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The Short Synopsis (Or: Don’t Fritz Your Circuits)

frenchheadshot2Welcome back, dearest readers, to a brand new week of writerly fun!

I hope that our posts thus far have got you excited about working on your story and working on your publishing. We here at Unstressed Syllables love to take the stress out of your “syllables” –whether you’re reading dialogue aloud to yourself or muttering under your breath about finding the perfect image for cover art. Don’t forget that you can ask us questions! We’re here to help.

Today for prewriting, we’re going to talk about your short synopsis. Your story has a working title, and you’ve clarified your story question. Now we’re going to tackle your short synopsis.

Why A Short Synopsis?

Ever clearer writing. This is one of the things that should be happening as though by magic (but actually by a lot of sweat and tears and maybe even blood) as you grow and improve. The more and the longer you write, the more precise your word choices should become. Your phrasing turns ever more elegant and eloquent. (Please note that this is not synonymous with “flowery.”) You refine your style. Your dialogue sounds more and more realistic, and your characters possess ever more distinct voices.

You learn to say more with fewer words.

When you write a short synopsis, you’re practicing all of these skills. (Except for dialogue. Your short synopsis really shouldn’t contain any dialogue.) You’re exercising precision in word choice. You’re focusing on just the most vital elements of your story. You’re gaining clarity in how you view your story, and you’re gaining clarity in how you communicate that vision to other people.

That last point, by the way, is a pretty important one. Eventually you’re going to be writing back cover copy for your story. Your short synopsis can function as a great skeleton for the tantalizing flesh of back cover copy.

Writing the Short Synopsis

In 300 words or fewer, the synopsis should summarize the story you want to tell about your characters. You’ll need to describe:

  • your protagonist
  • your antagonist
  • their conflict
  • who wins and how.

If you can do more than that in 300 words, go ahead. But you don’t need to. The purpose of the synopsis is to let you boil down your story to its barest essentials.

Main Character is [ short character descrip ]. She encounters [ problem ], which catapults her into [ action ]. Antagonist hinders her by [ opposition ]. MC gets help from Supporting Cast. [ MC ] (or, heaven forfend, [ Antagonist ]) triumphs in the end by [ solution to problem ].

Sample Short Synopsis

To illustrate, here is the short synopsis of Jessie‘s work-in-progress, Lost Causes:

New vampire Jude is taken under the wing of a priest. He trains Jude to kill serial killers and other menaces to society. He then orders Jude to target The Girl. While pursuing her, Jude begins to question the Priest’s motives. Jude and The Girl find an ancient vampire who reveals the truth about the Priest’s evil nature. Jude and The Girl go and kill the Priest.

That’s a whole novel in 67 words. BAM.

So, you see, 300 words actually leaves you with quite a bit of stretching room. Jessie has enough wordcount left over to include a few extra details if she so desires: the Priest’s “reason” for targeting The Girl, what Jude and The Girl do to find the ancient vampire, how the ancient vampire knows the Priest, what final obstacle Jude must overcome in order to kill the Priest. All of those details would probably take up more than 240 words, so Jessie would need to choose just one or two “extras.”

But, as I said, the extras are optional. The bare bones of the story are there, and that’s all we really need. As Jessie works through the rest of her prewriting, she can:

  • refer back to this synopsis for her major plot points
  • add a few of those “extras” as clarifying reminders to herself
  • and use this synopsis as the framework for her long synopsis (yes, there’s one of those, too).

And as an added bonus, this short synopsis can be the start of her back cover copy.

Pondering the Short Synopsis

Don’t stress about this. It’s only as complicated as you make it, and I recommend you keep it simple. Writing, though wonderfully rewarding and all that rot, is a brain-frying activity to begin with, and there’s no need of fritzing your circuits over a short synopsis.

The good news–no, the cramazingly bangerang news–is that this exercise, like all of the other prewriting exercises we talk about, is a fluid thing. You can go back and change it. You can write it first, before you do any other prewriting. You can write it last, after all the other prewriting is finished. This is your map, remember. It must needs be useful to you.

So play around with it, figure out what works best for your writing needs, and then run with it. Out the door and after those dwarves. You’re embarking on a grand adventure–don’t forget that!

Courtney Cantrell is Head of the School of Writing for the Consortium and author of the epic fantasy Rethana’s Surrender. Every Monday she shares an article about storytelling technique.

Find out more about Courtney Cantrell at her author website.

One Response to “The Short Synopsis (Or: Don’t Fritz Your Circuits)”

  1. […] over at, I’m talking about why and how to write a short synopsis of your story — all without frying your brain. Yay! Brains, sunny-side up! Come and see! ; […]