Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica Page Morrell

SYNOPSIS Development by Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica is a top-tier developmental editor. Jessica is teaching the Master Writing Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference on Sunday, April 22, 2018. 

Here is the first half of a two-part series on How to Write a Synopsis. The first part deals with synopsis development and the second part will discuss the mechanics of a synopsis.


Part 1 of Jessica Page Morrell’s Writer’s  Toolkit series on How to Write a Synopsis

I’ve got a book in progress now, but I’m planning to write several nonfiction projects, so I’ll be crafting proposals to sell these projects. Now, I’d rather yank out my fingernails one by one or undergo a series of root canals than write a proposal—there’s just something about them that fills me with dread and the worst case of procrastination this side of the Rockies. I know proposals are a top-drawer tool in my toolbox of writing skills, but I still loathe writing them. And I’ve heard this same sort of dread about writing a synopsis from fiction writers, so if you’re fortunate enough to be finishing a novel, here are some ideas for this next crucial step.

First, if you’re not fond of writing a synopsis, this doesn’t strike me as abnormal. After all, you’re summarizing about 400 pages into the briefest possible form while introducing the major players and situation and somehow leaving no questions unanswered, while not disclosing everything that happens in the story. A synopsis is part bare bones of your story (however, not too bare), part pitch, and part illustration of your writing style. And every sentence matters and must push the story forward.

Typically a synopsis completes a sales package that includes your first three chapters and sometimes a letter of introduction. Since at times editors read the synopsis first, it must be comprehensive, comprehensible, and compelling, forcing them to then peruse your chapters. Hopefully, your synopsis will be read not only by an agent and editor but if it passes muster, the marketing and art department will read it too. A synopsis will also be used in the publishing house meetings where decisions are made about what titles will be published in an upcoming season. In your synopsis, these professionals want to see a thoughtful writer at work—one who has crafted an enthralling story, with a gripping main conflict and intriguing motivations in the main players. They also want to understand how the story moves logically from the inciting incident in the opening chapters to the end, with major plot points and turning points along the way.

These days there seems to me no grand consensus on the ideal length of a synopsis. If you’ve written a saga, chances are you might weigh in at 10 pages or more and if you’ve written a fairly simple tale, you might get away with a one-page shortie. Since most agents and editors are notoriously pressed for time and read so much for their jobs, the five-page synopsis is appreciated by most. However, in the past, the wisdom about length went like this: one double-spaced page of synopsis for each 10,000 manuscript words. If you wrote an 80,000-word manuscript you’d write an 8-page synopsis.


If you’re new to the task of synopsis writing you might want to read the back cover copy of your favorite paperback novels and the inside jacket of hardcover novels. Notice how enticing the copy is and how the story question is revealed. Notice also the verbs and the level of specific detail. Then make a list of all the major characters and events that you need to include in your synopsis.

Start your synopsis with a hook—such as in:

When JAMES MALCOLM, an insurance adjustor, awoke in a strange basement wearing women’s clothing, he knows it won’t be an ordinary day, but could scarcely have imagined that the clothes he wore belonged to MELINDA DAVIS who had been recently murdered. Wrongly suspected of her murder, Malcolm is forced to discover who murdered Davis and why and why he was fingered for the crime.

Write in the present tense and the first time you introduce a character, type his or her name in all caps. A synopsis is written in the same order as the novel and is written in the style and tone of the manuscript—a witty, fast-paced novel requires a witty, fast-paced synopsis. If the story is literary, your synopsis will be more serious, but keep in mind that your dazzling prose goes into the manuscript, not the synopsis.

Don’t leave major questions unanswered such as who killed the victim, as well as how Malcolm solves his internal conflict, and how the subplot was resolved after he lost his job when he was arrested. A synopsis keeps the reader’s interest, but it’s not a tease and is not written with cliffhangers and such devices. It’s particularly important to demonstrate that your ending provides a satisfying conclusion to the plot and ties up loose ends.

A synopsis demonstrates that your characters are in jeopardy and what is at stake and why this matters. It introduces your main characters and their conflicts and agendas. It is not a list of characters or character sketches, and it usually does not describe physical attributes of characters, although the main characters are given some sort of tag. For example, you might want to refer to a character as the leading citizen in a small Southern town, or a respected doctor or frustrated novelist. Antagonists are always introduced, but secondary characters are mentioned only if they are involved with the protagonist’s inner or outer conflict. A synopsis is also written with a careful attention to flow—ideas follow each other logically and one paragraph leads to the next. This means that transitions will be important in connecting the dots.

The Part 2 will discuss the mechanics and formatting of a synopsis and her handy checklist (by Jessica Page Morrell).


Instructional and Insightful Books by Jessica Page Morrell to add to your Writer’s Toolkit. Click here. 

Click here if you would like more information about Jessica Morrell’s Master Writing Classes that will be held on Sunday, April 22, 2018, Bellingham, Wash.

Click here for information about the 2018 Chanticleer Authors Conference. 

Click here for Jessica Page Morrell’s website.