Con Report: Denton County Writer’s Workshop: The Selling Synopsis

This is a long-overdue report from the Denton County Writer’s Workshop from June 2009.  This entry comes from my notes and is a representation of my impression of Ms. Steen’s presentation.  I have also included a link to Ms. Steen’s handout at the end.  Enjoy!

Presenter: Sandy Steen

Ms. Steen is the author of 22 bestselling novels.  She is currently working on a paranormal mystery entitled “Murder He Howled”. 

If you hope to publish, you must have a synopsis to send to an editor.  It is both a tool to sell your writing as well as a condensed “Reader’s Digest” version of your work.  When an editor or an agent requests a “proposal”, they will be expecting your synopsis plus the first three chapters of your work.  The synopsis is the best form of advertising for your talent.

An editor needs to know that you have thought your story through and have tied it all together.  The synopsis demonstrates this.

Storyline vs. Plot

  •  Storyline is an overview of the story, point by point.  It is, by nature, “sketchy”.
  • Plot is your storyline plus characterization and motivation (“dimensional”)

Readers will follow you anywhere if they understand the motivation of the characters.  Motivation influences action, reaction, and dialog.

Types of Synopsis

  •  Summary/Informal: An outline of the main plot points (storyline)
  • Chapter-by-chapter (usually used for mystery editors)
  • Block/Formal: Includes sections/headings:
    • Setting
    • Characters
    • Hero/Heroine
    • Plot (storyline + characterization/motivation)

Elements in a Good Synopsis


  • Location
  • Fictional vs. Real
  • Historical?
  • Time of year


  • Major hero/heroine/villain
  • Description: physical and emotional
  • Backstory: motivation, etc.
  • Minor characters with their relationships to the main characters

Set-up/Plot presentation

  • Why characters conflict
  • Essential “previously needed” information

Conflict and Complications

  • External and Internal…these should run parallel
  • Each chapter should add complications (What else could go wrong?)

Crisis and Climax

  • Climax is the highest emotional point of the book. 
    • Resolution of the physical conflict as well as emotional: tie up loose ends
  • The character must change in the course of the story
  • These should run parallel

A good synopsis should also help avoid the “sagging middle” and keep your story on track…

  • Each chapter should add complications…what else can go wrong? (This reminds me of something that Jim Butcher once said about enjoying torturing his characters!—sph) 

A “working synopsis” is outlined extensively.  It can help highlight plot holes and illogical character reactions and acts as a road map to the work.  It is not set in stone but guides the work and keeps it coherent.

It is especially important to pay attention to your characters.  The synopsis can help you keep their reactions real.  As you write they will begin to speak for themselves and guide you to where the story needs to go.  Know your characters: their fears, goals, joys, etc. 

Points to remember…

  • Nothing you write will ever be etched in stone…it will change.
  • Join a critique group to make your work better
  • The greatest fiction of all is that everybody can do this (at least, successfully).  Writing is rewriting and it is hard work.  There is no faerie dust.
  • Editors will not buy on proposal from new writers.
  • Try not to use words/phrases that are dated or regional (unless appropriate to the work).
  • Most contracts favor the publisher and are iron-clad.
  • “New York” wants a book they don’t have to edit…
  • Spend 30 minutes per day (or 3 pages, whatever) writing and you can accomplish writing a novel
  • Marketing often determines your title, cover, etc. 
  • Don’t multiple submit.
  • Do not send your proposal without permission
  • Have the work finished when you send your proposal!  Don’t ever make them wait for it…

Ms. Steen was also gracious enough to give me permission to post a copy of her handout on this blog (thank you!)…click here

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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