How to Write a Novel or Script Synopsis (Download Templates) — KaneHolder.com (2022)

Knowing how to write a clean and compelling synopsis is a skill that can get a writer ahead of the pack. What can a well-written synopsis do?

  1. A well-written synopsis can get you the attention of literary agents, producers, and potential buyers of your novel or script.

  2. Writing a synopsis is a great way to boil down the essence of your story and convey it in a sharper, more effective form.

  3. Synopsis writing can help you outline, plan and tighten the editing process after the first couple of drafts.

There are two different types of synopsis for NOVELs and SCREENPLAYS. There are lots of websites detailing one or the other, but I’ve found that knowing both styles can inform your synopsis and bring it to the next level. A novel synopsis can benefit from a direct, active “screenplay style”, and a screenplay synopsis still requires a nuanced and novelistic touch.

First, let’s breakdown a synopsis part by part.

First, what is a synopsis?

A synopsis for a book or novel is an estimated 600-1000 word summary of your story that forms part of your submission to agents or publishers.

For film screenplays, synopses usually run for 1-3 pages, usually requested by producers, production houses, and network executives. The holy grail is a one-page synopsis — hard to write, but gold for producers. For these, a logline is usually stated on the first page as well.

Both types of synopses should outline your plot, characters, and the emotional journey of your protagonist in clear and succinct language, while also showing you can craft a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Basically, the basics.

Every plot point, shocking twist, character realisation or climactic fight scene should also be mentioned. There’s no room for mystery, marketing speech or a ‘?’ You must show that you can summarise (and sell) your entire work in a few hundred words.

Here are the crucial elements to keep in mind as you write.

Synopsis Elements (Novel and Script):

1. Active Voice: Typically synopses use present tense (usually). Short and concise sentences, nothing too long, nothing too complicated. You want to trim and reorder your sentences so people and actions are easy to understand. This will create clearer and immediate visual imagery in the reader’s mind. Use vivid verbs to capture the tone and mood of your story as well.

Example:

PASSIVE VOICE: The ball is kicked by Kelly.

ACTIVE VOICE: Kelly kicks the ball with a vengeance.

Nothing Oscar-worthy or Booker Prize here, but which one is better? I agree.

Pro tip: Bring the subject of the sentence to the front and keep the verb/doing word close to it. End the sentence with a punch, i.e. ending the sentence with ‘vengeance’ rings in the mind more strongly than ‘by Kelly’.

With practice, your synopsis should read in a snappier and more impactful way. No confusion for your reader, no mental stumbles. Then snip, reorder, and read again until it’s as sharp as can be.

For verbs, always go with concrete wordings that convey tone. For example:

OKAY VERB: Kelly walks through the dark house.

BETTER VERB: Kelly creeps through the moonlit house.

A simple change, but I’m sure you can read the difference. By using clear and dynamic verbs — e.g. creeps, stomps, sashays, bullets — you create a clearer image in your reader’s mind. It shows you can actually write.

For me, knowing how to edit, reorder and simplify your sentences in this way is a great training exercise to improve anything - whether it’s a novel or script.

2. Language: Your use of language needs to be simple and stripped of flowery or overly bombastic wordings. This isn’t a time to show how awesome you are with metaphors. Nor is it a time to go overboard with adjectives, and your super super super specific knowledge of the mating habits of endangered sea slugs. Interesting, I’m sure, but this isn’t the right place to show-off. Hint at these details — don’t whack a reader over the head with it.

It’s about getting the story across as quickly and effectively as possible - with some literary flourishes here and there to show you can have a little fun!

Remember: Agents, Producers and Buyers are not only looking for a novel or script to buy, but you as a possible collaborator. Show you can follow instructions, requirements, and a sense of brevity.

3. Length: Whatever an Agent, Publisher or Producer wants, give it to them. Follow their requirements exactly. If it’s unclear, shy on the side of brevity.

  • A condensed novel or script synopsis should be 1-3 pages max. Usually, for screenplays, aim for 1-2.

  • Single or 1.5 spaced, unless specified.

  • 12 size font, Arial, Times New Roman.

  • That’s it.

4. Narrative Flow and Character Development is key: You want to also show that you can craft a coherent and compelling story! Easy, right? (aahhhhhh). This means following, but not being totally beholden to, the three-act structure. Use it as a starting point. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Start with your opening and work forward through:

  1. The set-up (opening):

  2. The inciting incident (beginning)

  3. Build up of conflict (middle)

  4. The low point (turning point)

  5. The climax (end)

  6. The final resolution (denouement)

This may seem complicated at first, but it’s essentially just laying out the basic structure of your plot, how your character deals with it, and how they change over the course of the story. If you follow these principles, you should be fine.

Pro Tip: You don’t want the synopsis to read as a random series of events either. Show how your character is challenged by the plot, what forces him/her to make decisions, and their conflicting emotions and desires. Focus on the emotional journey. Make it interesting. There’s still room for feels.

5. Write in the style of your genre: Lean into the genre - don’t be afraid of it. If you’re writing a horror story, try to induce a chill or two with the imagery and writing style. You’re selling your idea with every sentence. If your novel or script is a comedy, you definitely want to show where the laughs come from in every paragraph. If you can get the reader to guffaw, well, it’s already sold!

What to Avoid in a Synopsis:

  1. Unnecessary detail: I know you’ve been working on this story for a long-time and you want everyone to know how brilliant it is. It is, really. But do also remember that half of it needs to be removed — for now. If you include too much detail, not only will your synopses read too long, you’re in turn, doing yourself a huge disservice. Get your project in the front door with a short and concise synopsis first, then dazzle your reader with the detail later.

  2. Too many characters, too many things happening: Simplification is the key to creating a better story. While your story or film may be an epic, with numerous characters, scenes, and plot points, you DO NOT need to include everything. In fact, make the choice to remove mentions of characters that are not important or scenes that are not necessary. Go simple, short, lean. It will increase the chances of a sale tenfold!

  3. Lacks a clear arc or narrative through-line: Just because you’re writing a rather technical document, it doesn’t mean you scrimp on the narrative. You should be showing the emotional arc of your character — from their initial problem, to how they change over the course of your screenplay/novel. Every story is about change. Show that you can craft a compelling story with transformation at its heart.

  4. Mistakes: Typos, grammar, unclear and clunky sentences. Check. Edit. Check again. It reflects on you as a writer and a possible client.

  5. Not saying enough, being vague: If you have a Sixth Sense-esque twist, you better write it in the synopses. Agents, Producers and Buyers need to know what they’re buying and standing behind. Don’t leave out a crucial detail such as “Everything was a hologram all along!! WOW, right?” It’s only going to turn readers off…forever. Leave no narrative stone unturned, no plot twist unexplained. Now is not the time to be mysterious. Marketing comes later.

  6. Esoteric details no-one would know but you: Look at your synopsis with the fresh eye of someone that has NO IDEA what you’re talking about. You’ve been living with this story, and sometimes, subject matter, for years. Your reader has not. Start from ground zero.

    Set-up. Shorten. Edit. Remove. Sharpen. And always ask along the way, “Will this information be misconstrued or misunderstood?” and “Is this too much?” If the answer is yes or maybe, then remove and rewrite.

  7. Forgetting Agents/Submission requirements: Follow it. That is all.

  8. Forget the title and contact information: Don’t forget.

Now you’ve got the crux of what you need and what to avoid, here’s a synopsis template separated into NOVEL and SCRIPT.

NOVEL SYNOPSIS TEMPLATE EXAMPLE:

Download Novel synopsis template (word doc)

SCREENPLAY SYNOPSIS TEMPLATE EXAMPLE

Download Screenplay synopsis template (word doc)

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