Oct 01 2009
What’s your story about?
That question usually sets off a rambling and unappealing description of the novel or comic book. As part of your query, you need to describe your book in 1-2 sentences (I’d recommend 10-30 words). New authors often have a great deal of trouble doing so– they’re so intimately familiar with all the details of their work that it’s hard to see what the big picture is.
As a writing exercise, I’d like you to boil down a lengthy work into 1-2 sentences. That’s not easy. It forces you to make tough decisions about what is absolutely essential to the core of your novel or comic book. It also provides you an response when someone asks you what your book is about. Having a simple, elegant introduction available is crucial.
Here’s an easy way to write a two-sentence synopsis.
Step one: Brainstorm the aspects of the plot that are most important to understanding the plot. In particular, write down a few ideas for each of the following categories you find important.
- Key traits of main characters
- Background of the main character(s)–occupation, wealth, age, or anything else particularly relevant.
- Major character goals
- Anything notable about the premise or setting.
- Major changes of the protagonist(s)– how they grow over the course of the book.
- Crucial relationships
Step two: Pick the most important item in each category.
Step three: Write a sentence that connects at least three of the items that you think are most important. Here are some dry examples (don’t worry–we’ll make them more lively in the next step).
- An ordinary British boy (background) that discovers he is a wizard (premise) must avenge his parents’ death (goal/conflict) by studying at an extraordinary university (setting and possibly character change).
- Four mutant turtles (key traits/premise/background) must become ninjas (growth) to save New York City (goal/setting).
- Two unlikely cops, an accountant and a mutant alligator (background/traits/premise), must work together (relationship) to save the world (goal) from an unusual supervillain (conflict/premise). –> This is the synopsis for Superhero Nation, by the way.
- A fearless archaeologist (traits/background) must reunite with his estranged father (relationship) to stop the Nazis from seizing a magical artifact (conflict/setting/goal).
In some of these, I used more than one item from each category. However, I’d recommend against carpet-bombing. For example, if you describe four character traits, you’ve probably diluted the character. If you feel that you need that many traits, I would recommend thinking more about what is most important.
Step four: Pump up the style. In particular, try to insert details from your book that show off your style and make you stand out. For example, are there any vague words that can be shown with a detail? For example, in my synopsis, I described the antagonist as an “unusual supervillain.” Weak! A more specific phrase, like “deranged cosmeticist,” is more interesting and tells us more about the story and its tone.
Step five: Add a second sentence if you feel that the first one missed something essential to understanding the plot or you have particularly stylish details left. If the first sentence is like the headline for the book, the second sentence is like the subheader. As a rule, I would suggest focusing the second sentence on developing what came up in the first sentence rather than introducing details that relate more to subplots.
One miscellaneous note: it’s usually more effective to refer to characters by their profession or key traits rather than by name. The names are usually distracting and don’t add much. Would the Harry Potter synopsis have been any more interesting if it had begun with “Harry Potter, an ordinary British boy…”? No.
If you liked this article, I’d also recommend More Tips on Writing a Two-Sentence Synopsis and Can You Pass the Soul Test?