The Dreaded Synopsis—How to Get Started & Why We Need One BEFORE Writing the Book

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All righty, so last time we talked about the dreaded synopsis and covered why we need them and why they are important. Most writers wait until the book is finished to tackle the synopsis, but that isn’t an approach I would recommend. You don’t have to be a hard core plotter to gain massive benefits to writing a synopsis before ever writing page one.

I know all the pantsers groan when I mention any kind of pre-planning. You are squishing my creativity! Stifling my muse!

No. I am not. I am actually going to make you far more creative and I will prove it.

The Benefit of Boundaries


If I said to all of you. Write me a story and it is due next week, at least half of you? Your brains would vapor lock as you stared at a page.

What to write? So many ideas! How to choose?

But, if I said, I want a ten page story and it must involve a family, a circus and a stray dog, suddenly your imagination would bloom. I would get circuses in space, circuses at the turn of the century, love stories, war stories, horror stories, faith stories. Why? Because we have set some boundaries.

Want to make a toddler creative? Trap him in a playpen.


Think of your novel like a road trip. Simply picking where you want to end up helps immensely. If I refused to plan any of my trip because it would ruin my spontaneity, I could end up anywhere and no guarantee those places would be fun.

But, if I know I want to drive to L.A. (my end destination) then immediately certain highways are out of the question. If I am in Texas and want to end up in California, I-20 E is NOT an option.

Also, along the way, if I want to exit the highway to check out the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or Frank’s Best BBQ, I can, because I know that so long as I find any road leading back west, I am cool. Or, if I want to return to the main interstate at a farther point, that is easy too. I know I need some road running north-south to run me perpendicular to the interstate. So on this trip, my options are boundless because I always know where I want to end up.

Always remember. Boundaries help and…

Just because we create a synopsis doesn’t mean it is gospel.

Remember our road trip. We have innumerable options of how to get where we are going and it is okay to change things up.

Key Ingredients

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But this is where new writers run into problems. All novels involve one core singular problem and the story is only over when that problem is resolved.

Novels are not a string of bad situations. Our protagonist has one major goal and our job is to define what that is. Once we have that singular driving goal, only then we can create dramatic tension.

So when we are writing a synopsis before or after writing a novel we need to be able to articulate the protagonist’s GOAL. If we can do that much? We are way ahead of most new writers. If we do the log-line before writing the novel, we can always adjust later. Here is the formula I use.

Interesting protagonist + Active Verb—->Goal + Stakes + Ticking Clock

We must have ALL these pieces or we do NOT have a story (yes, even for the literary folks).

If I write the story first and then write the log-line and it works? Yay! It will be easier to pitch an agent and write the synopsis. If the log-line doesn’t work, however, then I can tell exactly where and why the story is falling flat (and this is why I recommend doing this before writing the book). It is far easier to fix a 50 word log-line than revise 80,000 words and retrofit an active goal.

The Trouble with Finding Dori


The recent Pixar movie Finding Dori is a good example of what I am talking about. If the screenwriters had done a log-line and come to me? I would never have approved the screenplay and made them go back to the drawing board because some crucial pieces were missing.

But no one asks me…and that is why that movie sucked.

Yeah, yeah it had cute moments Pixar is famous for and a few laughs, but it was certainly NO Finding Nemo.

I rarely go to the theater but was willing to splurge to see the sequel to one of my all-time favorite movies. But as the movie unfolded, I found my mind wandering. I was tapping my foot and fidgeting because I was hopelessly bored.

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As the movie progressed, I wanted to understand why this was such a different experience, so mentally I created a log-line and it was painfully clear why Finding Nemo was a classic and Finding Dori an utterly forgettable sequel. Cute, sure. Classic? No way.

Let’s take a look. Shall we?

Finding Nemo

A control-freak agoraphobic fish father (protagonist) must partner with a fish with short-term memory issues to travel across the ocean (active verb) and rescue his son (goal) before Nemo is killed by a fish-shaking brat (stakes/ticking clock).


Finding Dori

A fish with short-term memory issues travels to find her family.

*head desk*

See, in the original movie Finding Nemo, every part of that log-line was PERFECT. Who is the worst character to travel across the ocean? A fish terrified of open water. Oh then partner a control freak with an ally with short-term memory issues just to make him scream. And here is the kicker. He must work with her or he won’t succeed.

Additionally, the creators used the core story problem to shove the protagonist into the ONE place he WILL NOT GO but now he will because his love for his son is stronger than his terror. We also worry because Marlin is the least likely candidate to be successful on such a mission.

How will he ever do it?

There is an active goal (a rescue) and they can’t take all day. As of Darla’s birthday? Nemo is dead and flushed.

The problems with Finding Dori are numerous.

First of all she has short-term memory loss, but this is really a weak surface problem. Dori has no trouble meeting new fish and joining in and she doesn’t remember anything long enough for getting lost to present much of a problem to her personally. Unlike Marlin’s white-knuckled finned terror of the open water and the horror of potentially losing his son? Dori’s “handicap” is meh.

But the bigger problem is she just one day remembers she has a family and decides pretty randomly that she wants to find them. Okay, but if she doesn’t find them, what is the cost? Nothing really. It might be a bummer, but Dori won’t remember it in five minutes so who cares?

I certainly didn’t.

There weren’t any stakes. Her parents are not in danger. There is no ticking clock early in the movie (though they lamely tried to insert one toward the end).

The movie was literally was one bad situation then another then another. I have never wanted a movie to be over so badly.

Log-Line as a Guide-Line for the Synopsis

Log-lines are simpler and far less painful to do than jumping right into a synopsis. I prefer to do them before writing and if you are going to attempt Nano? The log-line very literally can make the difference between finishing and fizzling.

If you have a story that isn’t working? No agent wants it? You can’t figure out how to fix it? Do a log-line. It is an amazing diagnostic tool that will save you a ton of time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Too many authors are reworking those first chapters, polishing the prose, adding description when all along the problem is there is no clear story goal or the stakes are too low or the timeline is not there or too loose.

Also, when it comes to writing that synopsis, it is far easier to build a 500 word synopsis off a 50 word log-line than it is to try and condense 90,000 words into 500. And, if no matter how hard you are trying you cannot get your story into a synopsis, the log-line will point out where your story is struggling and why that is manifesting in the synopsis.

If you want to do Nano, I am offering a class on log-lines and on synopses next week, so I strongly encourage you to consider joining up.

What are your thoughts? Other than you loved Finding Dori and I am a horrible person for not liking it 😛 , LOL. Are you struggling with a synopsis? Do you think you might be missing some key ingredients? Have you used a log-line or synopsis to guide you or to go back and fix what went wrong?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

September’s winner of my 20 page critique is Matt Bowes. Please send your 5000 word Word document (double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12 point) to kristen@wana intl dot com.

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes


NEW CLASS! OCTOBER 14th Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?


Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

FRIDAY October 21st Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.

SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

This class is going to cover:

  • How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
  • What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
  • How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
  • What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
  • How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
  • How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
  • How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
  • How can a blog help you sell more books?
  • How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.

Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook



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  1. Does this same thing apply to memoirs?

    1. Unless it is just a collection of personal essays, I would say yes because memoirs still follow a narrative arc. They generally focus on one specific time period and there is a point to the story—I.e. freedom from abuse, surviving trauma, surviving cancer, reaching a dream.

  2. I am a panstser. There. I’ve admitted it.

    In so many things in life, I am a planner. Big time. Going on a weekend car trip? Count on me to have a master list of what needs to be packed subdivided into smaller lists for each member of my family. Oh yeah, I’m one of those.

    Until you throw me into writing a novel. Yeah, I know my characters. Yeah, I roughly know what needs to be done by the end of the story. I write romance, so getting the two characters together is obvious. But there’s more to it than that as there’s an underlying plot that brought them together in the first place. That must be solved.

    But, if I write out a detailed or not-so-detailed outline/synopsis, the control-freak side of me kicks in. I will follow that outline hell-or-high water. Sure, I might question it a little bit along the way, but not enough to really change course. The resulting work is uninspired, and I have yet to finish to a book I started this way. Although I do have three half-formed monsters that maybe one day I’ll go back and finish.

    I would really, really like this not to be the case. I would love for my outline to be a living, breathing thing. But it’s not for me. I tried again in September, mapping out the story and trying to make it a living document. Writing became rote and boring. When I turned to another story idea and just let it go? I’m 45k words into it in less than a month. Another 15k or so and I believe the ending will be tidied up and ready for revision (my first drafts are skeletons to be fleshed out later). I do drop little notes at the end of what I’m writing as to things I thought would be cool to happen. Sometimes they get used, sometimes they don’t.

    *shakes head* Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to marry-up my list-obsessed side with my creative side.

    1. Don’t do an outline. Just do a log-line.

  3. This was really great! And helpful since I’m doing NaNoWriMo. This was very timely. May I re-blog this (with all crediting links of course) this Friday on my blog?

    1. Of course!

  4. Thank you, Kristen Lamb. I have written the logline before writing the synopsis and agree it does make the synopsis easier to write.

  5. I did do a logline fist this time around. I can see a synopsis would make things “run” a bit smoother too.

  6. I know that we’re talking about Synopsis but that baby is so cute!! Lol : )

    1. Thanks. Pic of Baby Spawn 😀 .

    • Rachel Thompson on October 12, 2016 at 1:13 pm
    • Reply

    It’s a mini plot that seat-of-the-pants writers can use to trick themselves into plotting without admitting they are atually plotting. Knowing what the story is about and where and how it’s going to get there before you write it is gold.

  7. Hmmm… I’ve just tried this for my next novel, which I’ve already started to amass ideas for… or at least a few themes I want to include… and I’ve come up with the following log-line:

    1) The story opens with some kind of reference to the last novel in the series… or maybe not. (I write crime novels).

    2) At least two parallel threads are started with separate themes that may, or may not, have any obvious relation to each other.

    3) At some point along the line, some of my regular characters will be fitted in somewhere… either discovering a crime, or crimes, or by being involved in something that has a crime somewhere on it’s horizon… or maybe not.

    4) My regular police characters will be given a crime to investigate… or maybe something that might turn out to be a crime… or they may hear of one from the non police characters… unless there’s a complete mystery that’s baffling them. (Although, it’s not inconceivable that the police will have no official involvement – This has been the case with one story already.)

    5) At some point, or points, my series’s titular protagonist (who isn’t necessarily the protagonist, but usually a catalyst who brings factions together) will feed some kind of info to her friends in the police… if they’re involved.

    6) The threads started at the beginning will become entwined to confuse either the police or the other regular characters… let alone the new characters specific to this particular novel… then the threads will twist together into some kind of tension.

    7) When all the tensioned threads come together at a point that the characters have led me to, they will be released to bring the story to its climax.

    8) On the last page… or maybe in a final very short chapter or epilogue… a twist in the tail will either occur, or be revealed, to surprise the reader.

    Only numbers 2, 7, and 8 are anything like certain, with possibly number 5 getting half a chance of being there in the final mix.

    As you can see, I’ve got no idea at all where my story’s going, who’s going to live or die, what the crime is, and who my characters will be – other than selected regulars from earlier books, but which of those is still a mystery to me. As my series is called ‘The Lena’s Friends crime novels’, Lena herself doesn’t have to have a major part… as long as one or more of her friends are involved. Different ones take greater or lesser parts in different books depending on the theme and how it relates to a particular ‘friend’ of Lena’s.

    Aside from the general geographical area that my books are set in, England’s West Country, even any locations, at home or abroad, will depend on where the story and the characters take me. I don’t want to know the ‘destination’ before I start out. I want to be as surprised as the readers… if just a little earlier than them.

  8. Reblogged this on authorkdrose.

  9. Thanks I had no idea log lines were so important, but I can clearly see what you mean by comparing finding Dory with Finding Nemo. One thing though, is Finding Dory was bad but the octopus did help it out a bit.
    I am now probably going to go and write my log line for my WIP.
    Interesting what you said about boundaries as well.

    1. IF it had not been for the octopus it would have been a complete waste of 2 hours.

      1. OMG-just saw this yesterday and read your blog today. I thought the whole time…the octopus, the octopus.

  10. Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  11. I always know the beginning and the end, but never I’m going in between. I struggle with writing a log line and synopsis, I think because I try to include too much. May be I need to simplify it much more….. thanks for the article!

    1. “I never know where I’m going in between”

  12. NaNo… tempting. I think this is the first November we haven’t had house-guests in, um, ages. Are you allowed to do a complete rewrite for a NaNo or is that against the terms & conditions?

  13. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  14. Yes! Yes! Yes! I hear you! And I know this to be true. I’m a pantser who dives in …but I have learned to stop and write that log line and work out that synopsis. In the end, I find I have a better story, better conflict and a satisfying conclusion.

  15. I always write the synopsis first. It helps prevent me getting lost and is so much easier to write at the start than trying to condense my actual story. At the start of a manuscript I get my outline and let my imagination run, concentrating on the emotional development and love story (as I write romance). This means less editing at the other end as the structure of my story is always sound

  16. Reblogged this on Finding Myself Through Writing and commented:
    Did you know you should write your synopsis for that book you’ve been wanting to write before you write the book? Kristen does, and in her lastest post she explains why. This one is chocked-full of why’s and how’s. Take a look. Thanks Kristen for the info… ~Elle

    • Maggi Fox on October 13, 2016 at 8:23 am
    • Reply

    I have been following your blogs for some time now and just wanted to say that so much of what you suggest makes an awful lot of sense, so thank you.

    Maggi Fox

  17. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  18. Well, I’m dyslexic, so since I edit forever…. I starting writing some “thing” and go from there. Be it your synopsis or outline, or whatever one wants to call it. (chances I won’t remember the “right” word every time) Yet I agree, get some thing down. I call it an outline, but it is a starting point and even if as some of my stuff is way too many decades old now. The 3 e-books I produced so far this year were all outlined in so form first. Then i pile the wood on the create fire and see what happens. I am working on a 4th photographic e-book and pushing myself hard to me my own deadline of a couple of weeks. But as a 1st grader & beyond, my teachers all told me to never become a writer… well as Photo Editor for 9 yrs of 6 newspapers I did a lot of writing as well and self publishing as well. That first scrap of paper, is the beginning of a synopsis and you build from there. Love what you wrote here… and following you now. Thanks!

  19. Reblogged this on Kat's Writing Runway and commented:
    A log-line can help your synopsis that can help your book. Great post on the dreaded synopsis by Kristen Lamb.

  20. Great post. I struggle with the synopsis in terms of condensing my 88,000 word book down to 1-2 pages per the agent’s request and hit on the best parts that will sell my book. Writing it first could have made it easier. I took your awesome Antagonist Class in April, 2015 and you talked about the log-line for Justified TV series (which was awesome), Star Wars, the Substitute and Unbroken (which was missing one). I’m still trying to come up with a log-line for my book that I really like. I have one but I think it is a little weak. Shouldn’t the log-line pack a punch? All the best, Kat.

  21. I re-blogged this on my blog. Here’s a link.

  22. Great post, as usual. I struggle with my log-lines and synopsis more often than I’d like to, but at least I think I’m getting better at it every time. Thanks for sharing your advice!

    • michaelbillington9 on October 14, 2016 at 3:36 pm
    • Reply

    I’m a seat-of-the-pants author but I agree, we need a synopsis before we begin writing. I found this to be true in journalism. As an editor I told my reporters that when they were approaching a big story, I wanted them to write a haiku explaining it. My feeling was simply that if you couldn’t boil it down to 17 syllables you didn’t yet truly understand the story. It seemed to work for most of them and a few of my former reporters still do this.

  23. Thanks Kristen – love your blog – and this was a particularly brilliant one… it was an aha moment for me – and I think you touched on it here – that after writing for a couple decades professional readers and others would only respond with, ‘I don’t understand what made A do B.’ It was never ‘the words are beautiful strung together!.’ So bottom line… without a clear ‘if this doesn’t happen by this time then this will happen’ people will not be wowed by the writing (as you weren’t by the animation) they will only wonder about basic questions that should have been answered before the writing began. I need to keep reading this over and over and pound it into my head so it never escapes again!

  24. Reblogged this on Erotic Vampire and commented:
    Great coaching Kristen! It’s like eating desert before the main meal.

  25. Reblogged this on Books and More.

  26. Reblogged this on Good Red Herring and commented:
    I never reblogged anything before so this is a first but I love this piece, absolutely love it. It’s nothing I didn’t already know (sort of) but I’ve never heard it put so well and with such very useful examples.

  27. Mind if I link to this in an upcoming post? I’ll be releasing the synopsis of my first novel. You also inspired me to write the log-line for my second novel, which is my project for NaNoWriMo this year 🙂

    1. Link away!

  28. This was so helpful! I wish I would’ve seen this before I finished my novel, but the good news is that writing a synopsis at this stage has helped me to find some inconsistencies and get to the root of what I want this thing to be.

    Are you still taking names for the contest?

    1. I am always taking names for the contest 🙂

  1. […] Source: The Dreaded Synopsis—How to Get Started & Why We Need One BEFORE Writing the Book […]

  2. […] Source: The Dreaded Synopsis—How to Get Started & Why We Need One BEFORE Writing the Book […]

  3. […] with NaNo at the moment. If you’re in the middle of prepping too, you might just find Kristen Lamb’s post on Synopsis useful! It helps you craft your synopsis and create an interesting plot that’ll keep readers […]

  4. […] The Dreaded Synopsis—How to Get Started & Why We Need One BEFORE Writing the Book by Kristen Lamb […]

  5. […] Kristen Lamb explains why we need a synopsis before we write the book. […]

  6. […] Writers need to be able to pitch our stories at all stages of creation. Judith Briles asks if you have your perfect pitch, Janet Reid reminds us to have a synopsis ready BEFORE we query, and Kristen Lamb tells us why we need a synopsis before we start writing (and how to write a good one). […]

  7. […] is my project for National Novel Writing Month this year. I got the idea for the log-line from Kristen Lamb, who insists that it’s a great place to start with a new story. I thought I’d give it a […]

  8. […] The Dreaded Synopsis—How to Get Started & Why We Need One BEFORE Writing the Book […]

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