March 1, 2011

How to Write a Synopsis

Part of the SCBWI grant process involves submitting a synopsis. *heart begins to flutter* Although I'm allowed up to 750 words, according to 
SCBWI the professional norm is one page, 250 words, double-spaced.

Wait. 250 words? Double-spaced? The synopsis I wrote for the San Francisco Writers’ Conference was 584 words, single-spaced! *palms begin to sweat*

So how do you cut a synopsis in half and still maintain the essence of the story? Start with the basics—beginning, middle, end—and go from there. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The hard part is avoiding the temptation to include too many details.

My SFWC synopsis clearly tries to squeeze in as much of the action as possible. But you don’t need a blow-by-blow account of the narrative. You need to pull back and look at the big picture.

Begin by identifying the core issue. You can do that by using the Somebody-Wanted-But-So approach:
           1.  Somebody (a character)
           2.  Wants (has a goal)
           3.  But  (something stands in the way/conflict)
           4.  So (s/he tries to overcome it)
           Since a synopsis must include the ending, add:
           5.  How the conflict is resolved.

Bare bones, absolutely, but it covers all the necessary story elements. From here, it’s a matter of fleshing out the plot without drowning in minutiae.

Following these rough guidelines, I’ve reduced my synopsis to 321 words. *rewards self with chocolate* However, I’ve got less than two weeks to whittle it down to 250. *red wine goes well with chocolate, doesn't it?*  
Must. Be. Merciless.

What's the shortest synopsis you've ever written?

Links related to this post:
SCBWI Grants:
SWBS approach:


  1. Great post Kathryn. I'll be sure to come back here when I get my query finalized and move on to the synopsis.

    Good luck with the grant. I'll be rooting for you!

  2. At 250 words - that's almost as short as a query. Is that the same thing?

  3. Excellent synopsis of the synopsis writing process! :D

    Thanks for sharing this.


  4. Yikes - I say red wine and chocolate are called for! ;) I've always thought single spaced one page was the correct form. *blushes*

  5. Thank you :) Wrote your notes in my writing journal for when i buck up and tackle my synopsis :)

    Denise of Ingleside

  6. Great advice, Kathryn. It is really, really difficult to write a one page synopsis when you have co-protagonists with separate arcs and the story doesn't make sense without both of them. My synopses usually start out at ten pages. I cut everything I can and get it to around four. Re-evaluate, cut it to two pages, and finally get it down to one. Doubt I could ever start out writing a one-pager.

  7. Rahma: Thanks! There's lots of competition for the grants, but the application process itself is valuable, I think.

    Stephanie: A query does include a brief synopsis, but it's more of a teaser and you don't need to include the ending.

    Martina: When you spend years helping kids learn to write, you look for the most succinct format available. And I'm a big fan of mnemonics! ;-)

    Lisa: So did I, and it still might be in other situations. This is for a SCBWI grant, and the coordinator said the judges prefer double-spacing because it makes the synopsis easier to read. Since they have to read hundreds, maybe thousands, of entries, that makes sense.

    Denise: You're welcome! I wrote a one-page synopsis of my current WIP while I was still in the first draft. It's helped keep me focused the story arc so I don't run off on tangents like I did with my first book. Good luck with yours and thanks for stopping by.

    VR: I believe my original synopsis was closer to four pages, double-spaced. I've got the current one down to 260 words. It's a challenge!

  8. I still dread synopsis writing, and I found this helpful. :)

  9. I didn't tackle mine yet... OH! I really must do that!
    I think I'll re read your post and give it a try after i get the kids to bed tonight :) I know what you mean by it keeping you focused.
    Thanks again,
    Denise of Ingleside, PEI

  10. Denise: So sorry I didn't get back to you earlier, but Blogger put your comment in "needs moderation" and I didn't see it until today.
    Were you able to write a synopsis using my guidelines?


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