word synopsis used to make me cringe.
But I have learned to write a
lean, mean synopsis that is long enough to answer the questions an
editor wants addressed and resolved. Mine usually run should run about
three to four double-spaced pages for a 90,000-word novel. And it’s so
easy, I’ve reduced it to a formula!
That’s right. Answer nine basic
questions for each of your main characters (hero/heroine,
protagonist/antagonist, etc.); then put the answers into a
This method will work for
inspirational or secular novels of any genre. Even for short
Break down the story into the
three basic conflicts for each character—plot, relationship, and
spiritual journey. Then break down each of those conflicts into three
questions: What was the conflict at the beginning? What happened to
advance or hinder the resolution of the conflict? What is the nature of
the conflict at the end of the story—resolved or not? Three conflicts
times three questions equals nine questions for each main character.
Secondary characters needn’t be
in the synopsis unless they are integral to the progress of the
conflicts. Aunt Minnie may be adorable, but her trouble growing
petunias is not relevant to the conflict . . . unless a body is buried
under them. She may introduce a couple, but say nothing beyond that . .
. unless she plans to kill them. Keep it lean and mean.
One last comment. You can do
this exercise for any of your favorite novels and it will become clear
that this is its backbone or blueprint. I hope this method will
simplify the synopsis for you.
Let’s use the parable in Luke
11:5 of the neighbor (Bob) who wants to borrow bread at midnight from
neighbor two (Joe) to illustrate how this works.
THREE MAIN CONFLICTS AND
For Each Major Character
Parable of the Neighbor Borrowing Bread
PLOT Beginning: What is
at stake, or what is the goal for each character?
BOB: He has an unexpected guest
and must offer customary food and hospitality, or bring shame upon
himself and the entire village.
JOE: He wants a good night’s
sleep. He has an early day tomorrow.
PLOT Middle: What
happens to advance or hinder their goals?
BOB: His neighbor refuses to get
up and give him bread.
JOE: His buddy won’t stop
banging on the door, and Joe needs his sleep.
PLOT End: How is the
BOB: Joe finally gives him the
bread, his guest is fed, and the dignity of his home and village is
JOE: He gives in because his
persistent neighbor won’t let him sleep until he does.
What is their relationship at the beginning of the book?
This varies with the genre. Here
it’s about two neighbors learning to live next to each other in peace.
BOB: Joe is always critical of
Bob’s disorderly lifestyle, though Bob thinks he’s doing just fine.
Joe’s judgmental attitude can be annoying, but he usually will help a
JOE: Joe likes an orderly life
and has no patience with those who do not. He tolerates Bob.
What happens during the book to advance or hinder their relationship?
BOB: Disappointment turns to
anger. He is determined not to stop knocking until that lazy,
self-righteous Joe gives him the bread.
JOE: Irritation turns to
stubborn anger. He’s not getting up now, even if he’s awake. Bob should
know better. It’s not the first time he’s been in this pickle. He’ll
get what he deserves.
RELATIONSHIP End: How
is their relationship at the end?
Bob is grateful that Joe gave him a second chance.
JOE: Yes, he’s annoyed at Bob,
but he’ll cool off. They are, after all, neighbors. And Joe did keep
the village from shame.
Beginning: What is their relationship with God?\
In secular fiction, the
spiritual conflict can be the character’s inner conflict. If this
parable were secular, one could say Bob has pride issues, when his
nature is nothing to be proud of. And Joe is a control freak, who has
to learn to bend to get along with people.
BOB: He goes to church, tries to
do the right thing.
JOE: He goes to church, tries to
do the right thing.
Middle: What happens to advance or hinder their relationship?
BOB: Surely God will make Joe
get up and do the right thing. But as the minutes pass, Bob wonders if
God and Joe have taken a vacation from responsibility. The guest must
be taken care of. It’s certainly not his fault the guest came
JOE: He knows the right thing to
do is to get up, but someone needs to teach Bob a lesson. He never
plans ahead. If he wasn’t such a spendthrift, he’d have extra bread.
Bob deserves to be shamed.
SPIRITUAL CONFLICT End:
What is their spiritual status at the end of the book?
BOB: Bob’s shaken faith is
reaffirmed, both in God and his neighbor. His persistence paid off just
like the Bible teaches, but he also appreciates Joe more for giving him
a second chance.
JOE: Joe’s conscience gets the
better of him, so he gets up and gives Bob the bread. It may not be
with a cheerful heart, but he’s guilt-free. He serves a God of second
chances. Who knows, maybe this time Bob will learn his lesson. Or maybe
if Joe gets himself in a pickle, someone will help him out.
Now write the narrative in
chronological order and incorporate the setting:
Late one evening as Bob sat on
his rooftop in Jerusalem, an unexpected visitor arrived. Since
Spendthrift Bob cooked only what he alone could eat, he had nothing to
offer his guest, as was the Hebrew custom in the first century.
Realizing this would bring shame not just to him but to the entire
village, Bob hustles over to Generous Joe’s house to borrow the bread.
Joe works and needs a good
night’s sleep. So when Bob knocks at his door, he is irate and
determined to let Bob face the shame he deserves for being so
short-sighted and tight with his food.
But the knocking will not stop.
As Joe’s temper simmers, Bob’s does too. If Joe is such a good Jew, his
conscience will kick in. God will get him up. Bob knocks even harder.
Until a small voice reminds him of all the times he’s imposed on Joe.
Bob’s persistent knock becomes less demanding. He admits to Joe that he
realizes he’s taken advantage of Joe’s generosity and vows to try to do
better. But please spare them all embarrassment and give him the bread.
Then Joe can sleep and Bob will owe him big-time.
Joe’s conscience kicks in. How
can he deny a friend who has humbled himself? What if God didn’t give
Joe second chances? Besides, Bob may be a leech, but he’s a stubborn
one. If Joe wants sleep, he’d better give up the bread. Joe does just
that. Grumpily, but without the guilt that had been piling on his
shoulders with every one of Bob’s desperate knocks. Maybe this time Bob
will learn a lesson. Regardless, it’s not up to Joe to judge and
sentence. That right belongs to the Lord.