Rom Hands-on Synopsis Workshop

Fast, Easy, Painless: Writing the Short Synopsis Hands-On Workshop

by Kathy Carmichael

As presented at the 2002 RWA National Conference in Denver

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009 Kathy Lynch Carmichael. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in print or on the Internet without the prior written approval of Kathy.

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Today, I’m hoping to teach you how to become a synopsis queen or king.

The first hour, I’m going to explain my system to you and you’re going to make about a gazillion notes. After our break, we’ll come back and get to work on the first draft of YOUR synopsis using forms I’ll provide. (These handouts are in a separate download.)

Over the course of this workshop, I’m going to give you Vorhaus’s story structure questions and 11 basic synopsis tips I use myself (you can call them Kathy’s Cheat Sheet) when writing a synopsis. We’re going to come back to these later and they’ve been included in the handouts.

Let’s start by defining what is a synopsis and what elements need to be in it and why.

Can anyone give me a brief definition of a synopsis?

Basically, a synopsis is a narrative statement, written in present tense, as if you were telling someone about your book. Defined in The Insiders Guide, a synopsis is: “A summary in paragraph, rather than outline, form. The synopsis is an important part of a book proposal. For fiction, the synopsis hits the high points of the plot.”

I think writing a synopsis can be fun. Really. I believe the reason why synopses or suckopses are so dreaded is because they require a combination of skills rather than just one. Skills such as “theme statements” (some people call these High Concept), making sure your book’s emphasis is on the romance (in other words the book structure is sound). You gotta know your GMC (goals, motivation and conflict both internal and external). And so on. Plus editors expect us to be brief—and we wouldn’t want to be novelists if we wanted to be brief!

I usually write a short synopsis at the partial stage, after 3 chapters or 50 pages of story. I don’t like waiting until the book is finished because simply by writing my synopsis, I’m reassured I have a whole and complete story. Once the book is completed, I generally write a second synopsis, longer, with a few more specifics.

You need to keep in mind that when you write a romance novel, the main plot is the developing romance between the hero and heroine. Everything else, including the external plotline is secondary to this.

What are the elements that should be included in your synopsis?

You’ll want to pull out your handouts—the first one is from a Q&A column I used to do for my RWA chapter in Mobile on page 3 of the handouts. While I won’t read it today, you should read it because it contains some extremely helpful information on what must be included in a synopsis. In this column, Mary Theresa Hussey who’s now the senior editor of Silhouette Romance is quoted as saying: “Of course editors want a synopsis that is intriguing, compelling, cohesive and leaves no question unanswered—while not forcing us to read the entire manuscript!”

Not an easy thing to do, in my opinion!

And it’s even more difficult in a short synopsis.

Before selling my first book, I wrote about seven complete books. I hadn’t sold anything and after about the third or fourth book, I figured out that I wasn’t concentrating on telling the romance story which was why I hadn’t sold.

A few years back, when I was playing with this synopsis structure, I realized exactly where I had been failing. The process of writing a synopsis clearly illustrated where I’d fallen down on the structure job. If any of you have a book in which you don’t know what happens next, or which you think is good but has failed to sell—try using this structure and these tips on your story. It may very well point out where your problem lies.

Writing a good book requires several tools—basically different craft skills you need to master. There’s so many, you’ll never master them all—but with enough tools, you can build a great book. A synopsis is like that too. If the tools you used to build your book were inadequate to the task, your synopsis will point that out.

Is everyone familiar with the concept of layering? Few people can write a great book first draft. It’s called draft for a reason. They might write an adequate book first draft but great generally requires a 2nd, 3rd or however many drafts it takes. Many writers, and I do this myself, go back with each successive draft to layer in areas they may have missed the first time around. I go back to add in transitions of time and place. Another time for setting. Another time for description and so on.

The tips and synopsis structure I’m demonstrating today require a series of steps or layers. You’ll use fill-in-the-blank forms to get the basic information down. Then you’ll use the Cheat Sheet to convert that information or data into a synopsis format.

Now let’s get into my real topic for today, writing the short synopsis.

For a two page synopsis, as requested by Harlequin and Silhouette, you get to do it SINGLE spaced! You have much more space to play with than you may have thought, since if you have a four page synopsis that’s double spaced, bingo, you have a two-pager. For more detailed synopses, the general rule is one double-spaced page of synopsis for each 10,000 manuscript words. If you’re writing a 50,000 word book, you might already HAVE a five page double spaced synopsis. It wouldn’t take much cutting to bring it down to two pages single spaced.

However, if you aren’t so fortunate, there’s hope for you yet. Because… Now I’m going to teach you how to cheat!

And not only that, I’m going to give you fill-in-the-blank questions that’ll make writing a synopsis a snap!

I highly recommend The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. Don’t let the fact it’s about writing comedy turn you off. The elements contained in The Comic Toolbox apply to any kind of story and while it’s particularly geared to writing comedy, I’ve found it works just as well for other genres in my experience. I consider Vorhaus’s book every bit as important as Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Maybe even more so because it’s extremely accessible and easy to understand.

The Comic Toolbox outlines a story template or structure. Here’s what Vorhaus had to say, “What I wanted was a way of writing the barest bones of my story in ten sentences or less, so that I could discover with a minimum of work whether I had an interesting, whole and solid story or not.”

Our task, when writing a synopsis, is to show the editor we have exactly that, “an interesting, whole and solid story.”

Generally, when sending out a two page synopsis, it’s at the query stage. If you show the editor that you have a solid story, she’ll ask for either a complete ms or a partial along with a more detailed synopsis—if you’ve done your homework and targeted the correct editor for your type of story.

So let’s get into the details of Vorhaus’ story template and see how you can use it to write your short synopsis. I’ve changed his template a little since we’re writing romance, to include both hero and heroine. Here’s my take on his story questions:

1) Who is the hero? Who is the heroine? What makes them interesting people that you’d want to read about?

2) What does the hero want? What does the heroine want? Basically this means their external and internal goals at the opening of the story.

3) The door opens. From the hero’s or heroine’s point of view, the opening door is either a problem or an opportunity, a threat or a welcoming hand. For instance in a mystery, the protagonist might discover a corpse. In some romances, the opening door is when the hero and heroine meet. An opening door can also be your protagonists’ worst nightmare come true or put the characters internal and external goals into conflict. While this is pretty involved sounding, remember to keep this opening door simple. The heroine finds a dead body. A cop hero’s car rear ends the heroine’s while speeding after a bad guy.

4) The hero/heroine take control. After walking through the opening door, the protagonist takes control of the situation and experiences early success, although it’s an illusion. As Vorhaus says, think in terms of early success and surface success. It’s one step in the progression of his/her goal.

5) A monkey wrench is thrown. A screw-up happens, a new threat arises, a new character enters, or a complication develops. Hero finds another dead body. It’s another obstacle in the journey toward his/her goal.

6) Things fall apart. This is where bad things happen, often the protagonist realizes the bad things are of his/her own making. This is where your characters make a series of choices and decisions, hoping not to face their fears, trying to find another way out—they’re getting it wrong. Try listing as many ways as you can think of for things to go wrong, then condense them into one sentence.

Here’s another excerpt from Vorhaus:

The hero, a recent graduate from hotel-management school, wants nothing but a quiet little inn of his own. The door opens when he’s hired by an international conglomerate to run a run-down resort in a Third World country ruled by a despotic strongman. The hero takes control when he goes to the Third World country and starts to turn the resort around. A monkey wrench is thrown when the hero falls in love with a beautiful guerrilla leader and displaces his loyalty to her. Things fall apart when the dictator comes to stay at the resort and the guerrillas plot to assassinate him by blowing up the hero’s beloved hotel. Can you see the conflict between our hero’s original loyalty to the hotel and his new loyalty to the girl and her goals? As things stand now, something’s got to give. When you move toward a moment when something’s got to give, you’re ready to start wrapping things up.

7) The hero/heroine hit bottom. This is the moment of truth. There’s a sense that time is running out and the hero and heroine have come to the end of their line. This is when he or she must choose between their goals at the beginning of the story and what he/she wants now (the developing romance). Your character is now poised between two things he wants—two things that are mutually exclusive. Please note this doesn’t have to happen to both the hero and heroine at the same time. This is your character’s black moment.

8 ) The hero/heroine risk all. This is when the hero or heroine finally get it right. When they are willing to risk everything, in order to gain love, even though they’re almost sure of failure. This moment of truth fulfills the characters’ inner goals.

9) What does the hero/heroine get? This is the reward for getting it right and in the case of a romance, your characters find their soul mates and long lasting love. This is your happy ending.

Again, if you’ll consult your handouts, there are two more. The first one, on page 6 is a copy of my answers for a book I brainstormed several years ago, using this template. The second one, on page 5 is the actual two page synopsis (actually it’s a little less) I wrote based on the my answers to the story template.

Incidently, it took me a total of 1 hour to a) brainstorm using the template and b) convert it to a synopsis—on a new story idea. While I doubt this is the best two page synopsis you’ve ever seen or ever will see, and I’m sure if I spent more time I could do a much better job, it was good enough before I sold my first book for an editor to request the complete via email.

Once you fill out the synopsis forms, you’ll have a rough draft of your synopsis. Next you’ll convert your answers into narrative form. But it’s not quite complete yet. It’s time to pull out Kathy’s Cheat Sheet on page 2.

The tips and synopsis structure I’m showing you today require a series of steps or layers. You’ll use the structure to get the basic information down. Then you’ll use these tips to convert that information or data into a synopsis format.

1. Begin the synopsis with a thematic or story question at the beginning and circling back to it at the end with an answer to the question. Ask yourself what the story question is. It helps if it’s something of a hook. Think of it as your high concept or your pitch sentence, or even your back cover blurb.

Another way to write your pitch sentence is to use the following as a guideline: who, wants what, why and why not?

I’m going to give you some examples but while I’m doing it, try jotting down your own either for your current mip or write one for a future story. You could also try this for a recent book you’ve read.

Because I don’t have access to synopses that other’s have written, I’m going to give you some examples of my own:

This one is from my first published book, Chasing Charlie:

When Davis Murphy, owner of Murphy Title Company, avid cowboy wannabe and one of Dallas’s most eligible bachelors, asks Charlie Nelson to pretend to be his fiancée, her first reaction is to run like hell.

The story question is mentioned, yet unspoken: Will she keep running like hell? Also, why is she running? Both are answered at the end of the synopsis by this line: “Davis is ecstatic when she agrees to ride off into the sunset with the only kind of cowboy she could ever love: one exactly like him.”

Here’s one from one of my mips:

A contemporary story of a woman raised by con artists who claims she’s a missing heiress kidnapped as a child, and the man who’s certain she’s a fake and is determined to prove it. All the evidence indicates she very well may be the missing heiress but even she isn’t certain it’s not a family con.

Okay—let’s take a couple of minutes to jot yours down. I know, I know, you hate having to do this when you’re away from the privacy of your own desk, but please take the time since you’ll need it later for your synopsis.

2. Tell who the hero and heroine are, what they want, and why they want it. By this I don’t mean a character sketch— particularly of physical attributes. That’s not necessary for a synopsis. What I mean is sort of a summation of who these people are emotionally. What are they like? Here’s some questions to ask yourself, and you’ll want to answer them by the end of the synopsis: What haven’t they taken into account? Why are these two people wrong for each other? What emotional holes will they each fill for the other? Here’s an example: Mr. Ultra Conservative meets Ms. Liberal. She teaches him to lighten up, he checks her more outrageous impulses.

3. For a romance novel synopsis, I can’t say this strongly enough: the external plot is mentioned only as it affects the emtional arc of either the hero or heroine. If it doesn’t, then you don’t need to mention it.

4. Secondary characters are only mentioned as they affect h/h internal conflict or external conflict as mentioned in the synopsis per #3.

5. When considering what elements to include in the synopsis, think in terms of how the hero or heroine “gets it wrong”… What choices or decisions do they make that they think will help them attain their goals or solve their problems but instead lead them in the wrong directions, gradually bringing them to the correct conclusions/emotional change needed to resolve their internal conflict. Key words: internal change and moments of change.

6. Show the romantic relationship development. What changes in #5 above are the characters undergoing to make it more likely they’ll fall in love? What makes them love the other?

7. When do they realize they’re in love? How does this change them or their decisions? What, if any, external events are keeping them apart as a couple? What internally (this is a must) is keeping them from being together as a couple?

8. The black moment…this can be a different event for the hero and heroine, they don’t have to be the same (in fact I tend to like books much better where these are different)…when do things look their worst? When have they been backed up to a wall and they’re forced to change or make a decision that could lead them into not receiving what they want (for the most part by this point they should want the romantic relationship above all other goals and attaining both their external goal and their internal goal looks impossible). The black moment should inevitably lead to an internal change allowing them to commit to the other.

9. Resolution and wind-up of theme. This is the reward stage: what do the hero and heroine “get” for changing and the sacrifices they’ve made? They get each other. This is the prize.

10. Read over every statement in your synopsis and for each action or reaction of the hero/heroine, make sure you’ve told why.

11. Tone—if this is humor, add statements to reflect that. If poignant, use language indicative of that emotion. You strive to hit a similar tone in your synopsis as your book’s tone.

Of all the items I just listed, I think #6 is the most important. The main problem I’ve seen with synopses in judging contests or while critiquing, is that many romance authors forget they’re writing romance. Instead of telling about the romance, which is what any romance novel is really about, they concentrate on the external plot. While you don’t want to exclude the external plot entirely, in a romance novel it’s secondary to the developing romance. In a synopsis you only want to include external plot events that impact the developing romance.

Also in your handouts is a copy of an actual synopsis—the original one I used for Chasing Charlie (then called My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys)—marked up showing internal, external, romantic conflict etc. I think you might find it useful to help you construct your own.

PART TWO: The Hand-Outs and Forms

Workshop Notes during Part Two:

Emotional Arc

In order for the hero to achieve his internal goal, he’ll be forced to confront/change his internal conflict (core belief). Now change like this doesn’t happen overnight (people naturally resist change). Generally, it takes a minimum of three steps to change a deep-seated or core belief. In Angel Be Good, the hero had to learn:

  1. Mom didn’t leave of her own choice (she died)
  2. Mom-substitute didn’t leave of her own choice (Dad fired her)
  3. the fiance was rotten—but he expected that and perhaps in some way he was the cause and she was the reaction—iow, he sought out the type of woman who’d reinforce his erroneous beliefs about women
  4. the heroine is trustworthy—In Angel Be Good, there were several examples, leading hero at first to believe the heroine was the exception to the rule, then gradually he realized his initial conclusion about women et al was incorrect (as he learned the truth surrounding the past).

However, his black moment relates to this belief—the heroine had to leave (desert) him, hitting him on a new level, women he loves always leave. But she returns the first time (he hasn’t learned his lesson yet). The second time she leaves, he knows she will not return. However, by this second departure, he had learned he could trust her—and so his payoff for this trust is that she comes back—in a new identity/body (hey, it’s a fantasy <g>).

The heroine in Chasing Charlie had as an internal conflict that she was afraid to take risks. This translated into a core belief of “Cowboys do stupid things for bad reasons.” Obviously, she’s anti-risk.

Here are three events that lead her to this belief:

  1. Her parents died on the way to the rodeo when was a young girl
  2. Her substitute-dad died in the rodeo
  3. Her brothers, who raised her, continued to participate in the rodeo “chasing after buckles”—and she feared for their lives and her security every time they competed.

As an adult, she’s turned into a hermit—avoiding any kind of risk. In order to live life again, she had to learn:

  1. avoiding risk means not fully living
  2. some risks are good and worth taking
  3. risk can lead to positive change

Her conflict with the hero was that he was doing exactly what her brothers did: chasing after buckles. And it was particularly stupid that he was doing it because he had no experience, he wasn’t raised on a ranch—for heavens sake, he was a mortgage title broker. This reiterates and reinforces her conflict.

Her black moment is when the hero rides in the rodeo against her wishes. As she’d done before, she runs away. But then she realizes that because she avoided risk, her life is empty without the hero and finally learns that live and love are worth the risk.

This is kind of out of order, here, since my next step relates to something not on the synopsis template—but it’s important that you understand it and to me, it’s natural to add it during this section on characterization. And that is, romantic conflict

Romantic Conflict

I understand that there have been a few workshops on Romantic Conflict, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never attended nor listened to any on tape. So the views I’m about to express are my own—and if they differ from a far more experience author’s views, you’d be wise to listen to them.

The hero in Chasing Charlie put his life on hold to take care of family responsibilities—in many ways, he was like the heroine—while she hid from life, he couldn’t experience life even though he wanted to. He’d had to put his life on hold.

He wanted to ride in the rodeo. He wanted to win a buckle. He wanted to do what he’d always dreamed of doing—and until he could at least try, he felt cheated out of life. At last, though, when the book opens, his time has come to take a stab at his dreams. Once he accomplished his dream, however, he learned that was only his boyhood dream—not what he really wanted. What he really wanted was to be involved in ranching—but even that would be empty without his heroine.

It’s here, where their deep-seated needs are in conflict—for the heroine her desperate need for some sort of security and safety and the hero’s need to pursue his dreams (to live the life he’d dreamed of)—this is where romantic conflict comes in. This is why on a deep level these two people can’t be together until they’ve learned certain life lessons. It’s not until they’ve changed and grown that they can be together.

Many times this type of change involves mere compromise, but in the best romances, the hero and heroine’s happily ever after depends on first achieving deep and core-level change.

If there’s any “secret” in romance, I believe I’m giving it to you now. Readers read and particularly romance readers read to vicariously experience emotion. And it’s this struggle for core-change they seek.

See if you can sum up this kind of core-change for your hero and heroine. You’ll want your synopsis to show the steps where these core-beliefs come into conflict. If they are omitted in your rough draft, be sure when you revise, to layer in this type of romantic conflict.

Once you’ve completed filling out your forms, type the notes up in narrative form. Then take Kathy’s Cheat Sheet to layer in the missing details. This should give you a solid first draft of your synopsis.