6 Secrets to Writing a Killer Synopsis

Andrew Hindes

As a PR professional, you’re probably called upon to write or edit synopses from time to time. Whether it’s for a book, a movie, a play, a TV show or even a magazine article, boiling down a lengthy work into a paragraph or two can be a daunting task. The goal, of course, is to tell readers enough about the work to make them want to experience it for themselves—without giving away so much that they feel like they don’t need to.

The key to summarizing a 400-page book or a two-hour movie into a few sentences is identifying the most salient story points and describing them in the fewest words possible. Beyond that, though, the synopsis itself should be a good read. A boring description of an interesting play or TV show will not have the desired effect on journalists—or their readers, viewers or listeners.

As with most things, writing synopses becomes easier the more you do it. I should know—I have written or edited close to a thousand in the the past decade. But here are a few tricks of the trade to get you started:

  1. Set the scene. The first line of a synopsis should help the reader visualize when and where the action takes place. It’s also a good chance to position the work in terms of genre, which helps put what comes after in context. And whenever possible, throw in a bit of mystery to pique the reader’s interest. For example: “Set in contemporary Brooklyn, Storybook Ending is a romantic comedy about love, espresso and the Dewey Decimal System.”

  2. Find the central conflict. Every story, fiction or nonfiction, has a central conflict. Whether it’s Captain Ahab seeking revenge against an elusive white whale—or little Nemo’s father searching for his lost son in the vast ocean, the conflict is what propels the action. Identifying the essential conflict and then describing it economically is fundamental to writing a good synopsis. “John, a shy librarian, falls deeply in love with Carolyn, a regular patron, but can’t find the courage to talk to her. When he deduces from a change in the types of books she borrows that she’s getting serious about someone else, he knows he needs to make a move—or lose his chance forever.”

  3. Sprinkle in key details. Boiling down a long work into a paragraph obviously requires leaving out about 99.99% of the details. However, including a few telling details can make a synopsis more evocative and conveys information more efficiently than using vague or general language. For instance, you could say, “Just before he receives a large sum of money, John learns that Carolyn plans to run off with a local store employee.” But it would be stronger to say: “Minutes before he wins Lotto, John learns Carolyn is about to catch a plane to Puerto Vallarta with Ken, a Starbucks barista and aspiring DJ."

  4. Use the present tense. Synopses feel stronger and livelier when written in the present tense, rather than the past tense. For instance, “When he realized he had exactly 72 hours to win Carolyn over, Josh devised a plot to buy the local Starbucks and fire Ken” is not as compelling as “Realizing he has exactly 72 hours to win Carolyn over, Josh devises a plot to buy the local Starbucks and fire Ken.”

  5. Go easy on the modifiers. It’s often said of writing that it’s better to “show” than to “tell.” That means using well-chosen nouns and verbs to provide color rather than piling on adjectives and adverbs. Instead of this: “John is sad and discouraged when he discovers that, unfortunately, Starbucks does not sell franchises.” Try this: “John begins to lose hope when an email arrives informing him he can’t buy the store.”

  6. Set up the third act—and stop there. Most works of fiction—and even most nonfiction books and movies—can be thought of as having three acts. These have been loosely described as: Act I—put the hero up a tree, Act II—throw rocks at him, Act III—get him down. When writing a synopsis, we don’t want to give away the ending, but it makes it more intriguing if we give the reader a sense of what the stakes are. “Realizing it’s his last chance to declare his love, John races to the airport on his Segue, hoping to catch Carolyn before her plane takes off and she vanishes from his life for good.”


The quality of a synopsis can make the difference between a happy ending and a sad ending for a PR campaign. Following these tips will help you go develop this extremely valuable skill.
Andrew Hindes is president of L.A.-based copywriting and training firm The In-House Writer. He can be reached at andrew@theinhousewriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter @inhousewriter.




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