Synopsis writing

There is a truism about grant-writing in academia that goes something like this: Sure, applying for grants is exhausting and painful and humbling and almost always fruitless, but you’ll learn so much in the process.

I really want to be able to brush this off with a casual “fuck that” but, as is often the case with these things, truisms hold….well, truth.  Every time I’ve applied for a grant, I’ve learned about myself, honed my project, produced useful abstracts, and strengthened the armor that protects me in the face of rejection.

So, when it came time to decide whether or not I would apply to Clarion West, I decided to just go ahead and learn from the process.

To be fair to myself, I suppose there’s a chance I’ll get in.  But it’s the tiniest snowball’s chance in the deepest layer of Dante’s inferno.

More so, I applied because I wanted to see if the application process was as useful to my creative writing as grant applications have been to my academics.

The answer? Hell yes.

As I worked with my beta readers on my first chapter, I learned about pacing, character development, exposition, and clarity.  My bio construction helped me find the right words for articulating my desire to build a hybrid career out of historical and fictional writing. And, most helpful of all, the process forced me to write a synopsis.

A synopsis is not unlike an academic abstract, turns out.

They are similar in that they state the arc of your story/paper clearly and concisely, giving away the major plot points/arguments and arriving at an exposition/conclusion.  They are both short, without room for mincing of words.  And they are both terrifying.

They are different in that a synopsis must do all the work of an academic abstract while also hooking the reader, revealing the emotional stakes for the main characters, and demonstrating voice.

Needless to say, I was at a bit of a loss going in to the thing.

So, in the hopes that it would be helpful to another writer out there, I thought I would detail my process, the pitfalls, and where I ended up.  For your consideration:

Step 1:


Step 2:

I sat down and wrote out all the major plot points, which took eight double-spaced pages.  I reduced this to four pages by crossing out all the subplot, but I was still left with a list of actions, void of emotional content.  And I still had too many characters to juggle.

Step 3:

So, I started googling around online, looking for synopsis tutorials.

The first one I found that was truly useful was Glen C. Strathy’s “How to Write a Synopsis.”  He divides the synopsis into a series of steps and provides questions that will generate the material necessary to each step.  I was able to plug my plot points into his formula, develop a bit more thematic consideration, and come up with a more meaningful list of actions, with emotional content this time.

But, I still felt like the synopsis was a bit weighted–it did the job, but it revealed the job in the doing.  Sort of like the difference between that commercial for your local Mazda dealership, and a masterpiece like that commercial for Allegro where the Polish grandpa learns English and suddenly you’re sobbing and thinking about dogs and rubber ducks and how you desperately need to learn a second language.

So, I went back on the hunt and found “How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis” by Sooz.

This second article was my silver bullet for a couple of reasons.

First, it geared me toward a one page product.  I tend to write long–I blame it on the Victorian sources I read, and on Victorians generally–so anything that promises to cut down my output is almost immediately helpful to me.

Second, it provided an incredibly clear example of a synopsis in the making, using Star Wars as an accessible guide.

Third, it asked for scenes as opposed to answers to questions, which inevitably pushed me toward active verbs and crisp depiction.

[It may be, as you’re working on your own synopsis, that you can just go straight for Sooz’s article.  But I would recommend using both takes, since one helps you to generate the necessary info and the other helps you to hone it.  And I would especially recommend you use both if you’re creating a 3-page synopsis, as I was.]

Step 4:

I snipped away at my synopsis until it was precisely three pages in 12-point Times New Roman.

Step 5:

I revisited the submission guidelines and discovered that Clarion West wants 12-point Courier.

Step 6:

I converted my fonts and watched my synopsis jump from three perfectly crafted pages to five perfectly crafted pages, which I then had to hack apart and reduce.

I would recommend you skip steps 4-6 by writing the damn thing in the right font to begin with, particularly if you don’t have an older brother with a skill for editing who just happens to be nearby when you need help the night before your submission deadline.

But, I will say, the last minute panic managed to clarify the synopsis even just that much further–there’s always information that can come out, making your through-line just a bit clearer.  Cut, cut, cut.

My final recommendation?

Write and re-write your synopsis all throughout the editing process, not just when you’re planning to submit a manuscript.  Because, holy cow, the clarity.

A synopsis shows you exactly when your main characters make their major decisions and why.  It shows you which characters are your movers and shakers, and which are there for warmth and depth…and the answer may surprise you.  It shows you all the plotting mistakes you made–that one action doesn’t quite follow another, or that a character needed introducing a few chapters up from where you originally slotted them.  And it shows you that, goddamn, you have a story.  And that story, so importantly, has a satisfying ending.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “Synopsis writing

  1. Though it’s a much different genre, I too tend to write long as well. In my case, I blame the beats not the Victorians, but the end result is the same.

    I’m in the process of applying for a travel writing workshop scholarship that requests a writing sample that’s 2,500 characters, and an explanation of why they should select me that’s 1,500 characters. That’s characters, not words. It has been challenging, to say the least.

    It has, however, prompted me to reconsider how I write. I tend to use flowery descriptions at time, and often wax poetic. I don’t think either is necessarily bad, but this application has helped me realize I should work on using those traits more sparingly and perhaps more constructively.

    • One of the books I’ve read on editing makes the argument that flowery language has more effect when it’s used sparingly. But that means you have to find a voice that makes room for the possibility of poetry while remaining, the majority of the time, clear and sharp. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but hopefully your application process puts you on that path!

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