Writers in the Storm

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March 4, 2013

A 12-Step Checklist for Writing A “Sexy” Synopsis

By Shannon Donnelly

When I first started writing, I found out you needed a synopsis to submit to agents. Okay, I thought, I can do that. Well, I did, but not so well—twenty pages later I had a synopsis that rambled, wandered, and just did not do the job. Thankfully, someone pointed this out to me.

These days, I actually like writing the synopsis—yes, that’s right, I like it. Well, okay, maybe, not like, but I find it’s an invaluable tool.


  • A good synopsis shows you where your plot holes are before your book falls into them.
  • A good synopsis points out weak conflict and places where character motivation is thin.
  • A good synopsis can save you lots of rewriting and thrown out chapters.

Usually, I like to get about 50 to 100 pages done, and then hit the synopsis to make sure I have all the story beats and conflict in place. It’s my road map. I may wander from it, but it helps keep me from getting bogged down.

I’m teaching my “Sexy Synopsis” workshop again this March for Low Country RWA, but in the meantime, here’s the checklist I created to keep me on track with getting a synopsis to be like a little black dress—stylish but covering all the important bits.

Feel free to adapt this to your own list—this came from years of taking apart every synopsis I could read to find out what worked and what worked best for me.

Synopsis Checklist

1. Does it cover the hero and heroine's relevant character traits and goals in a fresh way?

2. Does it tell the scenes with the most conflicts--internal and external--for the hero and the heroine, with an emphasis on the main character's conflict?

3. Does it offer specific dramatic scenes for the main turning points, detailing what happens, where it happens, escalating the risk to the main character's goal, and offering harder and harder choices for the main character in each of these scenes?

4. Does it have scenes that show a developing relationship, including attraction and hero and heroine compatibility, with mention of the feelings of the characters, and also telling what is keeping a relationship from working between these two?

5. Does the story include scenes with sexual developments between the characters and how those scenes impact character conflicts, compatibities and emotions?

6. Does it tell all characters' motivations--including for any villain or antagonist?

7. Are the characters fresh?  Are they developed by looking past cliché to what is core and specific to the characters?

8. Do the characters make choices that come from within that specific person, rather than from the writer manipulating the story?  Can you say, "Yes, if I were this person, I would make this choice."

9. Does it raise questions to keep interest going--and then provide answers to all questions raised?

10. Does it include a scene that is the climax or black moment, and make clear the resolution of the story with an ending that wraps up all story elements?

11. Does it include a strong theme that is woven into the scenes and character choices?  And which is revealed strongest in the climax of the book and the character's ultimate choice?

12. Is the voice active, with all extra words cut, and with the best possible word choices with the clearest, most concise writing possible in a tone that matches the tone of the book?

How do YOU feel about synopsis writing? Do you love it, hate it, or are you somewhere in between?


shannondonnelly_nm1Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

BurningTire_finalHer newest book, Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance. Her Regency romances can be found as ebooks on all formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing, and include a series of four novellas.

Shannon is the author of several young adult horror stories, and computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life.

Shannon can be found online at:
Her website: http://shannondonnelly.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SDwriter
Twitter: @sdwriter

0 comments on “A 12-Step Checklist for Writing A “Sexy” Synopsis”

  1. Personally, I write my synopsis after each chapter with one or two sentence summaries of each chapter. I used to hate writing synopses when I waited until the end...now not so much.

      1. I like Jo's idea too of writing one or two sentences per chapter because then when I do write the synopsis I have bones to work to work with.

    1. I could never do this--I need my synopsis to tell me where I'm going at times. But, thankfully, there's as may ways to get a synopsis done as there are writers.

  2. I was told, many years ago by a a good friend who was publishing a local newsletter , some of the ins and outs about writing , things he'd discovered through trial and error , since no one at the time would divulge the "mysterious " secrets of writing /publishing to him. Even better than just telling, he gave me a guide book of sorts in which I found out about the query letter , a synopsis of your manuscript that is sent to a publisher before a manuscript is requested .

  3. Thanks for these, Shannon - I'm saving them. I really liked writing queries, and hated synopsis! What kind of twisted logic is it that now that I'm published, I don't need to write queries, but still need to write synopsis! Crap. But your list will help. Thanks!

    1. Oh, a query and a synopsis are really different animals--I can see how you'd like one and not the other. But if you do enough of them, you do get better.

  4. Shannon, I so love when you post here at WITS. I am always sure to learn something from your valued experience. Synopsis? Query? Are these words that struck fear into my heart? I could deliver a complete novel happily and then cringe at those two.

    I love this checklist and will save it to help reduce my fear. Since I am in the process of submitting, and my synposis is weaker than my query, I can use this to help bolster what I am doing. Love the idea of doing each chapter and will also try that one. Thanks again 🙂

  5. Shannon, that really resonated with me. Thanks! Putting it in my Writing folder immediately.

  6. I love the list Shannon. It's not easy to convey that the story will be an enjoyable one in the two pages required now. I think I need one of your classes!

  7. Another great post, Shannon.

    For the life of me I can't get my brain to wrap around plotting out a story, but I've found that I can write a synopsis once I get two or three chapters in. I don't refer to it while I'm writing but it's in the back of my head and acts as my blueprint for some of the big events. Of course, once the book is done I add the detours my characters have taken and various details, but it doesn't seem as daunting at that point.

    1. So many folks get tangled up in the word "plotting" -- myself I think of it as working out your characters (let them do the plotting). It's much easier that way.

  8. This is a wonderful gift for someone like me who is so new to writing a synopsis and planning out a full novel. I love the idea of writing a synopsis at the end of each chapter so it is not such a daunting process.

    Also, the checklist you provide really hits all of the major elements in a well-crafted story. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  9. What a great list for writing a synopsis, Shannon. Unlike many writers, I love writing my synopsis because I use it as a map for writing my story. I usually change things as I go along, but the basic synopsis is like backbone to be sure I have all the necessary parts.

  10. I just finished a 20-page synopsis of my next novel. Just about killed me. I don't write heroes and heroines, but I make sure to impart nods to subplots for secondary characters so my editor will see the story isn't one note. I think #12 is key. It's easy to have a synopsis not reflect your true writing style, and that backfires. Thanks!

    1. Ah, now to cut it down to one or two pages (that's always tough for me). But I end up using those one or two pages over and over for promotional stuff.

  11. I think it is fate that I joined this loop today and got this post. I just finished a first draft of my current WIP and sat down to draft a synopsis. After three sentences, I stared at the screen and groaned. I came about with about ten good excuses to walk away and try later! LOL Now I have some fresh motivation and a road map for making the synopsis sparkle. Thanks!

  12. This is helpful. I keep a chapter summary as I write so I can keep track of what I've already written, and find things if something changes. That makes it easier to put together a synopsis, but it's always difficult to know what to emphasize and what to leave out. The chapter summary is for my benefit, but the synopsis is for the benefit of the editor, and sometimes it's difficult to know if you're putting your best foot forward. This gives me some clues...

    1. Yes, I'll often have an "outline" that's my more detailed guide, and then a one page promo sheet, and a couple of pages that's more of a sales synopsis--you do need different tools for different jobs.

  13. This is so helpful! I thought writing the synopsis for my novel was a nightmare, I nearly drove myself crazy over it LOL. I am going to keep this checklist in mind for next time. Thank you for sharing!

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