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Pitch Wars: The Synopsis … simplified

Tuesday, 10 May 2016  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

Will you need a synopsis for Pitch Wars? Yes. It’s now a requirement. Yeah, I get it.  I hate writing synopses. But, unfortunately, it’s a necessary evil. Agents and editors may ask you for one. Get yours ready right after you finish your manuscript. Some writers do one before they even write the book. So I thought I’d share with you how I do my synopses. Here’s a simplified formula. I hope it helps you tackle that dreaded synopsis.

1st Part (1 paragraph) – The hook. Introduce your characters.

What makes your story unique? Find that special something that sets your story apart from all the other stories out there with similar premises. Your manuscript about the bonds of friendship isn’t special enough. But put the friends in a moon station or on a deserted island where they have to trust each other to survive and you have something unique. Introduce the main characters in your story. Leave out names to minor characters and only refer to them in general terms (i.e. her mother, the baker, etc.).

2nd Part (1 paragraph) – Act I. The slice of life. Inciting Incident.

It’s simply your character’s life before a door closes forever on the main character and life as they know it changes. End the paragraph with the inciting incident. How do you find the inciting Incident? The inciting incident takes the character from Act 1 of the story into Act 2. Your inciting incident should follow the “slice of life.” It’s the point of no return.

3rd Part (1 to 2 paragraphs) – Act II. No going back.

Your character hasn’t a choice to go back to his or her normal life. They must choose an action after the inciting incident. She has no choice but to move forward. Make sure to define the stakes in the story and add the road map to the climax. Goals and theme set. What does your character have to do to reach her/his/their goal? Include obstacles to that goal and turning points only for the main plot. Add any turning points. End with all is lost. The dark night of the soul moment for your character.

4th Part (1 to 2 paragraphs) – Act III. All seems lost. The climax.

Open with your character’s decision or a change from “all seems lost” to a new hope or action to win the day. Give us the big confrontation. Keep it clean and on the main plot. The main character wins the day, or not, depending on your story.

5th Part (1 paragraph) – Closing. The resolution. Wrap it up and give the ending.

Yes, you give the ending of the story. You can also add that it’s a standalone with series potential if you want.

  • Add what is unique about your story. That something cool that makes an agent/editor want to make an offer.
  • Don’t be vague. No teasers. The agent/editor must know everything important in the story.
  • Don’t add backstory or subplots.
  • Do add your voice.
  • Your synopsis should always be written in third-person, present tense no matter the tense or POV of your novel.
  • A one-page synopsis is single-spaced with breaks between paragraphs, Times New Roman 12PT. Two-pages or more should be double-spaced and formatted like a manuscript. For Pitch Wars, you’ll provide a one page synopsis.

Did I miss something? Do you have any suggestions to make creating a synopsis easier? Please share with us in the comments of this post.

  • I haven’t had to write a synopsis yet, and the idea of it felt like facing a dragon. Reading this has gave me some armor. Thank you!

  • Margaret Wells says:

    Madam, you are marvelous. THANK YOU. No one teaches this. You’ve saved our necks, especially mine. I’m horrible at synopses, and I sometimes wonder if they cost me queries!

  • Theresa says:

    I would add that this is not at all the format I was ‘taught’ but allows much more freedom than the one I have been using.
    Mine was :
    Paragraph 1 – 2 sentence hook – basically a tag-line
    Paragraph 2 – no more than 6 sentences of description covering what you have shown as parts 2-5 above.
    Paragraph 3 – the author’s bio (short and sweet).
    Let me tell you – for space opera, 6 sentences is like the money stuck with his hand in the box – I just can’t do it and get out the prize. I wish everyone best of luck using the formula above

    • Brenda Drake says:

      Theresa, this is more like a formula for a query than a synopsis. In the synopsis you don’t have a bio paragraph.

      • Theresa says:

        You’re right. I was thinking of query. Sorry about that. You can delete this and I won’t be offended 🙂

  • Mike Crowl says:

    This is an excellent synopsis of how to write a synopsis. Thanks so much for posting this!

  • DJ Siciliano says:

    Well, this is definitely simplified. I may have been doing it wrong, following the advice: a paragraph per chapter (according to a WD book I have). Thank you so much for this, Brenda.

  • Kari says:

    Thank you for posting this Brenda! I’m thinking of entering Pitch Wars this year, if I can be ready, and a synopsis is something I had thought about (but haven’t really worked on). This was good advice, and I will definitely try this method. Some of the ones I found made it seem way more complicated and lengthy.

  • It’s official.
    You are the best!
    Thank you so much 🙂

  • Emily Strong says:

    Are there any differences/best ways to approach the synopsis when you have two POV characters with separate but intersecting stories? I imagine it would not read smoothly if every other sentence began with “Meanwhile…”

    • Brenda Drake says:

      When I have a dual POV, I mention them both in the hook and then do two paragraphs for all three acts, switching POVs, and then the closing (climax) I bring them together. The thought of “meanwhile” is there but the actual work isn’t used, naturally.

      • Reese says:

        Thanks SO much for this bit of advice. Such a great help in steering me how to handle “the He” when it starts out with just “the She”. Really appreciate what you are doing. Thanks, again.

  • Kate Banco says:

    Comment Thanks for this great model. It will help so much!

  • Thank you for the timely post! I’ve officially reached that point in the query process where I need one. 😉

  • Thank you very much for this helpful advice! You mentioned the standalone piece with potential for a series, but may I please ask what you might suggest to someone if they wanted to leave their story off with a cliffhanger ending, to be hopefully addressed in a second book? Does one say as much? Does one just indicate in the wrap-up of the synopsis that there could be more to the story? I don’t want to make any missteps that could have been avoided, so any advice you or your readers have would be appreciated.

  • This is wonderfully helpful! Now I know why I can’t get my synopsis shorter than three pages no matter how I try. I’m off to trim the fat. Thank you, thank you!

  • Thank you, I’ve been trying to shove the entire, chapter-by-chapter action into the synopsis. No more!

  • Joel Bain says:

    Very helpful in putting together my synopsis for my #PitchWars entry! =) Thank you!

  • Micki Hess says:

    My book is a beginners reader, like for 1st grader, it has only five chapters and 28 pages. How should a synopsis for a short book be?

  • S B Williams says:

    This format looks wonderful, thank you! I definitely dread writing Synopsis. I think because the language is so passive when I’ve strived to teach myself to write action-oriented and so it’s hard to just ‘tell’ the story. I would also say leading with a hook question of some kind in the beginning works for me. (in the opening paragraph)

  • Nora says:

    Thank you for the tips! Could you provide any examples of synopses done right?

  • I’ve read that it’s best to only mention three characters by name in a synopsis–the protagonist, the love interest/side character, and the antagonist–and refer to all others by their roles. Would mentioning four or five by name be too many?

  • If you have written a sequel to your MS, and you include the bit about your current MS having the potential to be a series, do you include any details about the follow-up story or sequel? As a new author, should you even include that kind of information or would that be seen as presumptive? Thank you for your help!

    • Brenda Drake says:

      You wouldn’t include a bit about the current MS or mention that it’s a sequel. Just focus on the book you’re querying. It would be seen as presumptive to include it. Agents get that there may be a series potential.

  • Tippy Rex says:

    Hey Brenda, thank you for the helpful post. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for a synopsis on interconnected stories? I’m calling it a novel because it’s tied together by the same inciting incident, but it’s told in seven sections, each with a separate main character.

    Thanks so much!

  • Timothy Ryan says:

    These goals we hear from agents that a synopsis (1) fits on one or two pages, (2) isn’t too dry, (3) doesn’t leave any important plot points or characters out, (4) adds depths to characters, and (5) demonstrates your writing talent — are all mutually exclusive. This is what makes us nuts. I’m yet to see an agent produce an example that does all this. This format seems promising but it leaves little room for subplots, character development, world description, clues or beats for a fast-paced sci-fi mystery novel. – Dismayed but eager for help

  • Kelsey Louise says:

    Just wondering, will the synopsis also have to be printed on the blog along with the query and first chapter (if selected) or is it really only for the agents?

    A query is quite revealing but a synopsis is like a road map to your creative work.

    • Brenda Drake says:

      The synopsis, query, and first chapter will not be printed on the blog. It will go through our submission form and no one but the mentors you send to will see them. If you’re chosen, only the small pitch and first page will be put up for the agent showcase.

  • Brianna Lynne says:

    How do you tackle this with four different POVs? I think my biggest struggle has been giving them equal airtime and getting deep enough to construe characterization in such a short amount of space.

    • Brenda Drake says:

      You’d pick the lead POV and have the query in her/his/their point of view and mention that the others. Also, mention in the query that your story is told in four different points of views.

  • Erin Schulz says:

    Hi! Thank you for this post! I’ve been working on the skill of pitches/query letters for a while but the skill of synopses still feels so new to me.

    Do you have a trustworthy resource for the formatting part of writing a synopsis? I’m seeing suggestions such as putting character names in bold and giving ages in parentheses, but I’m not sure if I’m finding good advice.

    Second, what is the overlap between the query/pitch and the synopsis? I see in the above comment that synopses don’t include author bios, but do they typically mention word count, genre, or comp reads? I’m having trouble viewing the links you posted above to the two other synopsis resources, but I’m going to keep trying to view those posts.

    Again, thank you very much! This is is tricky and it helps to have a clear guide!

  • Elizabeth Chestney says:

    I would have been lost without this. It’s so clear and to the point. THANK you so much!!

  • Samantha says:

    This is very helpful! Does anyone know of someone who can critique my synopsis before I send it off?

    • Rochelle Karina says:

      Glad this helped! And there are several active groups on Facebook – depending on your genre. And writer Twitter is very good as well.

  • E says:

    This was very useful! Does anyone know if there’s a place where I can find examples of synopses? I am having trouble keeping mine to a page or less and I would like to see how detailed other authors make theirs. Examples of YA fantasy would be best as that is the genre I write in but I’m fine with any genre!

  • Helen Mason says:

    Thank you very much for this outline. It’s very useful. — Helen

  • Kim says:

    As I prepare for PitchWars this is very helpful. I note that the FAQ states that there are word limits for the synopsis and query letter but does not give the numbers. Does anyone know the word limit for the PitchWars form?

    I’m still editing my synopsis but it is running a bit over one page and I’m despairing of getting it much shorter. Any advice?

    • Rochelle Karina says:

      Hi there! Thanks for asking…
      If you follow the industry standard of single-spaced, Times New Roman or Arial in 12pt font, with 1″ margins, on US letter size paper, with no odd formatting, and can fit your synopsis on one page, you’ll be safe. Standard estimate of word count for the above format is 500 words.

  • Brooke says:

    Should I spoil the resolution of the plot arc (like who the murderer was) in my synopsis?

  • Vicki Moreland says:

    When writing the synopsis, do you capitalize the first mention of a character’s name?

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