Five Sentence Synopsis — Surgery for Your Work In Progress ~ Camy Tang

The 5-ss to Doctor Your Book
By Camy Tang

A tool I use for self-editing or when I’m stalled in plotting my novel is the 5-sentence synopsis (5-ss). It’s 5 targeted sentences you write about one character focusing on either story structure, internal journey, or romantic arc. I end up writing each type of 5-ss for each character.

Writing the 5-ss makes me take a bird’s eye view of the story and distill it to basic elements, enabling me to doctor my own book. I can see if I’ve included all the necessary steps for each character’s plot or arc.  This helps me with pacing my manuscript if it’s unfinished, or to revise my pacing if my book is completed.

Types of 5-ss

For Main Character #1:
1) The External Goal 5-ss: a 5-sentence synopsis for the character’s external goal, including all the obstacles that directly impact the external goal. I try to keep myself from just including general conflict or “bad things that happen to the character”–each obstacle in the sentences has to work specifically against my character’s external goal.

2) The Internal Arc 5-ss: a 5-sentence synopsis for the character’s internal or spiritual arc. This should include the three major steps forward or backward that the character takes in her internal journey, and then the epiphany and resolution at the end.

3) The Romantic Arc 5-ss: if it’s a romance, I also write a 5-sentence synopsis for the character’s romantic arc. This includes the three major steps forward or backward that the character takes in developing a relationship with the other main character, and then the romantic epiphany (the “a-ha” moment) and Happily Ever After at the end.

I do the same 3 types of 5-ss for Main Character #2, and if there are other characters, I do the same 5-ss for those characters.

How to write a 5-sentence synopsis

The External Goal 5-ss:

SENTENCE ONE: Introduce your main character, her life situation when the story opens, and what happens to disrupt her world and start the story rolling.

You can briefly mention the antagonist and the other protagonist if you have two major ones (like in a romance), but most importantly, you must include the character’s external goal.

Often I have revised a character’s external goal while writing the 5-ss because I’ll realize that the character’s external goal is weak, or maybe she changes it halfway through the book, or maybe it ends up being only a sideplot and the real external goal is something else.

A list of what to include when writing this first sentence is:
A) character’s life situation
B) the story’s inciting incident
C) antagonist
D) other protagonist (optional)
E) character’s external goal

You do not need to include everything on this list, but if you can include most of these things, that’s great! The only thing you absolutely need to mention is the external goal.

SENTENCES TWO, THREE, AND FOUR: These three sentences should be the three major events or points of conflict or turning points in your story. This loosely follows the classic 3-act structure. If you have more than three events, then you can expand this to more sentences, but typically it’s best to keep this to three.

The fourth sentence could be the climax, or you could make sentence five include the climax.

Remember that the three major plot points in your story should be Disasters that are Obstacles in the path of your character’s external goal. They’re not just “general bad things that happen to her.” Every point of conflict in sentences two, three, and four must directly stop the character from achieving her external goal.

You’re going to be DYING to include all the other minor conflicts and backstory in the novel. It will kill you, but don’t include any conflict that doesn’t DIRECTLY STOP the character from reaching her external goal. Save the other conflicts for later.

SENTENCE FIVE: This will include the climax (if it’s not in sentence four) and the resolution to the character’s goal.

The Internal Arc 5-ss

Write five sentences only about the character’s spiritual/internal arc, not the external plot. Take sentence one from your External Goal 5-ss and tweak it into a sentence that’s about the character’s spiritual/emotional place before the story begins.

Then write three sentences (or more) that show how the character gradually changes through the course of the story.

The last sentence will be the final choices the character makes and how that impacts her spiritual/internal state at the end of the story, showing what she’s learned.

The Internal Arc 5-ss is very similar to the External Goal 5-ss, but it focuses on the internal journey rather than the external plot. These sentences for the internal arc DON’T have to have all the plot elements in it and it may not make much sense, but that’s okay. This is simply a tool to help you to doctor your character’s internal arc.

The Internal Arc 5-ss helps you solidify the character’s growth and change in the story. Maybe some of the conflict doesn’t actually impact the character’s spiritual journey and you’ll need to adjust things so that they do. Maybe the spiritual journey stalls in the middle and you need to add more steps along the route toward internal resolution. Events in the story should mold your character internally so that at the end, the character is different from how she was in the beginning.

The Romantic Arc 5-ss

Same for the other two 5-ss, but this time focus on the romantic arc.

More than one character?

Write each of these 5-ss for each main character.

I hope this tool is helpful to some of you in doctoring your plot or character!


Camy Tang grew up in Hawaii and now lives in San Jose, California, with her engineer husband and rambunctious dog, Snickers. She graduated from Stanford University and worked as a biologist researcher for nine years, but now she writes fulltime.

Camy is a staff worker for her church youth group and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she ponders knitting, spinning wool, dogs, running, the never-ending diet and other frivolous things. She loves hearing from readers and encourages them to write her. Keep up with Camy at

Her latest book is Whispers on the Dock, the third release in the Postcards from Misty Harbor Inn series (Guideposts).