Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How to Write a Synopsis—Without Turning Homicidal

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Part One
One of the big questions I hear in my classes is, “How do I write a synopsis?”

Good question. Here’s the best answer I can give you:

Gracie is one of our ‘down under’ folks, living in New Zealand down the road from the Hobbits. She’s funny, gracious, and brilliant, all at the same time. And, her book on synopses not only helps my students, it helps me to explain how story structure works.

She says “The first key to a killer synopsis is to find your story’s centre. Its soul. Its beating heart.”


Tell your story in 50 words or less.

I can hear the groans from here!

It’s really not that hard. Really.

First, use a high-concept pitch.
A character (Protagonist) with a heart-breaking secret (Flaw) is forced to make a choice (Life-Changing Event) by a strong opponent (Antagonist) in order to find a better way. However, when help from a friend (Ally) and lessons learned show her how, she must make a sacrifice where she may lose everything (Battle).

(I’ve made this sentence a little more generic than what’s in the book, with Gracie’s permission.)

See, that isn’t hard. Right?

Okay, okay. It can be hard. But it’s an amazing exercise. And, you’ll understand your story a hundred times better if you do this. I promise!

So, let’s try it with a real story. How about The Wizard of Oz?
An unhappy teenager is swept up by a tornado and dropped into a strange, dangerous world where witches want to kill her and wizards won’t help her without a price. She gathers friends to help her fight against the evil forces. But eventually she must find her own way home.

Do you see the story? There’s not a lot to it in 50 words but it’s a great start.

By the way, this process has many names—log line, elevator pitch, sales pitch—but they all mean the same thing.

Second, expand the high-concept pitch to the length of synopsis you need by adding information.

We do that, piece by piece. What details can you add?
Dorothy, a teenager who wants to find a place where bluebirds fly and everyone can be happy, and her dog, Toto, are swept up by a tornado and dropped into a strange world filled with little people and flying monkeys and a Wicked Witch who wants to kill her. Dorothy gathers friends (Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion) and they are off to see the Wizard, who they believe is benevolent and will help them to achieve their goals. But the Wizard demands payment—the Witch’s broom—and Dorothy and friends must take charge and risk their lives to satisfy the requirement. When they achieve the goal, they discover the Wizard is only a man and Dorothy has to find the strength within herself (where it was all along) to go back home.

Still not quite synopsis-length, but a great draft to build from.

Gracie says that “…this blueprint enables me to look past the minutiae of the plot to the absolute basics—the essential arc I need to elaborate on and explain in order to have my story synopsis make sense.”

In Part Two, we’ll take that blueprint and elaborate even more.


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Thank you, Sarah. What a great exercise. I posted this article to Almost an Author twitter account.

    1. Thank you, Cherrilyn! I appreciate the cross-post. Gracie really hit all the right points!

  2. I am glad to find this book. I may not feel homicidal when I write a synopsis, but I have a tendency to turn suicidal. Thanks.

    1. :) For some reason, people tend to avoid me when I'm working on a synopsis. I can't imagine why!

      Thanks for the post!

  3. Thank you, Sally! It is so hard to reduce a novel to its most enticing bare bones. I'm going to check out Gracie's book.

    1. Karen, it can be a miserable trip. But the end result is very much worth it. I find that having established those bones makes the rest of the process much, much, much easier.
      Thanks for the post!

  4. Bought it! Sounds like a great book and thank you for this info page. Much appreciated! :)