Last week, we covered the basics of synopsis writing. This week, as promised, we're going to get into the mechanics, using an example from a book most of us are very familiar with. Now take a deep breath, limber up your typing fingers, and let's get synopsizing! And keep in mind, if you'd like your synopsis critiqued on this site, the submission instructions are below.
Where do I start? Do you use an outline? If so, start there! Flesh out each scene from your outline's descriptions, focusing on the main plot, into no more than a paragraph each. Many scenes will require only a sentence, some paragraphs will summarize more than one scene, and some scenes won't require summary at all (focused on a subplot, character description, etc.). Once you have all the relevant scenes fleshed out, start connecting the dots: make sure going from Scene A to Scene B, all the way to Scene Z, makes sense in the context of your central plot. Then revise the language until it flows well.
If you don't have an outline, make a list of scenes from your manuscript, in order. Summarize each scene (you don't have to do this in great detail, just enough so you can explain what happens in your central plot in each scene). Then connect the dots and revise the language.
- Use third person, present tense, active voice, regardless of what you used in the manuscript.
- This isn't required, but it helps orient the reader if you put each character name in ALL CAPS the first time you use it. This makes the name stand out to the reader.
- ... but no more than 4-5 named characters in the synopsis. For everyone else who isn't as integral to the main plot as those 4 or 5 characters, describe them by their relationship to the main character or the plot. For example, in a synopsis for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the book we'll be working with below), the only named main characters should be Harry, Ron, Hermione, Voldemort, and Quirrell. There are obviously many other important characters in these books, but for the purposes of this book, everyone else can be described rather than named (Harry's aunt, the headmaster of Hogwarts, etc.).
- Start at the beginning. Weave in a brief description of the setting, the time period, and any other details necessary to orient the reader, and then get right into the main character and his/her 'ordinary world,' in order to lead into the inciting incident in the next paragraph.
- Lead right into the inciting incident. What happens to propel your main character into action? You should get into this as soon as possible after describing your main character's 'ordinary world.' What changes?
- Follow the Hero's Journey (explanations here) or Save the Cat (here) or any other plotting structure you used for your manuscript, and run through every important point that gets your hero from the ordinary world, to the inciting incident, to deciding to act, to trying and failing, to trying and succeeding, to ultimate victory/failure.
- Give away the ending and all plot twists!
Here's the synopsis (by an anonymous poster) from the Wikipedia page for Harry Potter & Sorcerer's Stone. This summary wasn't written to accompany a manuscript submitted to an agent, but let's pretend it was. I'm going to include my comments in bold/brackets throughout. Then, I'm going to rewrite this synopsis so it conforms more closely to the guidelines we've discussed (focusing on the main plot, limiting the number of named characters, etc.):
Original Synopsis with Comments:
The most evil and powerful dark wizard in history, Lord Voldemort, murdered married couple James and Lily Potter but mysteriously disappeared after failing to kill their infant son, Harry. [THIS IS BACKSTORY. WEAVE THROUGHOUT THE SYNOPSIS, BUT DON'T LEAD WITH IT] While the wizarding world celebrates Voldemort's apparent downfall, Professor Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and half-giant Rubeus Hagrid place the one-year-old orphan in the care of his surly and cold Muggle uncle and aunt, Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their spoilt and bullying son, Dudley. [TOO MANY NAMES AND TOO MANY DETAILS ON BACKSTORY BEFORE GETTING INTO HARRY'S STORY. ]
For ten years, living at number Four Privet Drive, Harry is treated by the Dursleys more like a servant than a member of the family and is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs. [THIS IS WHERE THE STORY REALLY STARTS. MAKE THIS THE FIRST PARAGRAPH, WITH SOME DETAILS FROM THE OPENING PARAGRAPH SPRINKLED IN] Shortly before his eleventh birthday, a series of letters addressed to Harry arrive, but Uncle Vernon Dursley destroys them before Harry can read them, leading to an influx of more and more letters. To evade the pursuit of these letters, Vernon first takes the family to a hotel, but when the letters arrive there too, he hires a boat out to a hut on a small island. [THIS IS TOO MUCH DETAIL FOR A SCENE THAT CAN BE OMITTED OR SUCCINCTLY SUMMARIZED TO GET TO THE INCITING INCIDENT, WHICH IS HARRY RECEIVING HIS HOGWART'S LETTER]
It is Harry's eleventh birthday and at midnight, Hagrid bursts through the door to deliver the letter and to tell Harry what the Dursleys have kept from him: Harry is a wizard and has been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. [THIS IS THE INCITING INCIDENT, AND SHOULD BE PRESENTED EARLIER] Hagrid takes Harry to a hidden London street called Diagon Alley, where he is surprised to discover how famous he is among the witches and wizards, who refer to him as "the boy who lived." He also finds that his parents' inheritance is waiting for him at Gringotts Wizarding Bank. [TOO MANY DETAILS, WE DON'T NEED ALL THESE NAMES. WE SHOULD BE ON OUR WAY TO HOGWARTS BY NOW] Guided by Hagrid, he buys the equipment he will need for his first year at Hogwarts and as a birthday gift Harry receives a pet owl from Hagrid (which he names "Hedwig").
A month later, Harry leaves the Dursleys' home to catch the Hogwarts Express from King's Cross railway station. There he meets the Weasley family, who show him how to pass through the magic wall to Platform 9¾ [LITTLE DETAILS LIKE THESE ADD A LOT OF COLOR. PLATFORM 9 3/4 GIVES THE READER AN INDICATION OF THE KIND OF MAGICAL WORLD WE'RE IN. KEEP DETAILS LIKE THESE, BUT KEEP THEM SMALL], where the train that will take them to Hogwarts is waiting. While on the train, Harry meets two fellow first years, Ron Weasley, who immediately becomes his friend, and Hermione Granger, with whom the ice is a bit slower to break. Harry also makes an enemy of yet another first-year, Draco Malfoy. Draco offers to advise Harry, but Harry dislikes Draco for his arrogance and prejudice and rejects his offer of "friendship". [DRACO ISN'T IMPORTANT ENOUGH IN THIS FIRST BOOK TO EVEN INTRODUCE]
At Hogwarts, the first-years are assigned by the magical Sorting Hat to houses that best suit their personalities. While Harry is being sorted, the Hat suggests that he be placed into Slytherin which is known to house potential dark witches and wizards, but when Harry objects, the Hat sends him to Gryffindor. Ron and Hermione are also sorted into Gryffindor. Draco is sorted into Slytherin, like his whole family before him. [KEEP THIS MORE VAGUE. IF ANYTHING SHOULD BE KEPT HERE, THE ONLY IMPORTANT DETAIL IS HARRY AND HIS FRIENDS ARE SORTED INTO THE SAME HOUSE, WHICH AIDS IN THEIR GROWING FRIENDSHIP AND LOYALTY TO EACH OTHER]
Harry starts classes at Hogwarts School, with lessons including Transfiguration with Head of Gryffindor, Minerva McGonagall, Herbology with Head of Hufflepuff, Pomona Sprout, Charms with Head of Ravenclaw Filius Flitwick, and Defence Against the Dark Arts with Quirinus Quirrell. [NONE OF THIS DETAIL IS NECESSARY, THOUGH QUIRRELL SHOULD BE INTRODUCED] Harry's least favourite class is Potions, taught by Severus Snape, the vindictive Head of Slytherin who seems to loathe Harry. Harry, Ron, and Hermione become far more interested by extracurricular matters within and outside of the school, particularly after they discover that a huge three-headed dog is standing guard over a trap door in a forbidden corridor. They also become suspicious of Snape's behaviour and become convinced that he is looking for ways to get past the trapdoor. [WAY TOO MUCH DETAIL. CUT DOWN TO ONE SENTENCE]
Harry discovers an innate talent for flying on broomsticks and is appointed as Seeker on his House’s Quidditch team, a wizards's sport played in the air. His first game goes well until his broomstick wobbles in mid-air and almost throws him off. [SUBPLOT. NOT DIRECTLY RELEVANT TO THE MAIN PLOT, EXCEPT FOR THE NEXT SENTENCE, BUT CAN BE CUT WAY DOWN] Ron and Hermione suspect foul play from Snape, whom they saw behaving oddly. For Christmas, Harry receives an invisibility cloak from an anonymous source and begins exploring the school at night and investigating the hidden object further. He discovers the Mirror of Erised, in which the viewer sees his deepest desires becoming true. [IRRELEVANT SUBPLOTS]
Thanks to an indiscretion from Hagrid, Harry and his friends work out that the object kept at the school is a Philosopher's Stone, made by an old friend of Dumbledore named Nicolas Flamel. Harry is also informed by a centaur he meets in the forest that a plot to steal the Philosopher’s Stone is being orchestrated by none other than Voldemort himself, who would use it to be restored to his body and come back to power. When Dumbledore is lured from Hogwarts under false pretences, Harry and his friends fear that the theft is imminent and descend through the trapdoor themselves. [THIS IS A GOOD PARAGRAPH. PRESENTS THE STAKES WELL AND EXPLAINS WHY HARRY AND HIS FRIENDS WOULD PUT THEMSELVES IN DANGER]
They encounter a series of obstacles, each of which requires unique skills possessed by one of the three, and one of which requires Ron to sacrifice himself in a life-sized game of wizard's chess. In the final room, Harry, now alone, finds Quirrell, who admits that he had tried to kill Harry at his Quidditch match against Slytherin. He also admits that he let a troll into Hogwarts. Snape had been trying to protect Harry all along rather than to kill him, and his suspicious behaviour came from his own suspicions about Quirrell. [I WOULD LEAVE OUT THE SUBPLOT ABOUT SNAPE UNLESS YOU'RE WRITING A LONGER SYNOPSIS. FOR 1-2 PAGES, IT CAN GO]
Quirrell is one of Voldemort's followers, and is now partly possessed by him: Voldemort's face has sprouted on the back of his own head, hidden by his turban. Voldemort needs Harry's help to get past the final obstacle: the Mirror of Erised, but when Quirrell tries to grab the Stone from Harry his contact proves lethal for Quirrell. [A LITTLE MORE DESCRIPTION HERE SINCE THIS IS THE CLIMAX OF THE BOOK] Harry passes out and awakes in the school hospital, where Dumbledore explains to him that he survived because his mother sacrificed her life to protect him, and this left a powerful protective charm on him. Voldemort left Quirrell to die and is likely to return by some other means. The Stone has now been destroyed. The school year ends at the final feast, during which Gryffindor wins the House Cup. Harry returns to the Dursleys' for the summer holiday but does not tell them that under-age wizards are forbidden to use magic outside of Hogwarts. [THIS IS A CONFUSING ENDING. END WITH A SENTENCE THAT'S RELEVANT TO THE PLOT, NOT SOMETHING THAT LEADS INTO FUTURE BOOKS]
Ten-year-old HARRY POTTER lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who treat him more like a servant than a family member, and force him to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs. Harry can't remember his parents, who died when he was an infant. He mostly keeps to himself, avoiding his cousin's bullying and his uncle's unpredictable wrath. But when strange things start happening around Harry, including his sudden ability to converse with a snake, and an influx of letters addressed to him flood the house, Harry realizes he's part of something bigger than the only world he's known.
Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a huge, good-natured man shows up with another copy of the letter, despite Harry's uncle's attempts to destroy all of them. It's Harry's acceptance letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The man explains that Harry is a wizard, and in fact, his wizard parents were murdered by the most evil and powerful dark wizard in history, LORD VOLDEMORT, who disappeared after failing to also kill Harry as a baby. Harry is shocked to learn he is famous among the inhabitants of the wizarding world, who refer to him as 'the boy who lived.'
Soon afterward, Harry leaves his aunt and uncle's house to attend Hogwarts. On the train, he meets RON WEASLEY, the fun-loving youngest son of an established wizarding family, and HERMIONE GRANGER, a brainy know-it-all who is the only witch in her family. When they arrive at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all sorted into Gryffindor House, the House associated with bravery and loyalty.
Soon after starting his lessons at Hogwarts, which include subjects such as Transfiguration, Potions, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, Harry and his friends discover a huge, three-headed dog standing guard over a trap door in a forbidden corridor. None of their professors will tell them why the dog is there or what it's guarding, but that doesn't stop Harry and his friends from sneaking around the school at night, having a horrifying run-in with a troll, or using Harry's newly-acquired invisibility cloak to spy on their classmates and professors.
Eventually, Harry and his friends learn the hidden object is an ancient artifact called the Sorcerer's Stone, which gives the bearer eternal life, and in turn, near-limitless power. Harry soon realizes the plot to steal the Stone is being orchestrated by the disembodied Lord Voldemort himself, who plans to use it to return to his body and resume his evil reign. But Lord Voldemort must be using someone on the Hogwarts grounds to acquire the Stone for him. Harry and his friends initially suspect their dour Potions professor, who has a history of associating with Voldemort and despises Harry for unknown reasons, of being his helper.
Then, the headmaster is lured from Hogwarts under false pretenses. Left unprotected, Harry and his friends fear the theft of the Stone is imminent and descend through the trapdoor themselves to guard it. They encounter a series of obstacles, each of which requires unique skills possessed by one of the three: Hermione must solve a difficult puzzle, Ron sacrifices himself in a life-sized game of Wizard's Chess, and Harry must use his newly-discovered flying talent to retrieve the key to the final door.
Behind that door is not the Potions professor after all. It is PROFESSOR QUIRRELL, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. He admits he is one of Voldemort's followers and is now partly possessed by him. In fact, Voldemort's face has melded with the back of his own head, and has been hidden all year by Quirrell's omnipresent turban. Voldemort needs Harry to get through the final obstacle and retrieve the Stone for him. Harry is able to get the stone, but when Quirrell tries to grab it from Harry, the physical contact proves disastrous for both Voldemort and Quirrell. Because Harry's mother died to save Harry, she left a powerful protective charm on him and Voldemort cannot touch him, even through someone else's body. Voldemort vanishes, Quirrell is injured but no longer possessed, and the Stone is destroyed.
The school year ends with a feast, during which Harry and his friends are honored for their roles in saving the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry returns to his aunt and uncle's house for summer vacation. This time, though, Harry goes with the knowledge that he is a wizard and his real life is at Hogwarts with his friends. And no one, not even his awful family, can take that from him.