How to turn a Complex Story into a Simple Synopsis

1. Profile
A lot things go into telling a simple story

My least favorite type of writing has always been summarizing. Whether I was pitching a screenplay or a synopsis for a book, I got too concerned about what producers and publishers were looking for. I hated whatever I put on paper. It felt like I was cutting out the tastiest parts to make it palatable, misrepresenting the material by packaging it for mass appeal.

When my screenwriting professor videotaped the pitch for my first script, I ranted for twenty minutes. This was no elevator pitch. The lift for the tallest building in the world doesn’t take that long to get to the top. I had to lower my time to two minutes or less.

Since then I’ve learned the memorization techniques I needed to keep myself on task and how to select the parts of my story that were worth focusing on. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Brand Your Book

When our stories are medleys of multiple genres, we have to pick one to encompass each of them. When our themes branch off in too many directions, we need to identify the root from which they stem. When we have an ensemble cast, we have to choose a clear protagonist to be their delegate.

My work in progress is a horror story, a legal thriller, a relationship drama, a dark comedy, and a mystery. Since it features supernatural elements I’m calling it a supernatural thriller, because the genre’s conventions are the most prevalent.

In my case the opening might read:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of…

2. Close Up

Familiar Only Different

If I included all of my story’s layers my synopsis would seem convoluted. This is why I reign it in with a comparison. I give my audience a point of reference then I diverge from it. My work in progress is similar to The Devil and Daniel Webster in that it’s about a trial for a man’s soul, beyond that the two stories couldn’t be anymore different.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the devil takes center stage. In my story the Devil has no screen time.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the defense attorney uses patriotic rhetoric to challenge Hell’s jurisdiction. In my story the defense attorney’s strategy is to challenge hell’s definition of a wasted life. In The Devil and Daniel Webster the Devil is a symbol for America’s sins. He was there when the first Native American was gunned down. He stood on the deck of the first slave ship. In my story the demons are a symbol for depression. They’re more concerned with the human condition than a history lesson.

In We the Damned the trial for Mr. Black’s soul is a framing device. The real story comes from the ghosts on the witness stand. They tell the tale of Pilgrim Valley, a town manipulated by unseen forces. The story hints early on that the demons, the ghosts, and the trial are not what they seem.

Despite those differences my opening may reference my influence. It could read like this:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of The Devil and Daniel Webster.

This would lead into the…

3. Adjusting Tie

Logline

A logline is one or two sentences that setup the dramatic arc of your story, introducing the situation, the players, and the stakes.

I used to treat my loglines like lumps of concrete. I’d write a longwinded sentence and start chiseling away at it, hoping my sculpture would reveal itself. The end result was an incoherent mess. These days I treat my loglines like prototypes, whose parts can be mixed and matched.

Upworthy comes up with 25 different headlines before settling on the one they think will entice readers. This is a strategy I have no qualms with stealing from the click baiters. That’s why my logline documents are filled with bullet points.

When writing a logline don’t use your hero’s first name. Identify them by their job, social status, academic pursuit, hobby, or creative passion. In my case, I’m using:

– an attorney

Use adjectives to give your character some distinction. It never hurts to introduce them as underdogs. That’s why I’m specifying that my hero is:

  • a drunken attorney

I come back to this next part over and over. I try to include the break in the routine, show the character’s goal, and give a sense of the stakes without getting too wordy.

  • a drunken attorney is forced to represent a man on trial for his soul

With your hero’s mission established it’s time to give a idea of the forces working against them:

– To save a man’s soul a drunken attorney must defeat the finest minds hell has to offer, little do they know he provides better council when he’s drunk

I added that last part to show that my story has got swagger. The tone of your logline is just as important as the events it references.

4. Arms

Narrative

The worst way to write a synopsis is to try to tell a condensed version of everything that happens in your story.

Have you ever watched a film adaptation of a book that tried to cram in every character and every scene? A ninety-thousand word novel doesn’t fit into a ninety page screenplay. If a screenwriter tried to include every sequence they’d have to breeze through them. Each scene would be twenty seconds long. The result would feel like a ninety minute montage.

Rather than write an abridged version of each of your chapters, start with a basic framework and build outward. I try to write one sentence for each of these story beats.

PARAGRAPH 1: ACT 1

  1. Who is the hero, what’s their lot in life, what’s their drive, and what makes them sympathetic?
  2. What breaks their routine? What goal does that leave them with?
  3. Who or what is in the way of their goal?
  4. What’s the situation surrounding the events? What’s the setting, and the time period?

PARAGRAPH 2: ACT 2

  1. What’s the hero’s point of no return?
  2. What is the hero’s quest teaching them? How are they starting to change?
  3. How do their alliances shift?
  4. What’s the hero’s lowest moment? Have they learned their lesson? Do they get their goal only to realize they wanted something else all along?

PARAGRAPH 3: ACT 3

  1. What’s at stake when the hero nears the climatic confrontation? How do they use their new knowledge to resolve it?
  2. What’s the resolution? Does it set another story up?

Your story will have more to it than this, but you should focus on this barebones structure if you want to fit it all on one page. It’s possible to be accurate while omitting your favorite part. This is no place to include quotes, editorial commentary, or flowery description.

If you’re posting a synopsis on Amazon, treat it like a trailer. Give the audience enough information to make them curious about how it ends. You can make vague allusions to everything that happens beyond the midpoint. If you’re submitting your story to agents and publishers then you should include spoilers.

There are tough compromises every author has to make to categorize their book. If we want audiences to be hungry for our work, we have to package it for the taste makers first. Happy summarizing.

50 thoughts on “How to turn a Complex Story into a Simple Synopsis”

    1. Glad you found something useful here. I have the same problem with my stories. I like to tell layered pieces with lots of plot strings. The kind of stories that don’t fit very well in a single conversation. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Can’t tell you how much I hate writing summaries and little short blurbs. This is the best advice I have seen, very simple, breaks it down so even I can understand it. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. I had a lot of this drilled into my head when I was studying screenwriting. The plot points I listed were the things I looked for when I was script reader for an independent production house.

      Like

  2. Thank you so much for this simple and useful breakdown! I have such a hard time with condensing anything outside of short story length. And actually, some of my short stories I have trouble with as well. XD I’m bookmarking this.

    Interestingly, your breakdown kind of reminded me of a post on Seven-Point Story Structure that I read earlier this year. Do you ever use SPS to help break your story into it’s basic components for summarizing purposes? It seems like it would work well in conjunction with your Synopsis Structure. ^-^

    Like

    1. I think I might be using some form of the seven point story structure. The same tools I use for summarizing I use for drafting and pitching. This list is based on what I’d learned in screenwriting class and what I learned as a script reader.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First, congrats, Drew, on writing something that has garnered so much buzz in a day. That’s always gratifying — to know that what you yourself felt passionate about and spent time putting to words hit its mark.

    Now, I’m about to alienate myself and wind up sitting at the geek table alone. But I actually enjoy writing a synopsis. It’s the same place in me that enjoys puzzles or rules-based poetry (e.g., writing a Petrarchan sonnet, etc.).

    Some years back, I came across years’ worth of old issues of Writer’s Digest magazine. Each of them contained a writing challenge or contest, and I found myself wanting to do them all (even though the submission dates were all past). One such challenge was to write something that would qualify as a true story — with a clear beginning, middle and end — in 50 words or less and ending with the words “That’s when they knew that it was over.” I loved it.

    Then again, I always loved hiding in cabinets and toy boxes as a kid. I guess I like the challenges associated with confinement.

    One extension idea I would offer to those who hate condensing is that mindset can change how you feel about a process. It sounds like a lot of readers feel like they are selling their work short by summarizing it. However, when considering that curiosity is a main factor in attracting interest (I highly recommend reading “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath) — it’s easier to approach summarizing, when viewing it as actually doing your story a FAVOR by building that all-important curiosity. It also helps, as Drew so well pointed out, in not feeling you need to (or even should) give much away.

    Still, even for me who doesn’t find synopsis writing quite as daunting (and is eating my PB&J all alone at the uncool kids’ table), there was a good amount of food for thought here, Drew. And, as ever, I’m continually impressed not only with your ability to convey ideas in writing and to produce interesting, branded graphics — but with the mind workings behind it all, which are able to envision the graphics that could represent the idea in the first place. Choosing the “montage self” CONCEPT to represent the idea of simplification of a complex idea was, frankly, brilliant. (So, will you come sit with me at my table?)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s heartening to know that I am not the only writer in the world who hates writing synopses. Most people assume that as writers, putting together a synopsis should be a breeze for us. I hear that ALL the time. Great post, Drew.

    Liked by 1 person

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