Synopses--The devil of summaries

Not the blurb. Not the summary in the query. (quemmary? They need a new word for that.)

The thing that is 2-3 pages that accompanies your book some of the time that makes you cry.

I’m currently writing one, because I’m bored typing up the book, and I seriously suck at writing them, even after reading all the writing advice about them.

What to cut? How do I get a critique without someone stealing all the special from my book (and yes, this has happened to me. Arrghh.) How do I get it to not taste like hard tack?

Someone else must also struggle with these. I hate them. I hate them so much because I rather have the voiciness of the query to back me up.

BTW, my specific book is a slice of life, so doesn’t exactly follow the three act model. Also runs more on realization than it does on conflict, following the kishotenketsu model, though I fake a conflict in there.

LOL. Yes, everyone hates them. I came across an awesome article about writing the synopsis…

That may not work for you, though, because it relies on the beats found in typical three act structure. But maybe it will give you some ideas?


bookmarking this! Thank you!

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I fake a three-act, but really, it’s a slice of life, so it’s a series of smaller events that lead to a faked second act downfall, and then a realization arc (because, really, it’s kishotenketsu disguised as a three act) on the back of a bunch of bad events, and then a slowly rising denouement.

As such the smaller events interlock to create the larger arcs. You know, slice of life, style. So pinning it to one event is hard. Really hard. It’s like a series of events create the larger arc of say, the inciting incident. So while for the query I can fake it’s three acts (when really it’s not), it’s much harder to fake the synopsis and pretend it’s three acts, even though the inciting incident is minor, the second act fall(s) are minor builds ups… yeah… so kinda stuck.

I know slice of life books exist within European canon, but I’ve never gotten my hand on synopses to see how they cheated it.

I got the synopsis down to three pages, but I need the 2-page and 1-page one.

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Might not be relevant to your predicament, but I find that writing a one-page synopsis, while not fun, is extremely useful. It can really highlight structural issues. So useful, in fact, that I now create the synopsis before I start to write the story, then to write the story to fit the synopsis. So, my steps are:

  1. Write a logline for the story I have in mind.
  2. Write a 500 word synopsis for the story
  3. Expand the synopsis, e.g. to 3 pages or approx. 1 paragraph per chapter.
  4. (Optional) Write a blurb. The blurb pays more attention to the start, which is a good area to pay more attention to.
  5. Start writing the story. Some people might start at chapter 1, some at the end, some in the middle. Once you have the synopsis, it doesn’t matter so much where you start.’

Re. the Pub Crawl article that @XimeraGrey posted. Good pointer - but I notice that the author recommends shoe-horning the story into a Hero’s Journey beat structure. Not so sure about that approach.

Beat sheets / outline structures are good analytical tools, but your story may simply not fit that specific beat structure. One good thing about these beat templates is that there are so many of them! Might be better to first work out what the major plot points of your story are. Maybe it will turn out to follow a Hero’s Journey (similar to Save the Cat structure), or perhaps it will fit Vogler’s ‘Writer’s Journey’ or one of Hague’s plot structures, or Syd Field’s or one of a dozen others.


I don’t do outlines, unfortunately, or fortunately. Also because it’s a slice of life (this one, at least) the events need to interlock and depend on each other in a way a three-act doesn’t as much. The smaller events heavily depend on how they act.

So if I alter one single event in the story, the entire story after that slight change will also change, in a way that doesn’t really happen in the traditional three-act structure. How the event happens is more than half of the event. Whereas, if you change it for a lot of these crappy North American movies, it really doesn’t seem to matter if you change some small event in the structure.

There is no B plot, because the “conflicts” run side by side interweaving with each other and affecting each other equally.

I have the disease known as, “I got bored of the three-act structure and misogynistic Aristotle (whom I secretly want to stab like Cesar) in the seventh grade” syndrome. I still yawn at pure three act structures, and go, “Oh” yawn “the inciting incident with nothing new.” “Oh, oh, just fricking surprise me there, right on the end of the second act line.” “Denouement time. Why?”

Maybe I should finish typing it up and then throw it to my Writer’s Assistant to fix.

Oh and back jacket blurb and the thing you send to agents is supposed to be different. I didn’t see that in your list, but it should be there.

Agreed, if it were a complete list of necessary things, it should be there. The 1-4 items are just a personal list of things to do before writing the story. For me, other things needed to pitch a story, such as writing the agent pitch, would come later.

I’ve written one of these horrors myself and they’re not as hard as they look. You need to write a story about your story in the present tense. Name only the main character and no more than two others. Names have to be in capital letters. Try not to mention more than three important characters. If your main character has a friend who’s not that important but needs mentioning just call them Joes (or whatever your characters name is) friend.

This is how I wrote mine

  1. Write a list of everything that happens in your story

  2. Write a crap synopsis. Make sure it’s too long and include as many characters as you like. Use this as your rough draft.

  3. Use your rough draft and trim it. Cut out all the characters you don’t need to mention


Good approach!

Typically, in ALL-CAPS the first time mentioned, then normally capitalized after that. It’s also common to follow the name with the age in parenthesis, unless it’s a novel for the adult market.

E.g. JOE BLOW (17), has a furious argument with his father, and is thrown out of his home. Joe searches for his ex-girlfriend JANE (16), and finds that she is now turning tricks for a former friend who is now a drug dealer. Fearing for Jane’s safety, Joe …

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Ooh now I didn’t know the thing about the age, but then I’m talking about U.K. publishers/agents, USA maybe different when it comes to requirements

USA usually has a synopsis with caps on the first instance. I heard that UK publishers don’t put you through the whole query thing as hard as the USA ones do, unless they converted.

Usually, the characters come with a logline, too, to make a quick run at the character.

For example:
NO NA RI, an assistant props designer who has all her props blurred on screen,

My problem, though is that I have an absolute hate of the pure three act book. I think they are dull as anything and need a change up, especially for Women’s Lit, and super especially for romance. I think the genre of romance could be improved greatly if we’d just let that crap go. I mean, how much do you want to worship some a-hole misogynist for women’s literature? But then that’s a rant and a half.

So I didn’t technically write a three act book, I just faked it so it looks somewhat like a three act book.

So, I’m trying to find a slice of life romance on the North American Market or something Europeanish that’s similar with a published synopsis online. But most of the key words I use go all snobby on how inferior slice of life is as a genre and form type and how absolutely how terrible it is as a story form. Like really? I have a rant back about how destructive the three act story is to feminism and romance too and how slice of life could seriously fix that problem with given examples of successful ones on the international market in countries where rom com wasn’t declared “dead” due to feminism problems, but I guess snobbiness wins when it comes to Eurocentric misogynistic crap. (grins I told you I have a rant and reason)

So trying to fish for a synopsis like one, but can’t find it. Maybe Ordinary People? That’s the closest I can think of that’s a slice-of-lifeish plot.

The “easier” way is to start from the inside out .

1 Create a logline for your story. Your novel in a nutshell. What is your basic conflict about. I’ll give you my latest one as an example, simply because I’ve done the exercise. I actually did it before writing and just expanded afterwards. That approach is a good way to avoid a lot of summarising headaches. So, in my case, i had “To save the love of her live, Mel will have to kill him.” Everything evolves from that nucleus of a story.
2. Then expand on that. What are the key story elements (the bits that flow into the blurb PLUS the ending? I tend to write that “in voice” since my whole synopsis is “in voice”. Some advocate you should be bland and neutral. I don’t agree with that and my synopses have pulled in fulls.
3. You can get there, by summarising the key plot points in every chapter. Based on this “trail of breadcrumbs” you can expand on your premise. Either, you’re a plottr and you do this before writing, or you do it aftwards. As an added bonus, you also get a cool analysis of your scenes and chapters - whether they actually carry the plot.
4. Depending on the wc of the required synopsis you can then add layers and details.

I call it the onion method, only you don’t peel your onion, you layer it up. Hope that makes sense.

During my recent round of queries i came across requests for 3 pagers, 2 pagers, 1 K words, 500 words,
3 sentences, blurb, logline, elevator pitch- Everything under the sun. If you work from a summary, you are likely to spend a lot of time if you don’t have your basic outline under control. This is independant of three acts or not. What is your conflict and how does it unfold i.e. where are the turning points and what is the outcome.
Finito. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Very good. I like it.

This is key - this is why it’s a worthwhile exercise for any author, even if they aren’t querying. The synopsis exercise tends to reveal problems like a flabby middle or a pointless detour or an untied loose end.

You’ve gone through three rounds of distilling a 500 word synopsis to reveal the bones of the story, and you find that the middle third of your story takes 1 paragraph in your synopsis? Something’s wrong - the middle is probably too flabby and needs to be re-written or surgically removed. You find a character or an event you think is really important has somehow vanished from the synopsis? Maybe it wasn’t as important as you think, and takes up too much space in the story.


Slice of life, so while there is a central conflict, it’s not mind blowing. I fake it for my query. In the scope of the book, it’s not that important. The real conflict comes from each character finding work-romantic relationship balance and it really is more about self realization than it is about the conflicts that are interlocking and stacked. The three acts and the conflict are only the dressing to the core story.

I wrote the synopsis, which is 3 pages, but I need to find a way to make it 2 and 1 page long.

I still need to see a slice of life synopsis meant for a publisher somewhere… I know they exist in Western canon. Just need to find one to read and work off of.

BTW, as I said, the “quemmary” as I’m calling it (the summary in the query because it’s a pain.) should be different from the blurb that goes on the back of the book.

I do 1 sentence summary of the story in less than 20 words, as recommended by Anne McCaffrey. 3 sentences is too long.

elevator pitch (which generally has to be shorter)

The synopses, 1 page (250 words), 2 page (500 words or less), 3 page (750 words or less). Also customize them a bit to the agent, if I have time to ponder it.

But the issue I have is it’s a slice of life. Either I lie and cut the key events that build to the crescendo, rather than using one event, or I am able to find a good example of a slice of life synopsis buried in the internet that doesn’t strictly follow the three act structure and find a way to be forgiven for hating the misogynistic form. (well, for Romance is heightens a lot of problems I have with the genre.)

Slice of life operates with smaller events (generally in European and European-centric canon) building to the “key event.” So instead of one key event that puts them over the top, as with say, action, which usually has one inciting incident, it’s say a handful where they finally figure it out later.

So instead of a singular climax, it’s a series of smaller events that work as the climax. (I have about 3?)

And then it’s a soft landing for the denouement, with a lot of different little events, usually more than the inciting event and the climax.

My problem is how do I make it make logical sense, when the event structure is a lot more subtle?

I wish people weren’t half so rigid on stories as they are in North America.

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Not only in the US. The whole Western world is built around structure. Well, perhaps not so much for literature. If your novel is non-sequential you can make that clear. You can list your story strands.
X does Z. Y does A etc. Then they come togeher (or not) and how does it end. I would not try to force your novel into a mold it doesn’t fit in. Try to write a summary for James Joyce’s Ulysses…
You just described your structure to me and I got a fairly good idea of what might be going on (not in detail, but in overview). Do the same for your query.
Who are your protagonists, how do they find their balance, what do they have in common (self- realisation) etc.
What you have isn’t genre fiction, at least not in a Western sense, so I wouldn’t try to sell it as that.

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I’d be really curious to see Ulysses’s synopsis as if it were pitched to an agent. Seriously. I need to read more synopses of stories that are kinda out of the box, but they are hard to find.

It’s the basic build up and pivot (pivot I took from Dae Jang Geum–a Korean drama). I loosely did a three act to please the publishers, but had to dial back because the love interest became entirely unlikable when I did a total crisis and then the relationship wasn’t salvagable. That lead to a scrap and rewrite, with a lower point written to make up for it, faking towards a denouement, but then a lower point. (This, I totally stole from Chinese, Japanese and Korean stories, in that order, roughly.)

So it’s kinds a structure like this…:

Set A starts to introduce the characters, who share their life woahs.

This leads to a specific event where life woahs are detailed, while a new conflict is starting on the downlow. The first conflict is already solved while an overarching conflict is building from all of these smaller conflicts and events. It’s never said, but you feel it. (I totally took this from Japanese dramas and Magic realism)

Character hits realization which helps solve Conflict A, but fails to solve overarching conflict, but in solving conflict A, reader should know that the real problem isn’t solved and what the overarching conflict is. Conflict B is now taking a rise, which is slighter bigger than A.

Conflict B, even when being solved makes the larger conflict, playing in the background, much, much worse. Inciting incident occurs around here, with a series of three main events.

So the overarching conflict comes to a head, but isn’t quite solved, meanwhile secondary overarching conflict has come to a head and is on a collision course with the other overarching conflict. This leads to a grand downward spiral for all characters involved because they aren’t properly dealing with the deeper issues, faking the second act downfall (I even timed it correctly), but the characters work hard and come to realizations about their situations, which gradually fixes the collision of overarching conflicts as the characters face themselves and their situations. And for a reward, a funny little denouement at the end.

No big bad evil. No huge break up (There is a hiatus). Mostly series of human errors making the conflicts as they go. Makes for a Warm and fuzzy feelings kinda fic. self-realization and hard work fix the problems. Slow boil romance.

The overall structure has a Korean drama feel to it, I think. But specific elements I picked up from various places, based on whatever worked for that section.