How to Start Your Synopsis: One Strategy

The dreaded Synopsis. Does the word fill you with shakes and send you skittering off to check other important things like what new funnies are in your Facebook feed, whose cat coughed up a hairball the size of Manhattan on Twitter, and what companies want to sell you unwanted Viagra in your spam box? Well, you aren’t alone. Even the most seasoned of writers feel a twinge of hopelessness at the idea of crafting a synopsis. And the worst part? The Opening line.

Lucky for us, author Lee Mckenzie is here from The Write Game to share her awesome technique to nail your Synopsis opening. If you struggle with where and how to start a synopsis, read on!

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We know that a synopsis is written in 3rd person/present tense. It should be in the same style as your book, so if your book is humorous or “chatty,” your synopsis should be as well. It should introduce your main characters and their conflicts, and it must weave together these story elements so ideas flow logically from one paragraph to another.

All of that is doable, but not easy. I probably don’t have to write that for those who have tried synopses, but I’ll add it in case someone reading this hasn’t wrestled one of these beasties into shape.

My biggest problem is how to start. I want that first paragraph to have “Ta da!” in it. I want the reader so captivated by my characters and their situation that they won’t stop until they reach the end. Unfortunately, if I start with an inciting event, I often wind up producing a piece that’s preoccupied with plot. The emotion, conflict, characters and how they change become buried.

I want to avoid the “first this happens, then that happens.” But how?

Here’s one strategy that helps me. I write the inciting event as if it were to be the first sentence of my synopsis, then I write my reaction to that event. Next, I delete that first sentence. Here’s what I mean.

Sliding on the Edge (Fall, 2009)

Inciting Event: Shawna Stone’s mother abandons her, leaving her to survive on her own in Las Vegas.

Paragraph 1 of Synopsis: Shawna has spent the first sixteen years of her life in Las Vegas, learning how to dodge her mother’s sleazy boyfriends, how to separate tourists from their cash, and how to make ketchup soup. Now her mother has taken off with the latest boyfriend, leaving Shawna with nothing but a hundred-dollar bill and a bus ticket for a journey to find a grandmother she’s never met—Kay Stone.

1-The event is important to the plot, but it’s dull reading. However, if I use it as a springboard I can put my MC right up front and surround her with details of her setting–a setting that has created this girl with the “bad ass attitude” whom the readers are about to meet. IMO that does two things: it creates empathy for someone who’s not all that likable at first, and it sketches in the backstory very lightly.

2- Reacting to the event also allows me to react to the mother so the readers know her immediately. Sleazy refers to the boyfriends, but it quickly characterizes the mother, too.

3-The story pivots on meeting the grandmother, so I wanted to introduce Kay at the beginning, while keeping the focus on Shawna and her situation.

Alligators Overhead (July, 2012)

Inciting Event: A mysterious mansion materializes at the edge of the Ornofree swamp and next door to where Pete Riley lives.

Paragraph 1 of Synopsis: Alligators, witches and a spooky mansion aren’t your average neighbors unless you live at the edge of the Ornofree swamp in the backwater town of Hadleyville. The town’s bad boy, Pete Riley, may only be twelve, but he’s up to his eyeballs in big trouble, and this time he isn’t the cause. This time the trouble arrives when a legendary hundred-year-old mansion materializes next door and the Ornofree alligators declare war to save their swamp from bulldozers.

1-The setting in this story is a major “character.” I wanted readers to experience the unique atmosphere immediately, so I put it into the opening sentence.

2-I wanted to establish Pete and his place in this peculiar town, but with an economy of words. I thought calling him a “bad boy” was the best way to do this; to me it made him sound like a charming rascal, but kept the tone of the book.

3-The plot turns on the reappearance of the mansion, so it had to be in the first paragraph along with those alligators that play such an important role in the story.

In these examples, the inciting event is in the opening paragraph; it just isn’t the first sentence. Whenever I did that it led me to very pedestrian and plot focused synopses.

If you try this strategy, let me know if it helps! I’m always interested in finding out if I’m on the right track.

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I don’t know about you, but I think that is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on how to start a synopsis! And, did anyone else notice how well it works as an opening line for a query pitch? *wink wink*

AND, The awesomeness isn’t over friends! Lee is generously offering 3 copies of her new Middle Grade Adventure book, Alligators Overhead, one print (US only), two ebook (Worldwide, any format!).  Here’s a blurb:

Alligators, witches and a spooky mansion aren’t your average neighbors unless you live at the edge of the Ornofree swamp in the backwater town of Hadleyville. The town’s bad boy, Pete Riley, may only be twelve, but he’s up to his eyeballs in big trouble, and this time he isn’t the cause. This time the trouble arrives when a legendary hundred-year-old mansion materializes next door and the Ornofree alligators declare war to save their swamp from bulldozers. Things only get worse when Pete’s guardian aunt and several of her close friends vanish while trying to restore order using outdated witchcraft. Now Pete must find the witches and stop the war. He might stand a chance if his one friend, Weasel, sticks with him, but even then, they may not have what it takes.

I know Lee would hugely appreciate tweets and a visit to her FB Page, and if you like, feel free to add this book to your GOODREADS list! Lee has a great little book trailer too, so check it out!



Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, MG & Kidlit, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to How to Start Your Synopsis: One Strategy

  1. Lee, the way you described how to begin a synopsis was straight forward and easy to understand. Not only, did you capture the tone for each example, but you had great hooks.

    Angela, sorry for the late reply, but your post found its way in my spam folder. Odd.

    Better late than never.
    And congratulations on your successful presentation.


  2. Such fabulous advice! I love it! And the book sounds like SO MUCH FUN.

    I’m in the US.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post. I will keep the advice in mind. My synopsis frankly speaking are bad, I hate and avoid writing them.

  4. Bree says:

    Thanks for the advice! I’m terrified of writing a synopsis!

    (I don’t have any young relatives for the book giveaway, so count me out, but I really enjoyed the post!)

  5. cleemckenzie says:

    Well, bad news. I can’t contact Linda, so I had to choose another winner.
    Number 12 Carrie Butler I’ll be in touch, Carrie!

  6. cleemckenzie says:

    H. Back to wave at everyone who was kind enough to stop in and say hi here.

    Now I have to choose some winners. Oy! This is too hard.

    I’m writing down the names, shuffling them and having an unbiased other pull them out. Drum roll please. . . .
    Numbers are 2, 3, 7

    Linda A. ebook
    Chihuahua paperback
    Julie e-book

  7. Beelissa says:

    I’m still working on a plot, so writing a synopsis is a long way off, but this seems like a good way to go about it, and results in synopses that I find interesting, as a reader.

    I’m in the US but nowhere near a swamp nor alligators.

  8. Janet Smart says:

    I’m trying to write a synopsis now. This information will come in real handy. Alligators Overhead sounds like a great book, I love the title.

  9. james atel says:

    its such a nice blog to provides info
    hope more people discover your blog because you really know what you’re talking about. Can’t wait to read more from you!
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  10. Jemi Fraser says:

    Love this advice! I’m definitely going to give this a shot!

    (I already own my copy, so I’ll let others win the draw!)

  11. Amazing breakdown!! I appreciate any advice when it comes to queries and the synopsis. I have a hard time figuring out just where to begin and this will definitely help to keep things on track.

  12. cleemckenzie says:

    So glad to see you here, Eagle. Here’s another public thanks for creating the badge for Alligators Overhead!

    Chihuahua Zero You’ve got the idea. That’s exactly what I do.

    Hope this helps, Denise.

  13. Denise Covey says:

    This is great. Thank you.

  14. Inciting Incident (I think): Bryan discovers that Finn, his exchange student, is a psychic that fights spirits.

    Bryan already finds it difficult dealing with Finn, a spacey doormat. Being a reluctant student exchange program host, Bryan has to look after Finn for one whole semester. Too bad Finn, while lacking social skills, happens to be a somewhat iffy psychic that sneaks out to vanquish manifestations of human emotions.

    Is that a good start?

  15. Excellent advice. I like your approach of using the reaction instead of the original opening as the first sentence!

  16. Lee, I’ll say it again–this is such great advice! I’m so excited to see so many people find this helpful–this is such a challenging part of seeking publication. Thank you!

    Good luck to everyone in the draw! 🙂

  17. cleemckenzie says:

    I’ll expect notes from all you about your requests for fulls! 🙂 Good luck with those synopses!

  18. M Pax says:

    That’s a great method for getting started, Lee. They’re tough to write. I think.

  19. What a great tip! It’s hard to find really good advice on synopsis, so thanks for this!

  20. Bish Denham says:

    Most excellent Lee. A wonderful bit of simple advice. It’s not all complicated and stuff…

  21. Word Crafter says:

    Wow this makes perfect sense but never crossed my radar until now. I suddenly view my next challenge in writing a synopsis as doable – with verve. Thank you.
    Billie A Williams

  22. Great tips, Lee! I will definitely keep this in mind for next time. 🙂

  23. Angela Brown says:

    This tip is very timely. I just got to the point of needing to do a synopsis and this will help a great deal. Thanks!

  24. Patchi says:

    I’m waiting on critiques of my synopsis at the moment, and I’ll incorporate this tip when I rewrite. Thanks for the great advice!

    (US, the part that has swamps and gators)

  25. R. E. Hunter says:

    I have to agree with Angela, this is the best tip I’ve read on how to write a good synopsis. Thanks, Lee.

  26. Very nice tip! Thank you. I’ll be sure to use it when I start to draft my synopsis to my WIP.

  27. I’m in the second draft of my debut YA mystery/adventure novel, so am bookmarking this – it’s going to be a huge help, thank you! (I’m in Canada, so am “worldwide”)

  28. cleemckenzie says:

    Hi all! I hope that if you try my little quirky system, you’ll let me know how those synopses turn out! I’d love to hear from you.

    So great to be here, Angela. Loved your introduction. . . . a hairball the size of Manhattan? Really?

  29. I need to start my synopsis, so this is timely!

  30. Rosi says:

    I think I’ll be rewriting my synopsis now.

  31. Fiona Ingram says:

    This post came just in time to save me from myself! I have to do a synopsis of my MG adventure for my editor and I have been floundering! I would love to win a copy of Alligators Overhead because I am a MG author (as well as being a MG time-warp-trapped reader) and I know I will love it. I also promise to feature it on all my social and book sites! (PS: I live in South Africa where there are no alligators, only crocodiles so I’ll be learning too!)

  32. Interesting tip. I’ll try it when I get to synopsises.

    US, by the way.

  33. Linda A. says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this different way to get started with a synopsis. I’m going to try it! I would love to be entered in the contest for a copy of Alligators Overhead. With two grandsons and a niece just the right age for this, it would be most appreciated.

  34. This is wonderful advice. One of my biggest struggles with the synopsis is avoiding that play-by-play feel. Maybe this technique can help with that. Thanks for posting, Lee!

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