The Hero's Synopsis
Before we begin . . .
I just want to let all my non-writer fans know that this writing advice may not interest you. But at the end of the post, I have some important information about this blog. So skip ahead and check it out!
How to write a fiction novel synopsis in 5 steps
Writing a book is no easy task, but once you complete a manuscript, you feel like you’ve dominated the world. There’s nothing better than that wave of relief and accomplishment while you type THE END. Unfortunately, that feeling is short-lived, having been beaten to dust by the agony of the dreaded synopsis.
As I said, writing a book is no easy task, but compared to the synopsis, it might as well be a trip to Disneyland. Because how the hell does one write about, in a single page, everything that happens in a manuscript of 60k+ words?
The answer is simple—with unending self-doubt and frustration. But lucky for you, Katy Cage is here to ease your woes by introducing a method I developed to guide me through synopsis purgatory.
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely at least heard of the Hero’s Journey, which is arguably the greatest tool for writing a novel or screenplay. But that’s not all it can help with. A synopsis is essentially a miniature story, minus all the entertaining parts, so when I wrote one for my book Blood War, I sought aid from Christopher Volger to get it done. It was shockingly easy—or as easy as a synopsis can be.
What should a synopsis accomplish?
Later in the blog, I’ll break down the five actual steps, but first, I want to cover the guidelines for writing a fiction novel synopsis.
No twist may go unspoken
The first thing you need to know is that it must reveal the ending of the story and any major plot twists along the way. If you're like me and have a long manuscript with lots of small twists and subplots, it can be a nightmare to pinpoint which ones to use in the synopsis. That’s one of the major reasons why I find the Hero’s Journey to be so helpful. It succinctly moves from beginning, to middle, to end, which keeps you away from rabbit holes.
Strive for uniqueness
The true purpose of a synopsis is to sell your book. It’s the first thing an agent or publisher reads. If they like it, they’ll move on to the first chapter of the manuscript. If they don’t, well, sucks to be you.
That’s what makes the synopsis so important and so difficult for most writers. It has the power to make or break your career. With that said, it's important to depict your story in the most unique way possible. A synopsis can easily turn into a cookie-cutter summary of any book in your genre. So consider what makes yours different and try to include it.
Don't over-explain, but also don't be vague
The two worst things you can do are a) explain each event/character or add too many details, and b) overgeneralize to the point of confusion. In essence, the synopsis should summarize all the major events that happen in your book, following the main character through both an inner and an outer journey. By the end, the reader needs to have a good understanding of the central conflict and the main character’s growth. But world-building, subplots, supporting characters, and theme exploration should either make no appearance at all or be only glossed over. It's all about creating balance.
How should a synopsis be formatted?
Like a manuscript, the synopsis has a specific format:
Paper size of 8.5 x 11 inches
1 inch margins
Serif font at size 11pt or 12pt (make sure it matches your manuscript)
If single-spaced, don't exceed one page
If double-spaced, don't exceed two pages
Third person POV
The 5 Steps to the Hero's Synopsis
Now that we've discussed all of the technical things and guidelines, we can dive into the meat of the summary. First thing's first—if you aren't familiar with the Hero's Journey, please download this pdf and scan through it before reading my five steps. It will help avoid confusion.
Even if you're already well-versed about each stage in the Hero's Journey, I would still recommend downloading that pdf and using it as a guide. The more accurately you pinpoint events and character development, the easier and faster it will be to write a good synopsis.
For the following steps, I'll use Cinderella (the 1950 movie) as an example. I took the plot summary from Wikipedia and adjusted it according to how I would have written it using the Hero's Journey.
Make a bullet list of all the major events in the book. Stick to the main plot. Don’t mention any events or characters that are more involved in subplots. Subplots should not be used in a novel synopsis.
The King organizes a ball to find the Prince a wife.
The Stepmother gives Cinderella the conditions of her attendance.
The Stepsisters ruin Cinderella’s dress and go to the ball without her.
The Fairy Godmother appears and uses magic to help Cinderella look the part of a desirable maiden.
Cinderella goes to the ball and dances with the Prince. They quickly fall in love.
At midnight, Cinderella flees from the Prince and loses her glass slipper.
The King issues a proclamation that all maidens must try on the slipper.
The Stepmother learns that Cinderella is the special maiden and locks her up.
Cinderella’s animal friends help her escape.
When she asks to try on the slipper, the Stepmother intervenes and breaks it. Cinderella provides the other slipper and it fits her perfectly.
Cinderella and the Prince get married.
Make a bullet list about the development of your main character(s). What are they like in the beginning, middle, and end of the novel? Consider things such as motive, personality traits, and changes over the course of the book.
Since the character development in Cinderella is slim to none, I won't be providing an example of it. The character list should be shorter than the event list—perhaps three bullet points for beginning, middle, and end. Don't overdo it, but also don't be stingy. Remember, it's all about balance!
Refer to the Hero’s Journey template and pinpoint the plot events that correspond to each stage in the journey. Do the same with character development—during which stages/events does your character change or grow? Feel free to organize it in your document.
Note: As you can see in the example, not all of the stages have to be used when corresponding them to the events in your bullet list, and that's fine. The rest will be filled in later.
In a separate document, list all the stages of the Hero’s Journey as paragraph headings. Using your bullet lists as references, write two brief paragraphs under each stage—one that covers the events of the central plot and another that covers the development of the main character(s).
Note: Character development might not appear in every stage, so you don't have to write two paragraphs for each, and in fact, you shouldn't. Some books might skip certain stages altogether, or combine them. Just remember to stick to the major things. How you categorize them won't matter in the end.
At this point, your synopsis should look something like this:
Combine the plot paragraphs and the character paragraphs. Then remove the paragraph headings. Now you have a rough synopsis. Refine and edit it, aiming for the 500-750 word range (this is the standard length of a synopsis).
Be aware that every story is different, so the order of your events might not fit exactly into the timeline of the Hero's Journey, which is fine. Adjust accordingly and focus on clarity and engaging language more than anything else.
The Final Product: 548 words
Cinderella lives a dissatisfying life, having been orphaned at a young age. Her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, is jealous of Cinderella’s beauty and forces her to work as a maid in Cinderella’s own château. The cruel treatment is mimicked by her two unattractive stepsisters. Despite her misfortunes, Cinderella is a kind and gentle young woman who befriends mice and birds that live around the château. She works hard and cheerfully and never complains.
Meanwhile, at the royal palace, the King insists on organizing a ball for his son, the Prince—who has refused all of the King’s marriage propositions. They invite every eligible maiden in the land, hoping to find the perfect match.
Upon receiving notice of the ball, Lady Tremaine agrees to let Cinderella go if she finishes her chores and finds a suitable gown. Cinderella finds one that belonged to her deceased mother and decides to refashion it for the ball, but her stepfamily impedes by giving extra chores. Cinderella’s animal friends, including Jaq and Gus, refashion it for her while she works. She finishes in time and dons the gown, but the stepsisters tear it to shreds before leaving for the ball with Lady Tremaine. Heartbroken, Cinderella rushes to the garden and cries.
The Fairy Godmother appears and insists that Cinderella must attend the ball, magically transforming a pumpkin into a carriage, the mice into horses, Cinderella’s horse into a coachman, and her dog into a footman. Then she turns the ruined dress into a shimmering blue ballgown and her shoes into glass slippers. As Cinderella leaves for the ball, the Fairy Godmother warns her the spell will break at midnight.
At the ball, the Prince rejects every girl until he sees Cinderella, who agrees to dance with him, unaware of who he is. The two fall in love, spending all night together. Just as they are about to kiss, the clock starts to chime midnight, and Cinderella flees, one of her slippers falling off in the process. The palace guards chase her in the coach before the spell breaks on the last stroke of midnight. Cinderella and her animals hide from the searching guards in a wooded area.
The Prince wishes to marry Cinderella, despite not knowing her true identity. The only clue is the lost glass slipper, so the King issues a royal proclamation ordering every maiden in the kingdom to try on the slipper for size.
After this news reaches Cinderella’s household, Lady Tremaine discovers that Cinderella is the mysterious maiden who won the Prince’s heart and locks her in the attic. A Duke arrives at the château to have the stepsisters try on the slipper, which doesn’t fit them. While this happens, Jaq and Gus steal the attic key from Lady Tremaine to free Cinderella. They face an adversary in Lady Tremaine’s cat but defeat him with the help of Cinderella’s dog.
Cinderella races to catch the Duke before he leaves, then asks to try on the slipper. Knowing it will fit, Lady Tremaine trips the footman as he brings the Duke the slipper, causing it to shatter on the floor. Much to her horror, Cinderella presents the Duke with the matching slipper, which fits her perfectly.
The story ends with the Prince and Cinderella sharing a kiss on their wedding day.
1. Limit the number of characters and names used. It will be confusing if you use too many. All minor characters should be given generic labels, and only the main characters (usually the Hero and the Villain) should be given actual names. 2-4 is a good range to stick to.
2. Avoid over-explaining events and characters. Keep things simple, but not so simple that it makes no sense or is too generalized to carry any meaning.
3. When you edit, remove any unnecessary or redundant information, including adverbs and adjectives.
4. Be sure to use active tense instead of passive tense.
5. Tell, don’t show. You do not need to create a vivid scene for each event. Just tell us what happens. You shouldn’t even mention where it happens, unless that’s important to the plot.
6. For fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi, and other world-heavy genres—remove any excess details about the world. Keep it as simple as possible, and try to use generic, broad terms to limit the need for context information.
7. Take away all transition words and phrases. If the synopsis sounds too choppy, add more variation to the lengths of your sentences. Transitions should be used only when absolutely necessary, and if you use them, try to take advantage by introducing new (and relevant) information at the same time.
And that's how you write a synopsis using the Hero's Journey! If you try out this method, please let me know how it works by commenting below or reaching me on social media.
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