BARN Writers’ Studio — How to Write a One-Page Synopsis

From Pub Crawl

One thing writers hate doing but will inevitably have to do (one day or another, at least) is the Dreaded Synopsis. An agent may request it in his/her submission materials, or an editor might want it once your agent has you out on subs. My film agent needed it for shopping around Something Strange & Deadly, and I would imagine other rights-agents would want a short, simple synopsis for the same reason.

So in other words: you have to learn to do this. You need it before you’re published, and you’ll certainly need it afterwards. Specifically, you’ll need to be able to write the 1 or 2-page synopsis.

But Sooz, you say. It’s hard to boil my whole ingenious novel into a few key sentences. To convey the depth, the emotion, the literary power of your novel in 500 words or less—impossible!

Ah, but is possible my friends.  It’s possible and can even be fun (if you enjoy mental torture like me).  To learn how to write a short synopsis, I took workshops, read books, and wrote a few drafts until I had a gleaming 1-page book summary.  And after all that practice, I realized I had my own method (built from the methods of my various teachers, of course), and I’m sharing that method with you here.

To use this worksheet, fill out the questions in sentence form. Though your story may not follow this exact format, try to find some critical event in the story that can be placed in that space.  You will likely notice that the worksheet is very similar to the Hero’s Journey (because most stories follow that format!), and I have filled out the questions using my All Time Favorite Movie as the example.

Once you have filled out the worksheet, rewrite them on a fresh sheet of paper and try to eliminate words, tighten sentences, and variate sentence structure. How many words do you have? You want to shoot for under 500, and you want to have some “space” left for inserting connective words (e.g. meanwhile, then, after, etc.). You also want to have extra space to add any events that are needed for explanation/flow.

Rule of thumb: You should only name three characters in a short synopsis—usually, the protagonist, antagonist, and possible love interest/side-kick/contagonist. All other characters should be referred to by their roles (e.g. the waitress, the mother, the basketball player).

Rule of thumb: You must tell the ending! The purpose of a synopsis is to show an editor/agent you can tell a story from beginning to end. You will not entice them into reading your whole MS if you don’t share the ending—you’ll just tick them off! 🙂

Rule of thumb: Do not include subplots unless you have extra space at the end!!!!!  Stick to the MAIN PLOT EVENTS.

Fill in the Blanks

1. Opening image

An image/setting/concept that sets the stage for the story to come.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated.

2. Protagonist Intro

Who is the main character? Give 1-2 descriptive words and say what he/she wants.

Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland.

3. Inciting incident

What event/decision/change prompts the main character to take initial action.

When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.

4. Plot point 1

What is the first turning point? What action does the MC take or what decision does he/she make that changes the book’s direction? Once he/she crossed this line, there’s no going back.

Ben tells Luke about a world where the Empire rules and Rebels fight back, where Jedi Knights wield a magic called the Force, and how Luke must face Darth Vader – the man who killed Luke’s father and now seeks to destroy Luke too. Luke refuses, but when he goes back to his farm, he finds his family has been killed. He has no choice but to join Ben.

5. Conflicts & character encounters

Now in a new life, the MC meets new people, experiences a new life, and meets the antagonist/villain.

To escape the desert planet, Ben and Luke hire a low-life pilot and the pilot’s hairy, alien friend. Luke, Ben, Luke’s robots, the pilot, and the hairy friend leave the planet and fly to the Death Star, Darth Vader’s home and the Empire’s main base.

6. Midpoint

What is the middle turning point? What happens that causes the MC to make a 180 degree change in direction/change in emotion/change in anything? Again, once he/she has crossed this line, there’s no going back.

Once on board the Death Star, Luke discovers the princess is being held as a hostage. He and the group set out to find the princess, while Ben sets out to find a way for them to escape the base.

7. Winning seems imminent, but…

What happens that makes the MC think he/she will win? She seems to have the upper hand, but then oh no! The antagonist defeats her and rushes off more powerful than ever before.

After rescuing the princess, Luke and the group try to escape. Ben sacrifices himself so they can flee, and Darth Vader kills Ben. The group flees the Death Star on their own ship.

8. Black moment

The MC is lower than low, and he/she must fight through the blackness of his/her emotions to find the strength for the final battle. What happens here?

Luke is devastated over Ben’s death, and he is more determined to fight Darth Vader and help the Rebels defeat the Empire. Luke joins the Rebel army, and helps them plan an attack on the Death Star’s only weakness.

9. Climax

What happens in the final blow-out between the MC and the antagonist?

The Death Star arrives in space near the Rebels, and the attack begins. Luke joins the assault team of fighter ships. The Rebels suffer heavy losses, and soon Luke is one of the few remaining pilots and ships. He takes his chance and initiates the final attack. Guided by Ben’s voice and the Force, he manages to fire the single, critical shot to explode the Death Star.

10. Resolution

Does everyone live happily ever after? Yes? No? What happens to tie up all the loose ends?

With the Death Star destroyed and the Empire severely damaged, the Rebels hold a grand ceremony to honor Luke and his friends. The princess awards them with medals for heroism.

11. Final image

What is the final image you want to leave your reader with? Has the MC succumbed to his/her own demons or has he/she built a new life?

Though Luke is still sad over the loss of Ben and his family, he has found a place among the Rebels, and with them, he will continue to fight the Empire.

Putting It All Together

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated.

Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.

Ben tells Luke about a world where the Empire rules and Rebels fight back, where Jedi Knights wield a magic called the Force, and how Luke must face Darth Vader—the man who killed Luke’s father and now seeks to destroy Luke too. Luke refuses, but when he goes back to his farm, he finds his family has been killed. He has no choice but to join Ben.

To escape the desert planet, Ben and Luke hire a low-life pilot and the pilot’s hairy, alien friend. Luke, Ben, Luke’s robots, the pilot, and the hairy friend leave the planet and fly to the Death Star, Darth Vader’s home and the Empire’s main base. Once on board the Death Star, Luke discovers the princess is being held as a hostage. He and the group set out to find the princess, while Ben sets out to find a way for them to escape the base.

After rescuing the princess, Luke and the group try to escape. Ben sacrifices himself so they can flee, and Darth Vader kills Ben. The group flees the Death Star on their own ship. Luke is devastated over Ben’s death, and he is more determined to fight Darth Vader and help the Rebels defeat the Empire. Luke joins the Rebel army, and helps them plan an attack on the Death Star’s only weakness.

The Death Star arrives in space near the Rebels, and the attack begins. Luke joins the assault team of fighter ships. The Rebels suffer heavy losses, and soon Luke is one of the few remaining pilots and ships. He takes his chance and initiates the final attack. Guided by Ben’s voice and the Force, he manages to fire the single, critical shot to explode the Death Star.

With the Death Star destroyed and the Empire severely damaged, the Rebels hold a grand ceremony to honor Luke and his friends. The princess awards them with medals for heroism. Though Luke is still sad over the loss of Ben and his family, he has found a place among the Rebels, and with them, he will continue to fight the Empire.

FINAL WORD COUNT: 452

I hope this helps you all!  I know I use it as a general guide every time I write a synopsis.  Sometimes, I even use it before writing a novel to help me get an idea of the general plot I want to follow.

What about you? How do you write a synopsis? Or do you have any questions about this method?