Smoothing a Choppy Synopsis

Dear Sue…

The choppiness may result from jumping around in an effort to account for all the details and characters. Synopses aren’t exhaustive, particularly if the story is a complicated one with a large cast. When the editor is ready for the full skinny, she’ll read the manuscript itself. For now, she’s looking for a summary of your main plot and main character arc. That’s it. So, in two or three pages, tell her what the main character needs or wants to achieve, what threatens the MC enough to kick-start the story, what steps the MC takes to achieve that goal, and what challenges the MC overcomes to get there. Walk the editor through those chapter by chapter, using direct statements. You’re telling at this point, not showing: “In this chapter, MC does X and it worsens her problem by X.” If you’re well short of 2 to 3 pages, you can trace a subplot through the chapters, too. But only do that if the subplot is essential to understanding the main plot’s path. After that framework’s in place, go back and massage the chapter rundown into a smooth story of your story. A hint of your narrative tone can sneak in now, and you can work in sentence variety. The result is a synopsis that does its job and shows off your writing mastery at the same time.

Happy writing!

The Editor


  1. Thanks for the great pointers. This is the first time I’ve heard it described in such a simple step-by-step manner. I’ll be starting a synopsis soon and need all the help I can get. 🙂

    • I think part of the dread comes from the fact that writers spend so much time trying to show instead of tell, to put details into their ms that bring the characters and places alive. It almost hurts to move away from that and go into summary mode for the synopsis.

    • Hey, it is written that Synopsis should be in Present tense, who to deal with if my story momentarily keep going in past throughout the story. Can I write it in past or what should I do? Quite confused. 🙁

      • Write the synopsis in present tense regardless of the tense in the story itself. For examples of that, look at the back cover copy of any paperback–it’s always written in present tense. It may refer to a past action, but it talks about the story as if it’s happening now. “Jack flunked out of high school. Now he’s working for his uncle’s tax preparation business and miserable. The only bright spot in his days is Jessica, the summer intern. Together they discover a mystery and piece together the clues.”

  2. Wonderful instructions. You have a great way of weaving the message “calm down and take it slowly, you’ll be fine” into your advice!

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