How to jam your synopsis into one page in only 456,098* steps

*It might not take that many, but it’ll feel like it.

Queries are hard. I wrote about why here. Synopses, though.

Synopses.

A query is 250 words of pitch and 80ish of nonpitch.

Most synopses that I get asked to work start out in the 1,400-word range. If you have to cut to fit a page, you have to basically halve that document.

As the French say, owie.

The best way to halve a document when you can’t play with formatting is to jackhammer paragraphs out. But when I’m working my own synopsis, I can’t have that vision immediately because I think everything is important. When I’m working another writer’s synopsis, I don’t know the book, so I can’t toss a whole paragraph on first read because I don’t know what’s important. So instead, I look at the first paragraph and assess on a language level.

Here’s an example:

“Princess ARPI is a direct descendant of Zannaria, an ancient queen now worshipped as a goddess. On a diplomatic trip to the White Citadel, a mountain stronghold of the Order of Peace created to uphold the Treaty with dragons signed at the end of a war that devastated both races centuries ago, Arpi witnesses Zannaria’s priests use magic to burn it down. And she is not alone — a dragon flies over the smoking ruins, proving the dragons are not extinct as everyone has believed. Worse, the Treaty included a clause prohibiting the use of magic and the priests have given the dragons an excuse to attack.”

That’s Olga’s first paragraph, as it came to my group. I didn’t know enough to hammer whole sentences off, so instead, I went in with a tool that chops unnecessary words without losing plot. Below is the same paragraph, but with stuff bolded where I would toss/change it. After that is the paragraph with the to-be-tossed stuff removed. (And this is just a first pass.)

“Princess ARPI is a direct descendant of Zannaria, an ancient queen now worshipped as a goddess. On a diplomatic trip to the White Citadel, a mountain stronghold of the Order of Peace created to uphold the Treaty with dragons signed at the end of a war that devastated both races centuries ago, Arpi witnesses Zannaria’s priests use magic to burn it down. And she is not alone — a dragon flies over the smoking ruins, proving the dragons are not extinct, as everyone has believed. Worse, the Treaty included a clause prohibiting the use of magic and the priests have given the dragons an excuse to attack.”

Here’s what I’d do:

“Princess ARPI is descended from Zannaria, an ancient queen now worshiped as a goddess. On a diplomatic trip to the White Citadel, an Order of Peace stronghold created to uphold the Treaty with dragons signed after a war that devastated both races centuries ago, Arpi sees Zannaria’s priests burn it down with magic. Over the smoking ruins flies a dragon, proving they’re not extinct, as everyone believed. Worse, the Treaty included a clause banning magic and the priests have given the dragons a reason to attack.”

We went from eight lines, and onto a ninth, to less than seven lines. And that was one pass. What did I do?

  1. I recast prepositional phrases where I could. Those suckers will eat you alive if you let them.
  2. I chained the dragon nouns to avoid using wording twice.
  3. I shorted verbs.
  4. I turned nouns into verbs, which shortened phrasing.
  5. I used a common spelling of a word that can lose a consonant. You never know when one letter will save you precious characters on one line by changing hyphenation.
  6. I removed a modifier that isn’t clearly needed. If I learn that this book is heavily mountainous, I’ll put it back in, but for now, I’m happy.

Now, the next paragraph:

“Arpi doesn’t understand why and how the Church of Zannaria, an institution devoted to education and science, has turned into a military power. She also struggles to reconcile the image of Zannaria, a famously compassionate ruler, with the brutality and shortsightedness of the attack. Worried about the possibility of a war with dragons, Arpi rushes back to the capital to organize help for the citadel.”

Again, bolded stuff to change:

“Arpi doesn’t understand why and how the Church of Zannaria, an institution devoted to education and science, has turned into a military power. She also struggles to reconcile the image of Zannaria, a famously compassionate ruler, with the brutality and shortsightedness of the attack. Worried about the possibility of a war with dragons, Arpi rushes back to the capital to organize help for the citadel.”

And the result:

“Arpi can’t understand why the education-focused Church of Zannaria has turned to military power, and she can’t reconcile Zannaria’s compassionate image with the attack’s brutality and lack of strategy. She worries the dragons could start a war, and rushes back to the capital to rally help for the citadel.”

From five and a quarter lines to four. Here’s how:

  1. Find and shorten verbs.
  2. Gash prepositional phrases.
  3. Shorten nouns.
  4. Omit unneeded information.

Now, some examples of shortening from other places in the synopsis:

“In the Great Citadel, Orrian tells the master that the mages refuse to help the Order, as it would help the dragons, who decimated the mages after the Fallen Star fell. Since Orrian disagrees with their decision, he offers his own help to the Order and, by proxy, to the dragons.”

That paragraph starts out decently, but that last sentence is just death. Here’s how I’d shorten it:

“Orrian disagrees, so he offers to help the order and, thus, the dragons.”

We just halved that sentence by:

  1. Removing any mention of who he disagrees with, since we just said who it is
  2. Shortening a verb phrase. “offers his own help to” may be pretty, but it ain’t short.
  3. By proxy is longer’n we need. Gash.
  4. To the dragons? The preposition is no longer needed because we recast the relevant lead-in, so toss it. We could toss the commas, too.

Now, here’s some spot work:

“His contact is a dragon who can communicate telepathically”

This is child’s play:

“His contact is a telepathic dragon”

We already knew telepathy was a communication ability, so we began with redundant phrasing. Tossing it is the job.

“their reluctance to start a war is genuine.”

“They cherish peace”

This one might seem odd, but what we have is them stating their aversion to one thing, so instead of having them emphasize what they don’t want, why not have them emphasize what they do want? (One of the things I loathe about things is when someone tells me what something isn’t rather than what it is. It could not be damn near anything on the planet. Telling me what it is tells me more, and in less space. And in a synopsis, you do not have space to waste.)

“the reason behind the rogue dragon’s actions”

“why the rogue dragon’s [verbing]”

Other basic things:

  1. You do not need process language. If your character gets in her car and goes wherever to talk to a person to get a thing and then goes wherever else, you can chop all of that ESPECIALLY if the person she talks to appears nowhere else or can be written around.
  2. Almost anyone who appears only once in your syn can appear nowhere in your syn.

Now, those are solid as starters. More specific stuff is situational and a matter of torturing words and plot points until they bleed out, at which point you excise them. But what if you have to really gut?

How to write a 300-word synopsis

I’d do 300 in one of two ways: a concept outline from the start or an absolute hack job of your original synopsis.

Here (bottom of the page) is an example of a longer original synopsis. It’s 2,800 words. It’s “National Treasure,” a wonderful movie with lots of interesting stuff. (I’ve watched it at least four times, and the sequel several times as well.)

You can edit that absolute unit of a 2,800-word summary down to 300 words. How? By focusing on the core plot: Rivals race to find a treasure. Everything else is just details.

Let’s start with the first two paragraphs, which are 257 words:

“ As the movie opens, the young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is snooping around an attic when his grandfather, John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) catches him. Ben wants to hear the story of the Gates family history, so his grandfather begins reciting:

In 1832, Charles Carroll — — the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence — — traveled to the White House, desperate to speak with President Jackson before his death. But, since the President wasn’t at the White House that night, Carroll had no choice but to share his closely-guarded secret with his stable boy, Ben’s ancestor, Thomas Gates. Carroll told Gates about a fabulous treasure that had existed throughout history, collected by pharaohs and emperors for hundreds of years before being discovered by a group called the Knights Templar. The Knights believed the treasure to be too great for any one man, so they secretly smuggled it out of Europe and over to America. By the time the treasure had been taken to America, the Revolutionary War was raging. The Knights had formed a secondary group called the Freemasons, had recruited members like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere, and had formulated a number of secret clues and maps in a desperate attempt to keep the treasure from falling into the hands of the British. As the war ended and time went on, all of the clues were lost except one, the clue belonging to Charles Carroll: “The Secret Lies With Charlotte.” Sadly, even Carroll himself didn’t know the meaning of that clue.”

All we need to do to summarize this in about 20 words is zoom way out and maintain the barebones facts:

“Ben Gates’ grandfather tells him about Charles Carroll and a treasure linked to world/American history, the Knights Templar, and something named ‘Charlotte.’”

From 257 words to 23. The next two paragraphs get the same treatment (203 words):

“ John’s son and Ben’s father, Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), comes in to take Ben home. He is obviously skeptical about the existence of the treasure. Ben asks if the Gates family are actually Knights. John does an impromptu ritual, and pronounces Ben to be a Knight Templar to the family Gates.

Many years later, the adult Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his team of researches are traveling across the Arctic Circle. Fellow travelers include the financial backer Ian Howe (Sean Bean) and Ben’s friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). The group stumbles across a figure buried in the ice. They carve it out using special tools, and find the remains of a ship: the “Charlotte.” Ben leads them inside, but the ship’s cargo hold only holds barrels with gunpowder… except for one barrel that is guarded by the captain’s corpse; the preserved hand holding a musket. Ben opens the barrel and uncovers a carved ivory meerschaum pipe. He discovers a stamp-like imprint on the pipe’s base. Coating it with a little of his blood, he rolls the imprint along a paper, and unearths a riddle: “The legend writ, the stain affected. The key in Silence undetected. Fifty-five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can’t offend.””

That chonky friend becomes:

“Years later, adult Ben leads a research team to Charlotte, then finds a clue in a musket barrel: an ivory pipe with a rhyming note.”

25 words, giving us 48, down from 460. We’re still on target for ~300, but I need to be a touch more judicious with the next section. Here’s the result (down from 259 words):

“Ben figures out the next clue is in the Declaration of Independence, which one team member wants to steal. Ben warns the government, but they do not listen.”

28. Again a little more robust than I’d like, but I’d rather keep going and see about some minute chops once we’re done. The next section (down from 303):

“So Ben steals it before his rival can.”

8 words is nice. We’re to 56, down from 763. Next section (down from 201):

“Ben saves a government official (Abigail) from his rival, and his team abandons its original plan, instead going to Ben’s father’s house.”

22. 78 total, down from 964. Next section (down from 198):

“Ben and his father argue about the situation. The team finds the next clue on the Declaration of Independence, then heads to Philadelphia.”

23. 101, down from 1162. Next section (down from 383):

“The team figures out the clue, with one member figuring out two crucial parts. The rival figures things out too. Ben finds the next object and its clue, then is captured by the government.”

34. Feels long, but we were working with twice as many words as in the previous session. 135, down from 1545. We’re probably going to be sub-300, and possibly sub-225. At a guess, with linear progression on the 1,200ish remaining words, 230. Next section (down from 222):

“Ben escapes custody with his rival’s help. His rival says that to ensure he gets the treasure, he’s kidnapped Ben’s father. Ben leads his rival to the next location.”

30. Ugh. Let’s tighten:

“Ben’s rival helps him escape custody, then says that to ensure he gets the treasure, he’s kidnapped Ben’s father. Ben leads his rival to the next location.”

27. Enh, but let’s take it for now, since we were already way under where we needed to be. 162, down from 1767. Next section (down from 274):

“Ben and his rival find the location, then solve a puzzle and arrive in an empty room — a dead end. Ben’s father fools the rival into leaving, then reveals the truth, and they find the real next location.”

38. Suddenly I’m Mr. Expansive. But we’re still under count — 200, down from 2041, so let’s keep going. The next section (down from 211):

“The lack of treasure devastates Ben, who soon finds symbols on another wall. He opens it with the pipe, revealing the treasure and the escape.”

25. Vomit. But 225, down from 2152, is solidish. We’ll probably be sub-250 by the end. Next section (down from 272):

“Ben gives the treasure to the government/world, returns the Declaration, helps the feds arrest his rival, boosts his family’s name, and buys a house the last clue-holder owned.”

27, taking us to 252. Somewhere, we lost 500 words from the original word count. I’m not sure how, but there we are.

Putting it all together with a light edit or two, we get:

“Ben Gates’ grandfather tells him about Charles Carroll and a treasure linked to world/American history, the Knights Templar, and something named “Charlotte.” Years later, adult Ben leads a research team to Charlotte, then finds a clue in a musket barrel: an ivory pipe with a rhyming note. Ben figures out the next clue is in the Declaration of Independence, which one team member wants to steal. Ben warns the government, but they do not listen. So Ben steals it before his rival can.

Ben saves a government official (Abigail) from his rival, and his team abandons its original plan, instead going to Ben’s father’s house, where Ben and his father argue about the situation. The team finds the next clue on the Declaration of Independence, then heads to Philadelphia. The team figures out the clue, with one member figuring out two crucial parts. The rival figures things out too.

Ben finds the next object and its clue, then is captured by the government. Ben’s rival helps him escape custody, then says that to ensure he gets the treasure, he’s kidnapped Ben’s father. Ben leads his rival to the next location. Ben and his rival find the location, then solve a puzzle and arrive in an empty room — a dead end. Ben’s father fools the rival into leaving, then reveals the truth, and they find the real next location. The lack of treasure devastates Ben, who soon finds symbols on another wall. He opens it with the pipe, revealing the treasure and the escape. Ben gives the treasure to the government/world, returns the Declaration, helps the feds arrest his rival, boosts his family’s name, and buys a house the last clue-holder owned.”

281, down from roughly 10 times that. I could chop more now that I have cohesive parts whose phrasing I can combine, which would also reduce choppiness. I could remove more names, add some of the family quest for honor, and be more specific about the rival. I could infuse it with excitement by adding tension and such to the verbs. But in terms of gutting so we have something smaller to work with, this does the job by, again, focusing on the core plot, which is: Rivals race to discover a treasure.

If enough people ask, I could refine this in a future article, but I feel like a writer who doesn’t know how to add notes of detail to language is not going to be needing a synopsis any time soon.

For help turning your long syn into a 300-word thing, holler at me here or join my group (just read rule 1). Good luck :)

I write mostly data-driven stuff.