Writers in the Storm

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April 7, 2014

A Synopsis Checklist

by Shannon Donnelly

Years ago I was struggling to try and figure out how to write a synopsis. It took a lot of input from other writers, and some workshops, but I finally became comfortable with syopsis writing—and now it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m now doing my “Sexy Synopsis workshop again for Outreach International Romance Writers, but I wanted to offer up my synopsis checklist.

A synopsis is one of the most useful tools you can have. It keeps you from getting stuck. It starts you thinking about blurb and marketing copy. It can even show up flaws you might have in your plot, as in maybe the conflict really isn’t strong enough.

The checklist I developed came from looking at a bunch of synopses and from taking a lot of classes on synopsis writings. Feel free to take this list and customize for your own use. Your synopsis should ideally be under three pages but one is even better.

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, compatibilities 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?

Always remember your synopsis must have the beginning, middle, and end. Never put in “and you have to read the manuscript to find out how this ends.” That’s an instant rejection from any agent or editor submission. And if you’re self-publishing, you want better blurb copy than that (and you better know how your own book ends).

About Shannon

ShannonDonnellyShannon 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.”

She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.

46 comments on “A Synopsis Checklist”

  1. Great reminder, Shannon, thanks - I'm keeping this list. It kills me, that the part I loved doing, the query, I don't need anymore, and the part I hated, the synopsis, I still have to do as a published author! Isn't that just how it goes?

    1. A synopsis has saved my ass more than once in a stuck book. I really do love them. They're a great tool if you use them.


  2. This is a great checklist, Shannon. I wish I'd had it when I was writing my first synopsis--I'll definitely pin it to the wall above my laptop for the next one!

    1. Holly,
      Save it to your laptop and add in or adjust things that always trip you up--you're welcome to make this your own.


    1. Dread comes from thinking about it and not working on it--dive it. It's not so bad if you just remember it doesn't have to be perfect.


  3. What a great synopsis of the dreaded synopsis! This is a keeper, Shannon-thank you. I like to keep a long (~8 page), a short (~4 page) and a one-pager handy, but this is a great resource to check that no matter the length, the content needs to be sharp.

    1. Julie,
      I usually have a one page synopsis that is very high level, a two to three page synopsis, and then a longer synopsis that really details the story out. Keeps me from having major revisions if I work out the details first.

    1. Eric,
      Dwight Swain also has great advice about this in his book Techniques of Selling writer--that book helped me a lot.

  4. Shannon, this is an outline that we can keep next to us each time we tackle the dreaded synopsis. It takes time and practice to get it right, but you are sure a welcomed helper 🙂

    1. It always takes me ten to twenty drafts to get a synopsis I like. It's easier to do a synopsis just for myself that's all warts and flaws.


  5. This couldn't have come at a better time, Shannon! I don't know what's more difficult - starting a synopsis from scratch, or re-working a synopsis when The Powers That Be have said "make it better." I'm dealing with the latter right now, and plan on using your points as a checklist to diagnose what I am lacking. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Oh, I'd rather rework. When there's nothing to start with I get out the pencil and paper and start doodling ideas until I have some stuff I can run with.


  6. Thanks I hope it's okay to keep this as a reference I have a great thing by a famous author-blank on her name now. It tells how to write long and short ones and what to put in them. It helped me when I had no clue what a synopsis even was lol.

    1. CK, my first synopsis was a horrible twenty page mess. Thankfully, another writer helped me, so it's always nice to pass along the favor.


  7. What a wonderful post! I just conquered my synopsis a couple weeks ago and sent it out to the world, but I'm thinking before I send more out to agents I'm going to tweak it based on this list! Thanks much. 🙂

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