A long time ago, Colleen Lindsay stated in a blog post that there was no reason why a synopsis should ever be longer than six paragraphs. I’m not sure if she meant that literally, but I decided to see if it could be done. Since then, I developed this method for writing a synopsis that I have used for every synopsis I’ve written since.
To illustrate, I’ll write a synopsis of a novel that should be widely familiar–Pride and Prejudice.
I start by distilling the entire book to six sentences. This forces me to concentrate on only the major plot points. Here are the sentences I came up with for Pride and Prejudice.
- A wealthy single man named Mr. Bingley moves near the town of Meryton, and his friend Mr. Darcy comes to visit him.
- Darcy snubs a young neighborhood woman named Lizzy, and then becomes fascinated by her.
- Mr. Wickham spreads false rumors about Mr. Darcy, turning Lizzy against him.
- Darcy proposes to Lizzy, who refuses while disclosing Wickham’s slanders.
- Lizzy’s little sister runs away with Wickham, and Darcy secretly rescues her.
- Lizzy discovers Darcy’s involvement, realizes that she loves him, and accepts his next proposal.
Dang, that was hard. I had to distill it to its very essential elements. Left out entirely are Jane’s romance, Lizzy’s proposal by Collins, her visit to Pemberley, and any mention whatsoever of the pivotal characters other than these four, one of which I don’t even mention by name.
Obviously, this isn’t enough. So what I do at this point is take each sentence and make it a paragraph. I start with the sentence, and build.
A wealthy single man named Mr. Bingley moves near the town of Meryton, and his friend Mr. Darcy comes to visit him just in time for a neighborhood ball. Bingley drags Darcy to the ball, where he has nothing but criticism for everyone. Too late, he realizes that he has criticized the appearance of one young woman in her hearing. He takes another look as she laughs over the incident with her friends, he finds that he cannot take his eyes off her. The girl, Elizabeth Bennett, thinks Mr. Darcy is an amusing snob, and has no great opinion of him. When her sister falls ill while visiting the Bingleys, she hastens over to nurse her sister, begrudging every instant she must spend in the presence of anyone but her sister and the unexpectedly pleasant Mr. Bingley. In the meantime, with her every pert utterance, Darcy becomes more and more fascinated by her.
Oh, look what happened! I ended up combining sentence 1 and 2. That’s ok, because I’m sure I’ll need that paragraph elsewhere. Notice how I infused this paragraph with voice. It’s important to let your voice shine through. Have a little fun with it, and it’ll show. Let’s continue with Sentence 3.
A regiment takes up quarters in Meryton, and among the officers is the charming Mr. Wickham. He becomes even more interesting to Lizzy when he dishes her up some juicy gossip about Mr. Darcy, whom by now she loves to hate. Darcy is powerless to defend himself because to do so would reveal certain details about a beloved member of his family. There is another visitor to Meryton as well, the odious Mr. Collins, cousin of the Bennetts’, who stays for an intolerably long visit. Much to Lizzy’s dismay, this visit concludes with a proposal by Collins, which she soundly refuses. To her astonishment, he turns around and proposes to her friend, Miss Lucas, who accepts. They promptly marry, while Bingley and his entire party unexpectedly leave town.
So now I’m ready for Sentence 4.
The Collins marriage leads to an invitation to visit some months later, which Lizzy accepts. It turns out that the Collinses live on the edge of the property of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the aunt of Mr. Darcy. Lizzy has barely arrived when Darcy arrives as well, to visit his aunt. Lizzy regards his presence as mostly an annoyance. She suspects that he and Bingley’s sister have been trying to keep Mr. Bingley from forming an attachment to her sister, Jane. Mr. Darcy’s friend, Colonel Fitzwilliam, soon unwittingly confirms this, turning Lizzy against Darcy even more. After a woebegone letter from her sister, Lizzy is quite convinced she hates Darcy–and exactly at that point, he proposes to her. The manner of his proposal is unfortunate, as he details all of the very good reasons why he should not be marring her, including the fact that her family is so beneath his. He waits with a confident air for her acceptance–but is mortified when she refuses him in a manner that is totally dismissive of his feelings.
It’s not great, but it’s good enough for a first draft, which this is. I’m not going to bother polishing this, like I would a real synopsis. At least, not much. This is also the point where I am going to add another paragraph that is not in my original six sentences. I’ve said nothing at all about how the Wickham slander matter is resolved. So that will take up Sentence 5.
The next day, an unhappy Lizzy is mortified to meet Mr. Darcy in the de Burgh’s gardens. He hands her a letter, requests that she read it, and walks out of her life–or so he thinks. She reads the letter and learns the depths of Wickham’s duplicity when Darcy details how Wickham tried to take revenge on Darcy over an imagined cheat of his inheritance by eloping with Darcy’s very young sister. (Fortunately, Darcy intervened in time.) Lizzy reads this and feels quite guilty. However, in the second part of the letter, he admits to keeping Jane away from Bingley, and is proud of this deed. Lizzy feels vindicated, but not for long. She takes a trip with her aunt, and an unexpected change in plans puts them in the same county as Darcy’s home, Pemberley. The aunt wants to tour the great old house, and there Lizzy listens with astonishment as the housekeeper, of all people, details how wonderful her “master”, Mr. Darcy is, and how highly he is regarded.
Ok, that went on a bit long. I would definitely be looking to trim this during the revision stage. On to the final paragraphs.
Lizzy is horrified, however, shortly afterward when Darcy himself shows up while she is touring the grounds. He is much more civil than she expects and he even invites her to dine with his sister and the Bingleys. Darcy is quite attentive of both her and her aunt and uncle, and Lizzy hardly knows what to think. The next day, a letter arrives from Jane bearing bad news–Lizzy’s youngest sister has run off with Mr. Wickham! In her distress, Lizzy tells Darcy all the details, and then she hastens home. Several tense weeks pass, during which they cannot find Lydia. Lizzy has much time to think, and she concludes that Darcy is just the right man for her–but she believes he is lost forever because of the shame that Lydia has brought to them all.
The Bennetts have no reason to believe that Wickham will actually marry young Lydia, but the unexpected news arrives that he has. Through happenstance and Lydia’s inability to keep a secret, Lizzy discovers that Darcy is the reason Wickham married her. Shortly afterward, Mr. Bingley returns, along with Mr. Darcy. In short order, Bingley proposes to Jane, and she accepts. When Lizzy finds herself alone with Darcy, she hastens to thank him for what he did for Lydia, and he corrects her; he only did it for her, Lizzy. He then proposes to her once more, and this time, she accepts.
Yay! A rough draft of a very minimal synopsis! It is much easier to flesh out a short synopsis than it is to trim a long one. You can use this to grow synopses of several different lengths. I find it useful to have a 1 page, a 2 page and a 3 page synopsis. You also have the beginnings of a query.
Notice entire plotlines are left out. Lady Catherine is just the owner of a house, as far as my synopsis is concerned, and we know nothing of Lizzy’s parents or Bingley’s sister. These are all details that could be included in a fleshed-out synopsis.
To practice this, try writing a synopsis of a story you know very well, like I did here. This will enable you to write from a dispassionate point of view.