. (You're my new hero.)

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  32. Hi Mike,

    Mentioned you and a couple of your stories on my blog.
    Really like the post above great to see other people like it too.

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  33. Oh, how we struggle writing a synopsis. You have distilled it down into an easy-to-follow method. Thank you!

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  34. Love it! I'm going to have to try this for the synopsis of my next book!

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  35. You've inspired me to take yet another go at rewriting my synopsis for my book. Thanks for giving me 5 main things to focus on!

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  36. I am current mired in synopsis hell and a friend sent me a link to this post. Thank you for explaining the synopsis process in these simple terms so I know where to place my focus. By refining into the 5 major events of the story I now have a great place to start and can expand to any length. Thank You. Thank You. THANK YOU!!! You may have saved a life today! LOL!

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  37. Found this so useful I've written a blog post of my own referencing it :-)
    http://emmawoodcock.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/i-hate-writing-blurbs/

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  38. This is fantastic - thank you so much for publishing it.

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  39. This works for any kind of story telling. When I relate an event, I give way too much detail. Now I know what people want. If it's not enough, they can ask questions. Thank you, thank you.

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  40. Thanks for the tips, Mike. Writing a snappy synopsis is far more difficult than writing the entire story.

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  41. Thanks so much for this, Mike. I tried it. It works. Brilliant!

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  42. Thanks for posting this again. Will no longer dread writing a synopsis. Brilliant choice of sample story!

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  43. Absolutely brilliant! Thank you!

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  44. I'd like to take the power of thanking you for that specialized guidance I've constantly enjoyed viewing your blog. alkaline water better health

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  45. Very helpful. I think I often shy away from synopsis writing because it seems mechanical, but the way you describe it, it definitely makes a lot of sense.

    Cheers,
    Jonas
    http://jonaswrites.com

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  46. thanks for the "formula." This is where I'm at right now and I've been struggling for DAYS!!!

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  47. Or an even better synopsis would be: Bored, lonely Kansas girl travels to exotic lands, kills the first person she sees and continues to kill until she obtains a pair of ruby slippers that will sell well on the North American black market. :)

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  48. thank you. nice to know there are some aouthors who are willing to help some aspiring writers liked me :)

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  49. Nice post, Mike. There's lots of info out there on writing a synopsis but I think it's so difficult because we know so much about the book and are also way too close to it - it's like asking someone to sum up their child's life in two sentences - where to start? This method helps you un-peel yourself from the enormous story a little and thus to be a little more objective. Great!

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  50. Mike, this was simply wonderful. I know it's an older article, but I just saw you tweet the link a few minutes ago and had to pay a visit. I'm nearing the end of (what I believe is) my final revision on a portal fantasy, and like many who have commented above, I wish I would have done this before writing a single word.

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  51. Thank you Mike - you seem to know just what I need to do next to get to where you are...

    Bill

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  52. Thank you for your insight and wise words, Mike. I need to shorten my blurb as I have a tendency to witter on a bit lol.

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  53. This puts the dreaded question of how to write a short blurb in an form that is understandable and easy to follow. Thank you.

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  54. Thanks Mike, very useful, especially when in a "can't see the wood for the trees" situation.

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  55. Thank you so much for this helpful post! I am still working on my non-fiction story and was struggling with how to promote it to an editor and/or agent concisely and truthfully!

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  56. I enjoyed this and learn something. Thank you!

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  57. Love the specifics and the flow of this advice! Makes it very easy to follow and incorporate!

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  58. This post is insightful! It strips away the confusion and gets right to the heart of the matter. I will find this so helpful on my upcoming projects. I've bookmarked it. And thanks!!

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  59. Thanks Mike! This helps clarify my outline and outcome! Looking forward to gleaning more of your advice! God bless!

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    1. Glad the post was helpful, Jessica, thanks for lthe comment!

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  60. Love this post Mike. I am certain that I will be able to put it into practice. Thank you!

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  61. It is really a appreciating formula it makes my work much easier than before.

    Good day Mike
    Thank-you

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