25 Things You Should Know About Queries, Synopses, Treatments

1. Everyone Hates It (And Nobody’s Great At It)

Writing a summary of any creative endeavor makes every writer feel like he’s wearing a tuxedo made of bumblebees. It’s a very uncomfortable process and any writer who tells you how much she enjoys writing synopses should be immediately shoved in a bag and burned because she is a robot from the future sent here to destroy all writers. Why would we enjoy the process? We just wrote a whole screenplay or an entire novel. And now we’re supposed to compress it down until it fits in the palm of our hands? Fuck. Fuck. It blows. It’s difficult. Nobody does it 100%. But you gotta suck it up and do the work.

2. Put This Pig In That Bucket

A pig will not fit in a bucket, and yet, that is your task. You must identify all the parts of the pig that you cannot live without. The rest? Chainsawed into bloody gobbets and left on the abattoir floor. You’re not here to explore the whole pig. You’re here to give a sampling of the beast — a taste of pigness. The hoof, snout, squeal and tail are for later. For now you need to deliver a packet of prime cuts only.

3. Excuse Me While I Whip This Out

Length matters. A query letter is never more than a page. A synopsis or treatment is maybe two to 10 pages, though some treatments are as long as 60. A beat sheet for a script is maybe 10% of the total document (or six pages/hour). Identify the length and stick to it. Though, like with a certain dangling male organ, it’s not just how long it is, but what you do with it. For instance: my penis kills hooded cobras, like a mongoose.

4. The Shallowest Reader In The World

On the next Twitter #fridayreads, tell the world you’re reading a fuckload of book jackets and DVD cases. You know how if you’re writing epic fantasy it helps sometimes to read epic fantasy? Well, what do you think this is? You’re trying to summarize your work, so read summaries of other work. And book jackets and DVD cases are exactly that. True story: the book jacket for my upcoming novel DOUBLE DEAD features text pulled straight from my synopsis. The text on a book jacket or DVD case (or video game case or Amazon description) is meant to entice. Which is also your job when writing a query, synopsis, or treatment.

5. Egg Samples

You need to find examples of good — meaning, successful — treatments, queries, and synopses. Grab them from writer friends. Dig them up online. Discover what about them feels successful. Mine and mimic.

6. Get Goofy On Rainforest Drugs And Explore Core Truths

I often phrase this as, What the hell is it about, maaaan? As in, if you were sitting around a fucking drum circle or some shit and you were stoned out of your gourd on some weird powder made from pulverized elk bezoar and someone grabbed you by the collar of your ratty technicolor robe and they asked you that question, what would you say? Not the basic plot, but dig deep for what it’s really about, what it means to you. The essence of that answer must be present in your truncated treatment. Because it matters. It’s one of the things that elevates it from an examination of plot to an exploration of story.

7. Bottle All The Lightning

Another fun exercise: go through your novel or script and start identifying all the things that you think are — caps necessary — FUCKING AWESOME. The knees of the bees, the hat of the cat. Action scenes, plot turns, character foibles. Any of that. Call it out. Write it down. It won’t all go into your synopsis but it helps to have an arsenal of Awesome Things to call out, don’t you think?

8. We Come For The Character…

That sounds dirty, doesn’t it? Well, stop juicing your capris and tenting your khakis, we have things to discuss. What’s true for your overall story is true for any synopses of that story: character matters most. Good characters serve as our vehicle through the story and so it must in part be our vehicle through any treatment. Distill those characters down and make sure we know who they are and what arcs they travel.

9. …We Stay For The Conflict

Readers are dicks. We want to read about bad shit. We don’t want to read about how Sally didn’t study and got an A on her test. We want to see sad li’l Sally put through her paces. “She’s poor and her textbook was eaten by coyotes and the teacher hates her because he’s dating Sally’s mother and she still got an A on her test.” Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. Any query, treatment or synopsis must showcase conflict.

10. Heh Heh Heh He Said “Tentpole”

Repeat after me: “This story doesn’t stand up unless I include [fill in the blank].” No, you’re not supposed to say “fill in the blank.” Are you brain-diseased? You’re supposed to actually fill in the blank. You need to go through your story and find those tentpole items: details that, were they not included, would cause the story to collapse without their presence. When and Where are two you likely cannot do without.

11. Talk That Shit Out

Before you write, vocalize. Sit down with somebody you trust — friend, family member, agent, basement-dwelling cannibalistic hobo — and babble out your synopsis. Have a few drinks. Figure out how you’d sell a buddy (or a man-eating hobo) on your story. Keep pitching it to them. Hone your approach. Write it down. Harness what you learned and incorporate into any synopses you must write.

12. Act Structures And Outlines

Maybe you did an outline before you wrote. Maybe you didn’t. Doesn’t matter now because you need to grasp the architecture of this thing. Act structures and outlines help you get your hands around a story in terms of summarizing and — behold my brand new made-up word — succinctifying. I always exhort writers to grow cozy with writing outlines because trust me when I tell you: someone’s going to ask for one.

13. The Logline Is Your Best Friend

Learning to write a logline is your first best step. Take the logline. Hold it close. Nuzzle it to your neck like a cuddly ferret. Treat it right, it’ll coo and burble. Treat it wrong, it’ll spray piss in your mouth and bite off your earlobe. Wait, you don’t know what a logline is? Take your story. Summarize it in a single-sentence pitch. But it’s more than that, too — you’re trying to sell the story, trying to give an aura of mystery and possibility. A good logline hits at around 50 words. Go to 100 words and it’s likely too long.

14. Sharpen That Hook So That It Can Rupture A Fucking Atom

A bad hook makes for a bad query, treatment, or synopsis. Every molecule in your marrow resists this: your script or novel is not built on so flimsy a foundation as a single line of marketing text, but I am sad to remind you that life is not fair. Puppies are not immortal, rivers don’t run with ice cream and you don’t get a free blowjob every time you pay your taxes. Life is tough. So learn to whet the hook to an eye-gouging point. The hook must be the promise of the premise. And don’t ignore emotional investment. I’ve seen some loglines for DIE HARD that leave out the wife, and the wife is the core of that film.

15. The “Explode It Out” Method

Summarize your story in one sentence. Then one paragraph. Then one page. Or, do it in reverse: page, paragraph, sentence. Imagine someone’s got a gun to your private parts. You gotta do this or they’ll blow your nibbly bits into the carpet. You’ll soon see what is essential and what is not: pearls versus peanuts, rubies versus shiny pieces of aquarium glass. Learn to pare down until only its heart remains.

16. Embrace The Holy Trinity: Hook, Body, Climax

Open with a hook: a real juicy logline. Then move into the body: your story laid bare. Sum-up the ending in the same way you wrote the hook: a single sentence that delivers the final kidney-rupturing punch. I’ve seen some advice that says some agents or producers don’t want to hear the ending: unless you know this for sure, I’d say make sure you give it to them. It’s a significant piece of the story puzzle.

17. The Saggy Fatty Middle

The danger of a novel or a script is the same danger you run into with a synopsis: the saggy, soggy middle. Tighten that shit up. Find the boring parts and cut them out or rewrite so they’re a dose of meth instead of a mist of sinister sleep gas. Be advised: writing a synopsis can suddenly highlight secret problems in your story. Don’t let that freak you out. Embrace the opportunity to go back and do some repair work.

18. Stick That Landing

The ending should be as lean and mean as the hook. Maybe 50 words. Maybe 100. If the hook is the promise of the premise, then the ending is the fulfillment of that promise pistoned through the reader’s brainpan.

19. Still True: “Show, Don’t Tell”

You’re not standing in front of your intended audience (editor, agent, producer, executive) and reading a menu of options. You’re grabbing their hand, kicking down the door to your storyworld, and showing them what you’ve built. Always write your synopses from a place of wonder and potential, not from a podium where you deliver a sullen reiteration of your work.

20. Your Voice Matters

What’s going to elevate your synopsis from being dull as regurgitated cardboard? Your voice. Specifically, the same voice used to write the novel in the first place. Your synopsis is not the place for a dry recitation of plot points (and then, and then, and then, and then), but rather, a place for your words to bring the story to life in a different context. Put yourself into the synopsis same as you put your heart into the story.

21. Beware Strip Mining

You’ve taken your pig, blown him apart with a hand grenade and fit what you could in the bucket. Suddenly you realize: the value of this pig isn’t the loin chops but rather in the squeal. Writing a synopsis sometimes reveals that you’ve gone the wrong direction. You’ve taken the best parts out. You’ve chosen to embody the wrong emotions. You’ve strip mined the soul out of the thing and now it’s just a hollow exercise.

22. Go Back Over It With A Magnifying Glass And A Scalpel

Always re-read your queries, treatments and synopses again and again. It is your war-horse leading the charge and if it’s an out-of-shape nag with a herniated disc and a bad case of bell’s palsy then it’s not going to survive the coming battle. Read and edit and read and edit. Then give it to someone else and let them read and edit, read and edit. Compress that lump of coal until it is a throat-cutting diamond.

23. You Are Not A Pretty Pony

Different recipients want different things. If an agent specifies that she doesn’t want an author bio, then do not include an author bio. If guidelines say, “A 10-page synopsis,” then it’s your job to give 10 pages of straight-up synopsizing. You’re not the only pretty peacock in the room. Don’t stand out by giving your middle finger to the rules. Stand out by writing a kick-ass query for an even kick-assier story.

24. Vaporlock Is Your Enemy

Paralysis of the analysis: writing synopses will freeze a writer’s brain like a moist dick pressed against an ice-frosted flagpole. You can try all manner of thought exercise, but in the end the only way to the other side is the same as it is with any project: write your way through the swamp no matter how stridently the mire sucks at your boots. Stomp forth sloppily: remember that it’s okay for your first synopsis to suck. You aren’t beholden to just one draft. You get as many at-bats as you need, slugger.

25. In The End, It’s About Making People Want More

This is really where writers buck at their chains: a query, synopsis or treatment is a sales tool. You’re trying to get people to buy what you’re selling. It is enticement. It is tantalization. You’re dangling lush grapes, trying to lure someone to take a bite. In the end you think, this is not what I do, this is a distillation of my work and isn’t what I signed up for. Only problem? It is what you signed up for. Storytelling is always an act of enticement and, further, is frequently an act of whittling and winnowing until the best of the story remains and the worst is burned to ash. Sometimes it just takes a reconfiguration of thought: look at your query as just a smaller version of what you already do, which is to say, look at it as yet another act of storytelling. Because that’s what a synopsis is: it’s you telling your story. Except instead of 300 pages you get, say, ten. Or five. Or one. Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy.

* * *

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34 comments

  • Write the synopsis before the “big” thing (book or screenplay) is complete. If you have to tweak it afterwards, you can, but otherwise, you’ve saved yourself the trouble of paring down the storylines. This helps with the urge to add subplots to the synopsis/query. If you’re at the early stages, then those subplots likely don’t exist yet.

    And… loglines are evil.

  • The only reason that I’m sometimes the first to post is not because I’m stalking you. I just never sleep. Sleep is for pussies.
    And this articles rocks! It rocks hard, like an 80s hair band trying to get everyone out of rehab at the same time for a comeback tour before the next liver transplant.
    Great, great stuff in here. I’m thinking if I can lay out a coherent synopsis beforehand, it’ll help me keep the story on track as I write.

  • Excellent post! I think synopsis writing can be learned and the more we do it, the better we get at it.

    When I teach synopsis writing, I use the Wizard of Oz as my example, because that’s a story everyone knows.

    If you want to see the example, you can click here

  • I have been wandering in the dark with my synopsis – and, let me tell you, synopses are worthless in the dark. I have paid a lot more $ than nothing (or that 2.99 for the v. funny pdf’s I got yesterday!) for information I could not connect with. This is the best I’ve seen. Margaret’s link looks helpful as well. You are both concrete in your approaches. And, as always, your honesty is refreshing!! Thanks for posting this.

  • “For instance: my penis kills hooded cobras, like a mongoose.”

    I read this line to my husband after my giggle-fit. He spocked an eyebrow, pondered then asked, “Wouldn’t it be more likely to be attacked by a mongoose, mistaken for a hooded cobra?”

    “Depends,” I said, “circumcised or not?”
    “Ah, you have a point.”

    These are the conversations your blogs inspire. Just thought you should know.

    When I’m working on synopses–may they burn in hell–I try to remember one of my favorite videos in the world. It’s a shot of Andrew Stanton (Pixar story developer, animator, director) pitching his story Finding Nemo to a bunch of stuffed shirt types. He’s all over the stage and acting out parts and spouting dialogue. You can tell that he absolutely adores this story. When it comes to story, Pixar knows their shit. Remember that kind of energy, that kind of love for a project.

  • I read one of these out loud to a friend, and his immediate response was that he doesn’t want your penis near him for fear of being mistaken for a hooded cobra. Good to know.

    That said, this looks like it is chock full of great advice. I’m not at this stage yet with any WIPs, but definitely something to save for when I am.

  • Oh, bull puckey! What a load of cookie sticks! Synopses are fun. Compared to writing a novel they’re easy as dancing in your own living room and singing I Will Survive to the dogs. I am great at writing synopses. My synopses should be plastered to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They should be carved in stone and hung around the necks of superheroes who prevent bad guys from blowing up Hoover Dam. So what do you think of that, Chuck? Huh? Can’t hunt me down, cook me and kill me BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE i LIVE. So neener.

    That said, everything but #1 is damned good advice. I’d add some tips and tricks except you’ve covered pretty much all of them, so now I’m starting to worry a bit that maybe you do know where I live… shit.

  • You’re now my new Obi Wan Kenobi for getting this book proposal done. I’ve never been a padawan learner before. I really don’t like snakes, so bring on the mongoose. And no, I didn’t mean that in a dirty way, at least not this time.

  • Perfect timing. Hoping to send out the first query in nearly a year next week. Draft two is done. Armed with these 25 things, I now may actually hit one out of the park. Entice. Tell a Story. Perfect. Thank you!

  • Your Penmonkey wisdom couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m snyopsifying today, writing until this bitch is done. You actually made me look forward to the process. Can’t wait to put my pig in that bucket!

    Okay, that sounds wrong. Really wrong. BTFO, anyways.

  • I’m doing it right now- writing a synopsis/query, that is. So thanks for this. It’s a very funny and timely article. I’ll probably continue to fuck it up, fail to impress, hate myself for being a lackwit, and die young(ish), unpublished and bitter, but you sure have put a smile on my face:)

  • I’m a couple of weeks into writing an 800 word synopsis. Who would of thunk it. I don’t have a pig at hand, so I’m planning on slicing and dicing the neighbors dog and sticking its interesting bits into a large plant pot

  • I absolutely love these lists. Your way of communicating ideas (as convoluted as they can become, delightfully so) really makes me jealous. It might take a while for my easily impressionable brain to stop channeling Chuck Wendig on my own blog.

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