Fast, Easy, Painless: Writing the Short Synopsis
by Kathy Carmichael
My workshop today is on writing the short synopsis, subtitled: Fast, Easy, Painless: How to Become a Synopsis Goddess.
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.
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.
Because we are Romance Authors, we’re going to concentrate today on a synopsis for a romance novel as opposed to another genre. Synopses for other genres can be significantly different. 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 must be included in a synopsis? I’m passing around a handout of a column I used to do for my chapter in Mobile. Like my RWR column now, it was a question/answer column and while I won’t read it all 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!
Over the course of this workshop, I’m going to give you the 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 conference handouts—so you might want to pull them out to make notes on them.
Before selling, I wrote about 7 or so books that I’d submitted to publishers. I haven’t sold any 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.
Then a year or two ago, when I was working on these tips and playing with this synopsis structure, I realized exactly where I was 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 what I call 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 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 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 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 two-page 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’ll already have a five-page double-spaced synopsis. It wouldn’t take much cutting to bring it down to two pages.
However, if you aren’t so fortunate, there’s hope for you yet. Because…now I’m going to teach you how to cheat!
I highly recommend this book, The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. Now, while you’re scratching your head, wondering why I’m showing you a book about writing comedy, when anyone knows you write suspense, bear with me a moment. The elements contained in this book apply to any kind of story and while it’s particularly geared to writing comedy, it works just as well for other genres in my experience. I consider this 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.
In Vorhaus’ book, he outlines a story template or structure. From his book, here’s what he 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.” (Reread Matrice’s quote) 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 manuscript 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 two-page synopsis. I provided another handout—this one lists Vorhaus’ nine structure questions—and I’ve put it up on the overhead. I’ve changed them a little since we’re writing romance, to include both hero and heroine. They are:
- Who is the hero? Who is the heroine? What makes them interesting people that you’d want to read about?
- What does the hero want? What does the heroine want? Basically this means their external and internal goals at the opening of the story.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Here’s another excerpt from Vorhaus:
Again, if you’ll consult your handouts, there are two more. The first one is a copy of a book I brainstormed, several years ago, using this template. The second one is a two-page synopsis (actually it’s a little less) I wrote based on the first handout of 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 for a Harlequin Mills and Boon editor to ask me via email to send the complete or if it wasn’t finished, to send her chapters on it. So it served the purpose of indicating to an editor that this was a solid story and that’s what writing the two-page synopsis is all about. Unfortunately for me, that editor left Harlequin. You might be interested to see how the structure works.
Now you’ve got a rough draft of a synopsis—but it’s not quite complete yet. It’s time to pull out Kathy’s Cheat Sheet:
- 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. 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.Because I don’t have access to a zillion synopses that other’s have written, I’m going to give you some examples of my own:This one is from 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 fiance’, her first reaction is to run like hell.” The story question is mentioned, yet unspoken: Will she keep running like hell? It’s 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 another one: “Never fall in love with an inappropriate woman.” It’s tied up with: “He realizes he’s been an inappropriate man….”Here’s one for one of my mips. I haven’t written the synopsis on it yet, so I don’t have the ending statement yet: “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 evidece indicates she very well may be the missing heiress but even she isn’t certain it’s not a family con.”Okay—who wants to read theirs? Don’t throw your hooks away, we’re going to use them later.
- 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.
- 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.
- Secondary characters are only mentioned as they affect h/h internal conflict or external conflict as mentioned in the synopsis per #3.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- Read over every statement in your synopsis and for each action or reaction of the hero/heroine, make sure you’ve told “why.”
- 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.
Lastly, today I handed out copies of an actual synopsis—the original one I used for Chasing Charlie—marked up showing internal, external, romantic conflict etc. I think you might find it useful to help you construct your own. (This file is available as a PDF download here.)
Does anyone have any questions?
Remember those hooks you wrote? Your homework for this month is to go home and work on your short synopsis—you’ve already got your opening hook—and don’t forget your house slippers. Thanks everyone for coming this morning!