Easy Step-by-step Guide to Writing a Synopsis

A synopsis is a technical document, outlining your intentions for your story. Your job is to lay out the events, exactly as they occur, beginning to end, including spoilers. This means that if your story isn’t told in a linear fashion, neither will your synopsis, and if you have multiple perspectives, introduce those as they occur in the book.

I’ve started this article quite directly to illustrate how you should leap into your synopsis, because synopsis openings are tricky, and I’ve seen examples where the opening paragraph is a rehash of the pitch. Some stories might require a line of context, but others might not. We are discovering the events of the book as they happen, so we shouldn’t be told the context ahead of time. 

Think of your query package as a recipe. The cover letter is the preamble that describes how the recipe can be used, including some interesting facts about the dish. It tries to invoke what the food will look and taste like. The synopsis is the ingredient list and method. They each play a different role, equally important in selling your recipe/story. The manuscript is, of course, the finished product.

Below is a step-by-step that you can follow that should help you put a synopsis together without (too many) tears.

Step 1: Lay out your subheadings

I always find a blank document quite intimidating, so a good way to begin is to lay out the following subheadings: Status Quo, Inciting Incident, Journey, Crisis, Climax, Resolution. Then, your job is to write a paragraph or two beneath each subheading.

Step 2: Status Quo

Where is your character when the story begins? Set up the opening pages in a short paragraph. Some stories may require a line of context, as mentioned, but keep it technical.

Step 3: Inciting Incident

Summarise the events leading up to the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the event that introduces your characters’ motivation for the rest of the story. This can sometimes come within the first few chapters, or much later, depending on the way your story unfolds. 

Step 4: Journey

This will cover the bulk of your story, and so can be split into two paragraphs if necessary. Here, we need to know how the character responds to the inciting incident, and the physical (and/or) emotional journey they take as a result. This is potentially the trickiest section to work on because it’s a bit more vague than the rest, but you would expect this paragraph to cross the mid-way point of your story, and approach the final third.

Step 5: Crisis

As your journey comes to an end, you will likely be approaching some sort of crisis point. This is where everything feels as if it’s going wrong, and your protagonist may not see a way through their problems in order to reach a solution.

Step 6: Climax

Following the events of your crisis, the opening of this paragraph will focus on the turning point (where things start to get better, or worse, depending on what sort of story you’re writing). It will cover the climactic moment – the event that the entire book has been leading up to.

Step 7: Resolution

This paragraph will encompass the events following the climax, after the dust has settled, where you have the chance to show how the protagonist has changed from that very first paragraph, and gives us a clear idea of how the story will end (with spoilers!)

Step 8: Pull it all together

You might find as you work through the template, some sections are longer than others, or perhaps it’s difficult to pinpoint the climax from the resolution. Please don’t feel as if you need to be rigid, but rather look at it as a guide.

Once you’re satisfied with your paragraphs, you might need to add a line at the end of each one to thread them together (really trying hard to avoid another analogy here), but after that you can remove the subheadings and submit it as you would normally. 

Why do I need a synopsis?

Sometimes a synopsis can feel like a slightly cruel exercise thrust upon writers to punish us (and make us hate our stories), but I think when you realise its uses, it makes them much easier to approach. 

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a writer looking to submit to agents, and so are planning on using a synopsis for your query package, but they can be just as useful during the planning stages of a project. Many writers, when pitching new ideas to editors, will be required to submit a synopsis, so the editor can give a preliminary thumbs up, or offer advice on potential pitfalls before their authors dive into their stories.It can be a helpful way to sketch out a new idea, or to return to while editing as a way to keep track of your story’s progress.

If you find, for example, that you can’t separate the crisis from the climax, it might mean you need to work on your ending, or if the journey doesn’t feel connected enough to the inciting incident, it might mean you need to tighten the plot. Like anything, the more you practice a synopsis, the easier it will get. After some time you might even *shudder* decide to use a synopsis without anyone requesting it.

Aisha was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait, England and Canada. The first novel she ever worked on was a piece of fan fiction, based on her favourite book series, which she stayed up all night to work on when she was thirteen. Aisha now writes children’s books, sometimes with a little bit of magic in them. 

Aisha is also a Spark Mentor and tutors our Preparing for Submission, with agent Lucy Irvine.