No Synopsis? No Problem!
A quick whip-round of my writers group reveals that crafting a synopsis is one of the most hated writing tasks on the planet. Now, I actually like writing synopses, but then, I’m a bit of an anomaly 🙂 But having placed in many QLS contests over the years (and taking out 1st, 2nd and 3rd in RWA’s 2006 comp!) I like to think I’m a bit of an old hand at writing them now.
What is it and why do I need one?
A synopsis is simply a summary of your story from Chapter One to The End. It should detail the emotional journey of your major characters, hit the plot points and wrap up all the threads by the end of it: basically a mini-version of your story. For unpublished writers, it’s a selling tool – the editor reads your query letter and synopsis, then decides whether or not to request your full manuscript. For published authors (those who still have to write synopses!) it’s a way of convincing your editor to buy your next book.
So what do I need to include?
Using various techniques from Chris Vogler’s Writers Journey, the scene/sequel method and Jenny Crusie’s Rule of Eight, I’ve come up with a hybrid format that’s helpful for me.
The beginning – who, what, why, when and where
Broken down, I normally devote the first paragraph to the heroine and address her goal, motivation and conflict (GMC). What does she want? Why does she want it? Why can’t she have it (who/what is standing in her way?) What is her fatal flaw?
As a contest judge, I see too many synopses that don’t start with a bang. For example:
Julie Jones is a blonde, 27-year old single woman who lives with her two rambunctious dogs and her elderly mother in a quiet leafy suburb of Chicago. She works at a local deli but always wishes she had enough courage to follow her dream and start up her own business as a cake decorator but her family responsibilities come first…. (yawn…zzzzzzzzz).
Where’s the conflict? Where’s the motivation? More importantly, where’s your author voice? Is it a romantic comedy? A romantic suspense? A sexy erotic story? The type of story you write has to shine through.
For example if it’s a romantic comedy:
Julie Jones is the first to admit her life sucks. She never thought at twenty-seven she’d be her mother’s keeper and working at a dead-end waitressing job, battling to pay her mortgage. So when a bag full of mafia money literally drops into her lap, along with a mysterious dreamy FBI agent, her formerly-sucky life suddenly takes a turn down Interesting Street.
The second paragraph is for the hero and his GMC.
The middle – the romantic growth and development
This is a journey and has to be shown as such. I’ve read many synopses that just focus on getting the story plot across and don’t sufficiently address the romantic plot so you’re simply left with “and they fell in love”. That’s not enough – you have to show how they fall in love, the escalation of attraction. If your characters are starting at a point of actively disliking or hating the other, then you have to work harder to convince the reader that their attraction (and ultimate happy-ever-after) is believable. You can do this by detailing positive moments or events (thereby evoking empathy) that challenges the opposing characters beliefs and way of thinking.
prominent plot points
another way of looking at this is cause/effect. For every scene, jot down what happens, then what the characters do because of that event. For example:
- CAUSE: the hero and heroine decide to work together to solve a mystery. EFFECT: they have to take a road trip to the last victim’s country town
- CAUSE: the heroine’s grandfather has just died. EFFECT: to fulfil the man’s dying wish, she needs to find a man to marry
- CAUSE: the hero wants revenge on a rival clan for killing his father. EFFECT: he storms the rival’s castle and captures the man’s entire family.
By the end of your synopsis you should show how the characters have changed throughout the journey.
For me, writing a synopsis is a chance to develop an idea to see if the story in my head will actually work, plus a way to find any GMC or plotting flaws (because I’m a hybrid writer – I plot and I pants). It’s also a roadmap to keep me on track when I want to wander off point (but this ‘roadmap’ can be and is very fluid – instead of going from A-B-C-D I could end up doing A-E-F-C-D. Which is okay as long as it strengthens the story.
Below is the synopsis for my first book, Forgotten Marriage, which placed 2nd in RWA’s 2006 QLS contest. (*Note after submission, I did change a scene location plus added another, but that didn’t alter the outcome of the story).
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SYNOPSIS – FORGOTTEN MARRIAGE by Paula Roe
Unemployed and pregnant by her soon-to-be-ex husband, Sydney writer Ally McKnight needs a solution to her problems, not an added complication. But her husband’s reappearance throws her life into chaos again, months after their whirlwind marriage and her abrupt departure.
– intro heroine and her GMC – who is she, what does she want and what stands in her way of getting it?
Finn Sorensen is rich, powerful and won’t take no for an answer. After a tragic accident leaves his memory frustratingly blank, he needs Ally’s help to recover a missing codicil, thereby saving his father’s multi-million dollar Danish jewelry empire. Armed with a handful of letters and a strong sexual pull, he’s determined not to give in to any attraction – if only that damned promise weren’t so hard to keep.
– intro hero and his GMC – who is he, what does he want and what stands in his way of getting it?
Life spent under the critical, watchful eye of his family and the press is not a life Ally wanted. She has no intention of falling for Finn again, yet she can’t help noticing the changes in him. The unforgiving, secretive man she once knew is now vulnerable and open… a man who needs her with a desperation that her generous heart cannot refuse.
– call to adventure, refusal of call
– accepting the challenge
Reliving their ill-fated union step-by-tedious-step only rekindles the sexual attraction they’re both desperately trying to keep under wraps. And against all common sense, Finn is finding out just how much he wants his wife in every sense of the word.
– trials and tests – upping the emotional stakes
Despite their concerted efforts, Finn’s memories remain illusive… until an unexpected kiss triggers a chain reaction that gives him new hope. The only problem is, their physical touch holds the key.
fixed on their goals – upping the emotional stakes
– emotional push/pull – “I want to but I can’t because…”
– physical connection
– goals are questioned
– upping the emotional stakes
Ally is determined to prove that it’s only her wild hormones that have her needing him so desperately, that Finn satisfies an itch that needs to be scratched. He may act and think like a different man but she knows it would be a huge mistake to fall for him, especially when anger, frustration and disappointment will return with his memory.
– emotional resolve not to get involved – change of direction
– “I shouldn’t be doing this but…”
When Finn finds out she is pregnant Ally tries to harden her heart against his solution – a curt demand that they will stay married. But their headed argument ends in a bout of hot lovemaking, and with her defenses down and her emotions raw, Ally finally tells him exactly why she left their marriage.
– secrets revealed, thereby upping the emotional stakes
When Ally reveals her miscarriage and the loss of their first baby – a baby he had wanted no part of – Finn is shocked to the core. Deeply ashamed that he could turn his back on a pregnant wife, he’s stunned to be on the receiving end of Ally’s comfort and understanding. And suddenly that comforting embrace flames into a passionate night of lovemaking.
– emotional commitment (stepping off the cliff)
– rethinking of goals
The morning brings a life-changing phone call: the codicil has been found and now Finn must return home to legally contest the will. Believing Ally doesn’t want him but still determined to fix everything once he returns, he tells her he’s leaving.
– black moment – “I can’t do this – I want everything back the way it was.”
Ally’s disbelief turns into furious anger. And that anger ends in resolve because there’s no way he’s leaving her again, not after what they shared the last few weeks. Yet when she gets to the airport, she’s powerless to stop the flight. Numb and in disbelief, she heads home, only to be surprised by Finn on her doorstep, his tender, heartfelt confession of love rendering her speechless. He asks if she’s willing to try again, to make things work for both of them and the baby. They can be a family because he’s changed – she’s changed him and defined the true meaning of loving someone.
– characters taking charge
– return with the prize – happy ever after
Ally realizes that this time is different – that it just might work because now she knows that love is uplifting, liberating. It’s about compromise and give and take, not sacrifice. And this time she won’t let her doubts and pride get in the way of their love. With a shaky smile that belies the strength in her heart, she says yes. And when Finn kisses her and whispers ‘I love you’, this time she knows they really will make it. Together.
– recap how each character has grown and changed.