Thursday, March 4, 2010

"OK, Send Me A 2 Page Synopsis"

How To Extract A Synopsis From A Complete Work Of Fiction

The sweetest words any author of anything can get from an agent or editor, "Send Me -- " And it can be a synopsis, a proposal, a query letter, a chapter and outline, anything but the nice, complete, whole, speaks-for-itself work.

It's not a rejection, it's a challenge. Most writers would rather be rejected than have to write a synopsis of a completed work.

The request inevitably causes the author of any fiction piece to panic.

Why panic? Because the author has all the reasons why the ultimate consumer will relish the piece jumbled up in joyous artistry.

The author knows what's great about what they've written, and the author knows what's important to the reader-viewer.

And all of those important things that the author's mouth wants to say all at once are the things the author would enjoy if reading the work of some other author.

All of the important things about a piece of fiction are the things that make it DIFFERENT from all other stories.

These are the unique things, the vivid things, the visual things, the emotional thrust, the memorable things, the multi-dimensional resonances of the character, and actually these are the things that aren't even explicit within the narrative!

The important thing to any fiction consumer is the background, and the way the characters grow out of that background and exemplify uniqueness within the human story.


The only thing that's important for the Agent or the Editor riffling through queries, or for the Producer trolling heaps of "pitches" or "trailers" or videos on YouTube, looking for the ONE thing that would fit the production line they are charged to fill -- that ONE thing that's worth the investment because it'll make more than the investment -- the only thing that's important is what makes this property the same as whatever just racked up huge sales.

Or the same as a classic that always racks up huge sales no matter how many times it's been imitated.

Let's repeat that:

1) Authors and Consumers want WHAT'S DIFFERENT
2) Editors and Producers want WHAT'S THE SAME

So an author tasked with writing a selling pitch, a synopsis, a summary, or even a description of a story they've written finds their mind "crashes" -- freezes solid just like a computer that's run out of memory.

The only solution is to reboot using a different operating system.

You have to change your whole mentality and emotional involvement, your perspective and your values to create a synopsis of a work you have written.

There is a systematic method for doing this that works for short stories, novels, screenplays and any piece of fiction that you have written.

And once you've got your perspective rebooted, there's a systematic method for generating the synopsis from the whole work.

So let's look at these 2 processes one at a time.


This might take some pacing back and forth, or jogging, or maybe a shopping trip to the mall, getting a haircut, working out at the gym, a night's sleep. Or maybe doing something you almost never do, something physical followed by something that calls for sitting still. For example, a swim followed by lazing in the sun until you dry off. Or a workout followed by a massage.

Each of us has a method for shifting gears. You have to let go of the set of priorities that's been driving you, and pick up a whole new set of priorities. You aren't YOU anymore. You are SOMEONE ELSE.

As writers, we do this several times while writing a scene -- first we're one character, then the other, speaking the dialogue, throwing the punches, running for the exit.

We do it while plotting -- first we're the protagonist, then we have to be the antagonist thinking up something to out-wit the protagonist.

So it's a familiar procedure, just a different application.

The commercial marketplace is the natural enemy of the creative process. It wants "the same" and creativity wants "different."

"Write a synopsis" is a protagonist - antagonist situation, one you are wholly familiar with. You have trained yourself to play either part at will.

As the creative storyteller, you are your protagonist. You really want your story to reach your audience and you are driving yourself to exceed your own limits, heroically, in order to reach that goal.

As your own marketer, you must prevent any inadequate product from reaching the market lest a disappointed consumer ditch your brand name. So you pit yourself, with all your cleverness, against the eager author who wants to reach your market at all costs.

Here are the steps to take after shifting mental gears to become a marketer.

1) The oldest adage of marketing is, "You Are Not Your Customer"

That mind set lets you attain a very clinical distance from your product and from the purchaser of your product.

I wrote a post examining this adage and how it dooms you to failure in trying to "market" via social networking:

The primary error that authors writing sales-materials aimed at intermediaries -- such as agents, editors, producers (directors, actors, contest judges) -- make is the confusion of social skills and marketing.

I don't know any school that teaches the difference, but there is a difference that matters.

They say, in Hollywood it's who you know not what you know, that makes for success.

Notice how one-way that is. It's not who knows you, but who you know.

YOU are a blank wall to "them" -- but they are an open book to you.

That's the marketing mind-set. I see you; you don't see me.

2) Study WHO you are writing this synopsis for. You will need a different synopsis for each purpose, each contest or festival, each editor or agent. Depending on "who" they are, and what you know about them and their business, on what they think their business needs and what you think their business needs, you craft your synopsis to reveal that exact aspect of your piece that best fits their needs.

3) Put yourself into the position of the person you are pitching to or synopsizing for just as you put yourself in your antagonist's position to figure out what the villain will do to your hero next.

Here's a good way to get a feel for what the person you are pitching to experiences.

a) pick out a KIND of project in which you (as a purchasing producer) would want to invest your company's funds.
b) go to one of the websites where screenwriters post pitches for their screenplays and riffle through the pages looking for something that matches the KIND of project you thought of.
c) when your eyes have permanently crossed and you are wholly lost and bewildered, in despair of ever finding anything worthwhile, write down a list of things that were wrong with the pitches you saw.

That 3-part exercise will refocus your mind into the perspective of the person who will have to look at (not read) your synopsis.

This will help you frame an opening sentence.


If you have been an orderly writer, you probably have your original concept and maybe original outline for the thing you must now summarize.

If so, your job is pretty much done except for casting it into full sentences, jazzing up the vocabulary, and emphasizing the aspect that best fits the market.

Or perhaps the end product does not at all resemble the initial concept or outline.

So then you must reverse engineer the story to extract the bare bones.

How do you tell the bones from the flesh, the muscle, the fat, the skin and the pelt? Don't panic. There is a way. How much flesh you put on the bones depends on the length of the description of the story you must create.

What's the difference between a synopsis and a summary and a pitch?

The difference is LENGTH -- or the percent by which you must shrink the full story in order to meet the requirement.

All you need to know is how long the finished piece is, and how long the presentation is to be. Whether it's called a summary or synopsis or outline does not matter to the process. Different people call the same thing by different names. Just ask how many pages or how many words (page is about 250 words).

In both novel and screenplay presentations, you need to extract the following before you start writing your synopsis:

a) The story in one sentence.

b) The plot in one sentence.

c) A 3 sentence paragraph that nails the beginning, middle and end. At most 3 short paragraphs, 9 sentences maximum. This is the blurb that goes on the back of the paperback book.

You'll find a discussion of the exact formula for how to generate this description of a novel in this post of mine where I quoted Kristin Nelson:

Here's the simple formula:
The cover blurb (and the query letter, which ideally becomes the cover blurb) should be no more than NINE SENTENCES, but may be more than one paragraph (3 parags is good). It should include these four elements and nothing more:




Inter-related Plot Elements

Any sentence that does not address one of those four elements should be removed.

At the end of Kristin Nelson's talk at Denvention 3 (she's an agent who blogs), I commented from the audience and Kristin paraphrased my comment about writing the cover copy before you write the novel brilliantly:

d) A 1-page (250 word max) description of the story.

e) A 2-page synopsis of the whole story.

f) A 3-5 page complete summary that can include a lot of detail that shows how this piece is different from others of its kind -- while at the same time showing (not telling) just what KIND this piece is, and how it is identical to the most successful of its kind.

g) For a screenplay, you might have to produce a "Treatment" at some point, and that includes a scene-by-scene description of what happens and where it happens. An orderly writer often writes a treatment first, then just fleshes that out into the entire screenplay. Sometimes, if you have a good track record in film, you can sell a Treatment and they will hire someone else to do the drudgery of the screenplay. So a Treatment is the whole story, broadly summarized.

So how do you extract these 7 different length presentations from your full length piece?

You do it in order, as listed above, with the shortest version done first and the longest version done last. (some ornery writers do the long versions and cut)

Sit back, close your eyes, and bore into the material until you find exactly what it is about.


That's the one sentence, elevator pitch. The hook.

Is it about a person, politics, historical events, a style of thinking (zany-scientist; staid spinster gone wild?), a culture? And what does it say about that culture? What it says is the theme, which is embodied in the title.

FIND THE LOGLINE - the one-sentence that encapsulates the entire screenplay. Do it right, and the rest of the sizes will unfold right out of it.

There's a formula for doing loglines that comes from Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series on screenwriting. You just use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (which works for screenplays and novels, too) and generate the logline.

The Beatsheet is posted here:

And on that page you see right above the beat sheet, a list of films that are good examples of each of Blake's "genres" - or categories that you must fit yours into so that you're "the same.'

But the exact descriptions of each of what goes into the beats is in his books. I recommend SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES which is replete with examples.

In the comments forum on you'll find the following:
From Blake Snyder's blog

Fresh from our busy Save the Cat! Laboratories, Development Director Jose Silerio has conceived this new twist on how to write a logline. By plugging in the components of your movie’s BS2 into the “Format” below you can create a “mini-story” that will help not only organize your logline, but better focus you when you start breaking out that logline into a script.

The example below shows how the components of Cat! fave Miss Congeniality fit into this template. We welcome any feedback to let us know if this helps! Have a great writing week everyone. And remember, good communication starts with a good poster — what’s yours?


On the verge of a Stasis=Death moment, a flawed protagonist has a Catalyst and Breaks Into Two with the B Story; but when the Midpoint happens, he/she must learn the Theme Stated, before the All Is Lost, to defeat (or stop) the flawed antagonist (from getting away with his/her plan).


On the verge of another “suit and tie” assignment, a tomboy FBI agent is assigned to go undercover in the American Miss Pageant and has a complete makeover to blend in with the other contestants; but when the pageant receives a new threat, she must learn she can be a woman and tough, before she gets thrown off the case, to defeat the warped pageant organizer bent on revenge. (Miss Congeniality)

OK, that's it. So simple a caveman can do it.

Once you have that all-important one sentence formulated from the beats, you just expand it with detail to each required length.

And don't forget to keep in mind WHO will have to decide to read this just by staring at the sea of words, and what they are likely to be looking for -- "The Same But Different" as I've discussed:

And in other posts. What makes it "the same" is the structure. What makes it "different" is the decoration.

What people really want in their fiction is "the same" (structure) but they won't bother with it unless it is "different" (decorated).

To extract the synopsis from the finished product, the writer has to untangle herself from the decoration (which is all that's interesting about the piece) and stand back far enough to see the underlying skeleton, the beats, the warp and woof of the fabric of the fiction, the composition of the piece.

You have to work the writing process backwards, to un-create the world you have created.

7 Steps To Find The Moving Parts of The Composition

You might not use these 7 parts in order as you formulate the synopsis, but each should be represented. Almost nothing else should be represented until you get to the full length Treatment or complete summary which might be half the length of the finished piece.

Let's title our example: Musical Religions

1) Describe the Setting, the Background

"19th Century Egypt"

2) Identify Protagonist

"A tall Australian Aborigine wearing an Oxford tie and white spats."

3) Identify the Protagonist's goal

"Seeking acceptance as a convert to Islam."

4) Identify Antagonist and Antagonist's goal.

"A young Imam determined to convert all of Australia to Islam before the turn of the century."

5) Identify obstacles to the protagonist's achieving the goal

"The Imam learns how Whites regard the Aborigines in Australia and realizes that his eager convert will not be able to reach the majority of the target population in Australia, despite his Oxford education."

6) Identify Antagonist's obstacles

"The Australian convert is ready to donate a lot of money to the right people."

7) Describe the Ending that resolves the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Stay with the external conflict, let the internal conflict remain imaginary for the reader.

"The Australian Aborigine undergoes the correct ritual conversion with high hopes and confidence, only to discover, after all his money has been donated, that the Imam will keep him in religious school until he agrees to return to Australia with the Imam and play the role of the Imam's servant and native guide. Disillusioned with Islam, he agrees to play servant simply for the ticket home."


Notice all of that leaves out the really interesting part -- that while at Oxford, the Aborigine fell in love with a Catholic Nun (yeah, at Oxford!), who has now left Orders and followed him to Egypt where she is determined to marry him and rescue him from conversion to Islam. And in fact, she has convinced him Catholicism is his true path, but it's too late to cancel the conversion ritual. The Aborigine knows she has already left for Australia, and they plan to abandon the Imam to the mercies of White Australia and marry in the out-back. Final scene might be a Synagogue in the out-back buying the house they plan to live in (but that would have to be salted in between other scenes to set up that final shot, and the question of what religion they'll end up with). That's all decoration.

What you leave OUT is the "interesting part." What you put in is the part that convinces your market to trust you to deliver THE SAME. They already know you think you can deliver DIFFERENT because you're a creative artist. It's THE SAME that is the mark of the professional artist.

And "The Same" is in the composition with fiction just as in graphic design.

If this were a Romance, good and proper, of course the protagonist would be the ex-Nun flinging all to the winds for love, and the antagonist would be the Australian Aborigine with confused religious goals.

But it's a historical drama about Islam's proselytizing ways, so we needed an Imam to be thwarted by love.

If it were about the wonders of Islam as a faith, then the Imam would win and the convert would be eternally happy for it.

So when you put the logline "beats" together with a little fleshing out such as these 7 points, you can generate the 2-pager and the 5-pager descriptions of the piece.

If the synopsis refuses to self-generate under this process, then you need to rewrite the piece if you want it to be commercially viable.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

Kimber Li said...

Thanks! This is great timing.

I just finished the Weed & Polish of SUGAR RUSH, my Young Adult novel, and am taking a few days off (my hands are killing me!) before I start the Final Polish.

The Final Polish stage of revision, for me, includes writing the synopsis.

The query letter is done because I work on it, slowly, throughout the course of writing the novel, tweaking it here and there, until it's done.

And you wanna know a funny thing?

I've figured out that writing a synopsis is like changing diapers, scary at first, but after a while you can do it in your sleep. And do it well, because you don't want to risk a diaper exploding on you in the middle of the night.

I'm not looking forward to the synopsis, but I'm not dreading it like I used to.

There are two points you brought up I'm rusty on, so I'd better go make sure they're vivid.

1) Keep in mind who I'm writing the synopsis for.

2) Make the catalyst clear.

Meanwhile, I've left the ending to nail in the Final Polish. It's in my head, but I've avoided completing it vivid and in detail. The Final Polish is slow-going, so I'll feel the full emotional impact by the end of it and, hopefully, deal the one-two punch. I'm surfing around to read all the posts on writing endings. Got anything to add?

Remember that post you wrote in response to my questions? 'In the Beginning' It was tremendous help and the story shook down into near-future Romantic SF for teens, primarily girls. Figuring it all out was like stomping weasels, I swear.