Oct 01 2009

More Tips on Writing Two-Sentence Synopses

Published by at 10:28 am under Getting Published,Synopsis,Writing Articles

Synopses that are just a sentence or two long are intensely useful because 1) they’re often required as part of the query process and 2) they convey a lot of information in very little time.  The editor or agent reading your manuscript has a thousand other manuscripts in his pile and you have maybe a minute or two to impress him before he tosses you.  The synopsis is your best opportunity to do so.

Here are a few tips about how to write an extremely short synopsis.

1. It’s usually more effective to refer to characters by their profession and/or key traits rather than by name. Calling him a “neurotic detective” tells us more about the character than calling him Adrian Monk. Unless the name adds something critical, I’d recommend leaving it out. (For example, if you’re writing about a real person, you obviously need to name him).

2. Don’t dilute your synopsis. If there are too many character traits or too many characters or too many conflicts, it will probably feel cluttered and distracted. As a rule of thumb, I’d recommend no more than 2 traits for a character, 3 characters and 2 conflicts. If you feel a strong need to bring in more characters (because you’re doing a book about a team of superheroes, for example), you can talk about the team collectively in the first sentence and spend the second sentence developing a few key members.

3. Boiling your book down to 1-2 sentences can be emotionally difficult. Sometimes it feels like you’re somehow admitting that the cut material isn’t good enough or whatever. Don’t look at this like you’re losing something (the details that aren’t important enough to make the two sentences). You’re gaining something: clarity and focus.  Ultimately, making the cuts will help your pitch.

4. If you’re having trouble cutting down material, try coming up with a synopsis for a stranger’s work. It’s usually easier to figure out the big picture when you’re not emotionally attached to every detail. After you’ve done that, bring the same mindset to work on your story. If a stranger had to describe your book in a sentence, what would he say?

5.  The most important elements of the synopsis are the protagonist, conflict/antagonist, and premise. Many first-time authors get tangled up by side-plots and side-characters that aren’t essential to understanding what’s going on.

6.  If we understand the conflict, we will probably understand the story. For example, if I told you I was writing a version of Aladdin where the main antagonist was Jasmine’s father instead of Jafar, you instantly know that the book is about Aladdin overcoming social obstacles to true love rather than a black-and-white villain. You’d also be able to surmise that the climax of my book is either the sultan allowing the two to be married or a tragic ending.

If you liked this article, I would recommend Sharpening Your Story with a Two-Sentence Synopsis and How to Write a Novel Synopsis.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “More Tips on Writing Two-Sentence Synopses”

  1. Marissaon 01 Oct 2009 at 10:34 pm

    That’s three, in number five. Not two. 😉

  2. B. Macon 03 Oct 2009 at 8:35 am

    Thanks– good call.

  3. Ragged Boyon 05 Oct 2009 at 4:25 am

    Good morning, everybody!

    I like this. I still struggle to write my own synopses because I constantly forget what amount of information to include. Thanks!

  4. Sean Higginson 01 Dec 2010 at 12:23 pm

    I thought maybe boiling my plot down to two sentences might help me finish the novel. Care to rate what I came up with – “A wild and carefree space pirate offers to help a nervous pilot escape the fury of a greedy CEO. During their travels, the unlikely duo uncover a villainous plot shrouded in war and capitalism.”

  5. B. Macon 01 Dec 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Nicely done, Sean! Here are some more detailed points…

    It’s a very functional summary of the plot, but I think it’d stand out more if it had more style. This is a comedy, right? Could you work some wacky detail into the description?

    “a villainous plot shrouded in war and capitalism” is better than something really generic like just “a villainous plot,” but it may help to say more about what’s at stake.

    Is it necessary to describe the space pirate as wild? (That strikes me as sort of implied by him being a pirate).

    Is it necessary to describe the CEO as greedy? (I can’t remember the last time I encountered a businessman villain that wasn’t greedy).

    Lastly, I think there are some places you could maybe shave a few words.
    “offers to help” could probably be “helps.” I think it’s more active and a bit shorter.

    “the unlikely duo” could probably be shortened to “they.” Based on their description, I think we can infer they’re an unlikely duo.

    “escape the fury of a greedy CEO” could be “escape a furious CEO,” but I suspect that replacing furious with something more unexpected would help.

  6. Kenny K. Royalon 10 Jul 2013 at 11:40 am

    Just made a synopsis for my comic after reading the articles about it here. Could you please rate it?

    “An assassin sales his soul to Satan in the face of death and Satan in turn grants him mystical abilities, making him his personal slayer, but soon after is betrayed by the vain assailant. The wrathful king of deceit seeks his revenge, sending his hellspawn to capture the nightmare he created.”

  7. Anonymouson 10 Jul 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Mmm. Seems to bare a large resemblance to Ghost Rider. Could we hear more about this character that would differentiate him?

  8. only under the rafterson 12 Jul 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Lets see…
    “A clever farm boy from a theocratic fantasy world is drawn into the middle of political turmoil when his sister runs away to join the communist revolution. ”
    Tah-dah!

    I could add a second sentace but i think it would distract from the overall plot if i started talking about other characters and love triangles and stuff.

  9. Tomason 15 Apr 2016 at 6:02 am

    Oh man, I’m gonna suffer a lot when I get to do this. I hate summaries. Since always. Thank the Goddess I have this awesome articles to help me. They are great advice.

  10. Cat-Vacuumer Supremeon 12 Sep 2017 at 4:27 am

    How would you do a synopsis for a story that moves in loosely connected arcs? I know the overarching story, but it seems a little bland in a synopsis:

    “The adventures of an alien who learns what it means to live again after everyone she loves dies.”

  11. B. McKenzieon 12 Sep 2017 at 8:41 am

    How would you do a synopsis for a story that moves in loosely connected arcs? I know the overarching story, but it seems a little bland in a synopsis:

    “The adventures of an alien who learns what it means to live again after everyone she loves dies.”

    I’d suggest going in a different direction than “learns what it means to live again when,” because I think it makes the story sound a lot slower-paced and lower stakes than I’m guessing it actually is. E.g. if I were writing a 1-2 sentence summary for the movie Gravity, while it ultimately is about the main character learning to live again, I’d focus on the surface story (an astronaut surviving an epic space disaster). What are the stakes for your character?

  12. Cat-Vacuumer Supremeon 27 Sep 2017 at 9:45 am

    She is mostly just acting to help humans survive, she really doesn’t have any major antagonist aside from internal conflict.

  13. Baton 13 Oct 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I’m sorry for my bad english, I’m not native, it’s supposed to be written in my native language, I just want an opinions from an expert.

    Ok, this is the summary of my novel;

    A young, overly ambitious rich woman, wants nothing more than to cured her neurological desease, subjected hesrself to an experimental virus, that unknowingly grants her increased physical and mental abilities. When she learned about a plan of mass mind control, using a drug that her company produced, and the fact that much of her employees are conspiring againts her, she must stopped them, and find the real culprit behind these chaos.

    I’m afraid it’s too long and there are so many subplots like the caused of her disease, the fact that his own brother is the real culprit, the dead of the scientists that she funded to cured her, the second antagonist that want revenge because of her recklessness in the past, and that her employees are actually mind cotrolled by her brother.

  14. B. McKenzieon 13 Oct 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Bat, this sounds workable as a rough outline of the plot events, assuming the character is interesting enough. It sounds like she owns (and/or is a key leader for) her company, right? Based on the very short description here, it might be easier to give her opportunities to be interesting if it were someone else’s company (maybe one she works for), to give her more obstacles to overcome and/or force her to rely more on her own skills than on being really wealthy and owning the company. Also, it might be easier to work ambitiousness into the plot if she’s working for somebody else than if she did own the place. (Particularly somebody besides the brother).

    “I’m sorry for my bad english, I’m not native, it’s supposed to be written in my native language…” You handle English better than I can handle any other language. 🙂

  15. Baton 15 Oct 2017 at 6:45 am

    Thanks for your advice! It does sounds like she owns the company, though the reality is more complicated than that. It was more like, so basically the company’s ownership was splits between two people, her father and his partner, the current owner. After the dead of her father, his shares was splits between her and her two siblings equally, reducing her influence in the company. Her brother doesn’t seems to care about the company, he immersed himself in his project, so does her teenage sister. I was confused, was this count as her company or not?

    She knows something was wrong when many of the investors withdrawn their funds and when she confront the board members, they were adamant that their current project was worth the wait. She comes to her father’s partner to explained what was happening, but she only received unsatisfied answers. She then secretly plant a computer virus in the company’s computers, and when she got the data she needs, and threatened the CEO a days later, she found herself being dragged by masked assailants, and injected with something that makes her suffered anterograde amnesia. (This one still bothers me as to why her brother doesn’t give her the same substance that makes his other victims developed new personalities, and susceptible to his command. I’m torn between the idea that her brother has a code of honor; to never confront a family member, to later breaks his codes because his sister threatened his goals, or the protag has a sophisticated immune systems that resist her brother’s substance, even before she developed her superpowers. I still thought that these are weak excuses though )

    So the story would opened with her waking up in the morning, I mean with her struggles of her (induced) amnesia that affects her personal goals and ambitions to prove her worth to her (deceased) father, by becoming successful business person, and maintains her family influence in the company. On the other hand she also had an unhealthy jealousy towards her brother, caused by her father’s favoritism over him, and her brother’s many accomplishments in science (mostly neurology). Hence her ambitiousness to recklessly does anything to cured her desease to better accomplished her goal.

    And her brother’s goals are a bit grandiose. His father (also the protag’s father) noticed that his son has a psychosis disorder and a bit deluded, but also a genius. He told his son about his twisted believes, that if only peoples can set aside their differences, and have the same goal to better their civilisations, there’ll be no wars, no corruptions. Later he shows his son the prototype of artificial neurons that he made, and warn his son to never revealed their plans to anyone, even their own family, because the father thinks no one would understand the good of their plans.

    On the surface the brother would be the introvert, charming scientist, while the sister would looks like an ambitious, manipulative corporate ladder.

    Later the protag would receives help from her childhood friend (potential boyfriend), by secretly introduced her to a broke but genius geneticist, who does all his works in his DIY lab, and desperately needs funding. (This geneticist lives in different country than my protag, but my protag spent her college years in this country) The geneticist’s daughter (secondary antagonist) also suffered amnesia, caused by traffic accident five years before the story begin. (My protag, in her teenage years, driving while drunk, caused an accident that eventually killed the geneticist’s wife, and cause his daughter amnesia, so no one knows, even my protag herself, about the cause of that accident. P.s: I’m afraid that this’ll makes my protag unlikeable, but it’s crucial for the intensity of her battle with Ciara, and to her own personal growth). My protag funded this broke geneticist, after successful experiment in an animal subject, my protag asked the geneticist to did it to her.

  16. Baton 15 Oct 2017 at 6:49 am

    The virus that the geneticist made caused a widespread mutations in her DNA. It’s not only cured her desease but also makes her neurons smaller and more efficient. After this, she began to remember about the conspiracy surrounding her (not)company, (she’s not aware that her brother is the real culprit yet) she retrieve the data that she saved in her cloud, but it was damaged. She tell her boyfriend about what she knows before her apartment surrounded by many masked assailants, she fought all those assailants using her newfound powers, and then she and her boyfriend come back to their country. On the airport in her country she’s attacked again, this time her boyfriend got shot on the back, it wasn’t lethal bullet, but it makes her boyfriend paralyzed. They hide. (In this same timeline, using the secondary antagonist’s POV, the geneticist’s lab surrounded by a troops of (fake)polices, (all of these police was mind controlled by the brother’s henchmen) they receives report that the geneticist doing something illegal, they checking all the surrounding lab. One of the animal subjects, (geneticist using two orangutan subjects) also has superpowers, going nuts when he sees the guns the police held.(This orangutan has a traumatic experience with gun, his parents killed by rogue hunter when he was child) The eventual battle leads to the dead of the geneticist.(brushed by a stray bullet) In his dying words, he gives his daughter a present, the virus that grants power to the protag. When the daughter injected the virus, she began to remember the connection between protag and her mother’s dead.)

    My protag called a police about the attacks, and try to reports about her findings of her company only to be laughed at. She tells her brother to no avail, and when the next attacks coming, this time using a lethal bullets, she loose it. After interrogating her assailants that she doesn’t get any information out of, she comes directly to the facility where the drugs being manufactured using a truck, fought the guards. When she comes inside, she found the CEO was there, and she discovered the real stakes of this plans, the freedom of thinking of the peoples in her country (the neural dust that the brother made was very sophisticated, it made the victims thinks that what they think were really their own thingking). When she comes to this facility a lot of the machines and products already moved, and the place exploded systematically. She survives, with no ones to talk to. After this she comes to his father’s partner, she thinks that the owner was the real culprit, when she found nothing, out of rages (and her inability to controls her powers) she brokes the owner’s arms. It makes her branded as a criminal.

    Umm, it would be too long. But the main conflict was her trying to stopped this mass mind controls and find the real mastermind, and about her facing everybody. Later the geneticist’s daughter and her two animal sidekicks joined forces with the protagonist to stop the brother’s plan.

    In the midpoint, the protag feels that maybe she’s crazy, because no one supports her, or maybe she developed schizophrenia. When she hides amongst the homeless, the poor women she spokes with said about “what is freedom, it’s just an illusion the higher-ups made, do we looks like we have freedom?” It’s almost broke the will of the protag to fight. Because the owner (mind controlled) spoke the exact words as the homeless woman. The fact that she lives in a country with high percentage of corruptions, inequalities, and poorness made her doubting her actions.

    Ps: It was all still in an outlining process. I still try to discovered what’s stick and what’s not. I just come up with this idea two months ago after reading your superhero cliche article 😑

  17. B. McKenzieon 15 Oct 2017 at 11:30 am

    “So basically the company’s ownership was split between two people, her father and his partner, the current owner. After her father’s death, his shares were split evenly between her and her two siblings, reducing her influence in the company. Her brother doesn’t seems to care about the company, he immersed himself in his project, so does her teenage sister. I was confused, does this count as her company or not?” If your goal is to show her as really ambitious, I think you’d probably have better opportunities if she weren’t born into a family that owned half the company. E.g. more opportunities for her to shape her rise through the choices she makes and the things she does, rather than being born into the right family.

    –She majorly escalates a conflict at the company (planting a computer virus and threatening the CEO with the results), and you weren’t sure why her brother might inject her with something that causes amnesia rather than something that makes them susceptible to his command with multiple new personalities. Many major psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia and multiple personality can be hereditary, and if his sister developed major symptoms very quickly, it’d probably raise questions about his own fitness to be a major part of the company. If he can give her amnesia instead, I think that’d be a safer, lower-publicity way for him to start easing her out of the company than a more drastic approach (like giving her multiple personality mind control or having her killed), and maybe less likely to draw attention to his own psychological issues.

    “…her (induced) amnesia affects her personal goals and ambitions to prove her worth to her (deceased) father, by becoming successful business person, and maintains her family influence in the company.” (I think this is an example of why it might be helpful to have her working in somebody else’s company — having her motivated by a relationship with someone already dead may not give you as much to work with as a motivation tied to someone/something that’s still acting in the story moving forward). And, also, preferably something more urgent than making a dead family member proud, e.g. solving a crime of some sort for personal and/or professional reason to someone still alive (her or somebody else).

    For example, compare scenario A (she’s born into the company leadership) vs. scenario B (she gets a major promotion into her boss/mentor’s former position when the boss/mentor gets fired for some accusation she thinks sounds totally unbelievable, like he was allegedly sabotaging the company for selfish gain). In scenario B, I think she has a more natural and personal reason to uncover the problems at the company than trying to impress her dead father. (And, also, it’d be a natural reason to give her a big new position she isn’t yet ready for, and seeing her adapt to the bigger job sounds more interesting than her getting a big role because she was born into the right family).

  18. Baton 15 Oct 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Ok, so maybe I’ll placed her in finance or IT department. The former had high enough positions and influence to uncover something, while the latter made her adaptability in hacking plausible. I do really like her as a hacker, so maybe IT, but I think IT wouldn’t shows her ambitiousness on the corporate ladder. Her father was the head scientist, now replaced by her brother. So I needs to make new character as her mentor.

    But I needs her has enough money to funded the broke geneticist’s experiment. Maybe I’ll make the boyfriend as the son of the owner. But that’s too cliche.

    What about my protag’s recklessness that caused my secondary antagonist turn sidekick revenge on her? Was that too heavy? I still thinks that killing innocent people (even if it was indirectly/accidentally) was too heavy a crimes, but I coudn’t come up with something more believable, that results in their intensity on their first battle.

    Oh, and help me decide these too! Oh, and actually the drugs the brother made didn’t caused personality disorder, it affects their core personality. Ok, help me decide this. I have two versions of his way to affects other’s mind. The first was a nano scale artificial neurons, it affects the prefrontal lobe, the section of the brain that defined human’s personality. The drawback was that the victims just the extensions of the brother’s will, they didn’t really have their personality anymore, so no drama from the victims. The good of this version, it’s very hard to trace, and the brother doesn’t really has to monitor his victims. The second was sort of like a brain machine interface, it made from organic-friendly materials, and it looks like a super slim clothes with very tiny electrodes on it. The brother injected these brain machine interfaces inside the victim’s brains using custom made injector. The brain machine sent a signal in the brother’s computers, and the brother could sent signal to the victims too. In this version the victims still retain their personality, but it felt like they developed a new personalities. The good about this versions is the fact that the victims still have their own personality, so it will add more drama to the story, and the brother plants a microbombs on these BMI, but the drawback it’s easier to trace, (using MRI) and he needs to monitor his victims.

  19. B. McKenzieon 15 Oct 2017 at 10:06 pm

    “But I need her to have enough money to fund the broke geneticist’s experiment. Maybe I’ll make the boyfriend as the son of the owner. But that’s too cliche.” I think virtually any interaction that she has with other people (preferably people not inclined to help*) to solve the problem creates more dramatic opportunities than just having the money lying around herself. (You have a lot of options to create resistance; some possibilities that come to mind are that the person would have to stretch their job authority to pull this off, or maybe the person has an alternate plan, probably safer, that the main character has to pull them off of).

    “What about my protag’s recklessness that caused my secondary antagonist turn sidekick revenge on her? Was that too heavy?” If you feel that her accidentally killing someone while driving drunk would be too dark, you could soften it into an accident where she’s driving responsibly/sober but accidentally kills a pedestrian, and she flees the scene after determining the victim has died (which I think may feel less nefarious than going the full Ted Kennedy, fleeing an accident where a survivor needs emergency assistance and not calling for it or discouraging others from calling for it).

    In context, is there a good reason that she happens to hit someone from the company? (Maybe it happened at a company event, like a holiday party).

    “Oh, and help me decide these too!” Is there a question here, or an issue you’re running into?

  20. B. McKenzieon 15 Oct 2017 at 11:45 pm

    Cat Vacuumer Supreme: “She is mostly just acting to help humans survive, she really doesn’t have any major antagonist aside from internal conflict.” Okay, maybe go with what/how she’s helping humans survive? E.g. in a medical story, the protagonist might be a doctor facing the difficulties of keeping people alive around the clock against routine injuries/sicknesses, maybe mixed in with some personal drama like trouble at home or his wife wanting him to think about retiring or whatever (as opposed to a more goal-oriented plot like “a doctor must stop an epidemic”).

  21. Baton 16 Oct 2017 at 7:01 am

    It actually happened five years before the story begin, after she attends college party. The victim was the geneticist wife, my secondary antagonist’s mother, she wasn’t related to the company, thoug the geneticist was the former lead scientist in the company before the brother throw him out. No surveillance cameras on street and no witnesses either. Only her and her college friend knew it.

    I think I’ll take the first drug. It sacrifice the victim’s drama but it is pertinent to the plot because the brother wants to contaminates the company’s products ( mostly household drugs) with his mind altering substance. It would raise the stakes to national threat I think.

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