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A Road Map for Writing Your Novel or Memoir Synopsis: 5 Tips for Reaching Your Destination


I thought I had everything I needed to submit my memoir: a beautifully polished manuscript, a detailed marketing proposal, and a well-written query letter. But—surprise!—I found out I needed a synopsis, too. 

It’s really quite easy, I discovered after preliminary research. All you have to do is hit on your book’s highlights, while simultaneously illustrating the dramatic arc in gripping scenes that drive the plot and convey the universal appeal of the story in the voice and style of your original piece. And don’t forget to demonstrate your stunning mastery of the marketplace. All in 500 words or less.

an illustration of the road map for writing a synopsis

“Remember, you’re not trying to write a perfect synopsis on the first try.” Illustration by Josh Quick.

It reminded me of my first driving lesson on the freeway.

“There’s nothing to it,” said my driving instructor Mike, as I inched on to I-95, gripping the wheel. “Just adjust your speed to match the flow of traffic, check your blind spot, flip on your blinker, and step on the gas. And whatever you do, don’t stop in the merge lane!”

We managed to enter and exit the freeway, thanks to the car’s dual driving controls. I never did master merging, but there was no way I was going to steer clear of writing a synopsis. 

Weeks later, my office was littered with reams of printed-out instructions for writing a synopsis, testimonies from writers describing how they tore their hair out attempting it, and the grisly remains of my own failed efforts. 

 I’d come to a dead-end. So when my friend and fellow writer Debbie asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I didn’t have to think long.

“I’d love a few hours of synopsis support,” I said. 

Debbie agreed and before we started, I got to work using a synopsis worksheet I purchased online for $10.00. A week later, with Debbie’s help and the worksheet, my synopsis was finished.

Debbie’s gift was the best birthday present anyone could have given me. I’d like to pass it on to you with five synopsis “travel tips” I learned along the way, which ultimately led to a published book.

1. Find a friend or mentor (Dual controls)

Knowing there is a friend or colleague willing to critique your synopsis and holding you to a deadline gives you the confidence and incentive to finish your work. You’re in the driver’s seat, but it’s reassuring to know there is someone beside you, keeping an eye out for “Wrong Way” or “Road Hazard Ahead” signs. 

2. Read other memoir or novel synopses (Road map)

Research the synopses of your favorite memoirs or novels to use as a template for sketching out your own. Be sure to include a one- or two-sentence “log line,” which serves as a road map to your story. Composing the log line will save you time (and many wrong turns) by compelling you to identify the central conflict on which your story turns, often with an ironic twist. Below is the log line for the classic Hitchcock film Notorious

“The self-destructive daughter of a convicted traitor is asked by the American agent she loves to seduce a Nazi in South America. When the Nazi asks her to marry him, she has to decide how far she will deceive him in order to discover his plans.”

3. Take it to the next level (Steep hill ahead)

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks, is heading to a restaurant to meet his anonymous email soulmate (Meg Ryan) for the first time. Joe is a nervous wreck. What if his dream girl isn’t the girl for him at all? Joe’s assistant offers him some relationship advice:

“You’re taking it to the next level… I always take a relationship to the next level, and if it works okay, I take it to the next level after that.”

Remember, you’re not trying to write a perfect synopsis on the first try. You’re just taking it to the next level. If all you do is organize your papers, you’re taking it to the next level. Tell yourself you’ll worry about the level after that tomorrow.

4. Amplify your strengths (Sound your horn)

Once you have a rough draft, identify the words or phrases that best capture the style and personality of your story, and emphasize those as you assemble your synopsis. Include references to any published work and (yes!) your mastery of the market.

5. Revise relentlessly (Left lane for U-turn)

Circle back before submitting your synopsis; read it to a friend or colleague, or record and play it back, listening for awkward phrasing, redundancies, or omissions. The ear often picks up what the eye overlooked.

With the speed bumps in the rearview mirror, it’s time to step on the synopsis gas, keeping your destination clearly in mind. There is no sight more heartening than a green light from an agent or editor!

Working on a your synopsis? You might also enjoy other great guest blogs focused on writers. 

Author headshot
Pamela Jane (Guest Blogger)

Pamela Jane is a children’s author, essayist, and author of a memoir: An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story.