General Fiction Synopsis Seminar

Writing the Fiction Synopsis

by Kathy Carmichael

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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Good morning, everyone. Today, I’m hoping to teach you how to write a fiction synopsis.

This first hour, I’m going to explain my system to you, talk about what elements need to be in a synopsis—and you’re going to make about a gazillion notes. We’ll have a short break and then after that we’ll get to work on the first draft of your synopsis using forms I’ll provide.

So, is everybody ready to put on your thinking caps? What? You left yours at home?

No problem. ‘Cause I brought extras.

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 structure is sound). You gotta know your protagonist’s GMC (goals, motivation and conflict both internal and external). And so on.

The system I’m teaching you today works very well for a short synopsis and that’s where we’ll concentrate our efforts. 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.

In the past, when I’ve given this workshop, I’ve concentrated on synopses for romance novels since that’s primarily the genre in which I write. Basically, though, a synopsis for any genre is quite similar—with the caveat 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. Similarly, this would be true in a mystery—the main plotline would be the events unfolding the mystery—everything else would be secondary to it.

What are the elements that must be included in a synopsis?

My editor, Erin Cartwright, who buys mystery, westerns, and romance novels, had the following to say about synopses:

What we look for in a synopsis is a well told story. We just want a brief outline that explains what the book is about—which gives away the ending. We want the complete outline because we need to know if the author has a good, thought out, comprehensible story. In other words we want to know if the author can tell a story well. We ask for the first three chapters (the first three—in that order 1, 2, 3) so we can see if the author can write. A synopsis is important because it’s the first thing an editor reads—if it’s a great story, then you’re halfway there.

In your handouts you’ll find a copy of column I used to do for an RWA chapter in Mobile, AL. Right now I write a similar Q&A column for the Romance Writers of America’s magazine Romance Writers Report and like it, my Mobile column was in a question/answer format. 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!

In addition to letting the editor know your story works, you also need to be aware that your synopsis is also a sales or promotion tool. You must write it in such a way that when your editor takes your book to committee, she generally uses the synopsis to present it. Her boss, the sales force, marketing, promotion departments will hopefully all become excited about your book because your synopsis has intrigued them. And, just so you’ll know, quite often before your editor can offer you a contract on your book, she’s got to have the approval from this committee. In other words, it’s your most important sales tool.

Once a publisher has contracted your book, you’ll make certain promotional efforts of your own, including online chats, requests for reviewers to read your book, and so on. I found that I put my synopsis to good use when I needed a blurb about my book. In other words, no effort you expend in writing a great synopsis is wasted.

Over the course of this workshop, I’m going to give you the story structure questions and ten 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 your handouts—so you might want to pull them out to make notes on them.

Before selling, I wrote about 6 romances that I’d submitted to publishers. I hadn’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. It certainly helped me turn the corner.

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 fiction synopsis. For many publishers, a short, 2-page type of synopsis may be single spaced. The majority, however, require it to be double spaced like your manuscript.

In your handouts you’ll find a sample of correct synopsis format—which is similar to correct manuscript format. Let’s go through it briefly. Is anyone unfamiliar with correct manuscript format?

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’d have a 5 page synopsis. 100,000 words (about 400 manuscript pages) you’d write a 10 page synopsis. Most publishers these days want books between 50,000 and 100,000 words (or 200-400 manuscript pages).

Writing a synopsis sounds hard, doesn’t it? But, there’s hope for you yet. Because—now I’m going to teach you how to cheat!

I highly recommend this book [show] 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 commercial fiction, 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 ms or a partial—if you’ve done your homework and targeted the correct editor for your type of story. The editor may ask for a more detailed synopsis—but again, the trend right now seems to indicate shorter is better.

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 on the first page of your handouts. Here’s my take on his story questions:

    1. Who is the protagonist or are the protagonists? What makes them interesting people that you’d want to read about?
    2. What does the hero want? Basically this means the protagonist’s external and internal goals at the opening of the story.
    3. The door opens. From the protagonist’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 takes 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. In a mystery, the protagonist might think he’s pretty sure who the criminal is or that the case will be easily solved.
    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.
    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 hero makes a series of choices and decisions, hoping not to face his fears, trying to find another way out—he’s getting it wrong. Try listing as many ways as you can think of for things to go wrong, then condense them into one sentence. In a mystery, this is where the detective follows all the leads and red herrings and each makes it seem harder to solve the case.

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.

  1. The hero hits bottom. This is the moment of truth. There’s a sense that time is running out and the hero has come to the end of his line. This is when he must choose between his goals at the beginning of the story and what he wants now (for instance, in a romance novel, this means the developing romance or in a mystery, it’s often a life-threatening situation—can he solve the mystery or will he have to risk his life to do so?). Your character is often poised between two things he wants—two things that are mutually exclusive. This is your character’s black moment.
  2. The hero risks all. This is when the hero finally gets it right. When he is willing to risk everything, in order to gain love or solve the mystery or grow emotionally—whatever the main emphasis or your story is about, even though he’s almost sure of failure. This moment of truth fulfills the character’s inner goals.
  3. What does the hero 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. In the case of a mystery, the criminal is brought to justice in some manner or the case is solved. This is your happy ending.

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 short synopsis I wrote based on the first handout of my answers to the story template. Incidentally, 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 an editor who I’d never met 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 a synopsis is all about. You might be interested to see how the structure works.

Once you’ve got a rough draft of a synopsis—it’s not quite complete yet. It’s time to pull out Kathy’s Cheat Sheet:

  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. 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.
  2. Tell who the protagonists 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? What makes it unlikely that this person can resolve the story question? Here’s a romance example: Mr. Ultra Conservative meets Ms. Liberal. She teaches him to lighten up, he checks her more outrageous impulses. For instance, in Deborah Tisdale’s Corpse On the Court, her protagonist, Summer Walsh, must solve a crime in a retirement community and her soft spot for the elderly sidetracks her from her main goal.
  3. For a short novel synopsis, you should only include details that apply to the main story question. Secondary plotline, character arc, etc, are only included if they affect the story question.
  4. Secondary characters are only mentioned as they affect your protagonists internal conflict or external conflict (ie the story question).
  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. If there is emotional change or development in your storyline, then include it in the synopsis. What changes in #5 above are the characters undergoing to make it more likely they’ll solve the crime or resolve the story question?
  7. The black moment…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. In a romance novel, the black moment should inevitably lead to an internal change allowing them to commit to the other.
  8. Resolution and wind-up of theme. This is the reward stage: what does the hero get for changing and the sacrifices he’s made? Think of this as the story windup.
  9. Read over every statement in your synopsis and for each action or reaction of the hero, make sure you’ve told “why”.
  10. 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.

    Vorhaus Story Structure

    From The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus (ISBN #: 1879505215)

    1. Who is the hero?
    2. What does the hero want?
    3. The door opens.
    4. The hero takes control.
    5. A monkey wrench is thrown.
    6. Things fall apart.
    7. The hero hits bottom.
    8. The hero risks all.
    9. What does the hero get?


      1. Who is the protagonist? (job or aspiration):

    This could be his or her job or his aspiration (in some cases you might have several protagonists—in this case, you’ll want to sum up who they are).

    Real Estate Agent
    US Marshal
    FBI Agent
    Wanna-be Gunslinger
    Free Spirit

      1. Add to that a descriptor: ________________________________ (choose one or two from the list below)

    List 10 adjectives to describe the hero: (10 minutes)

    1. 6.
    2. 7.
    3. 8.
    4. 9.
    5. 10.

    Think in terms of adjectives: eager, gruff, anal-retentive, curious, stubborn, powerful, spacey, etc

      1. What does the hero want externally (the external plot):

    What is the hero seeking in his life? What is he lacking inside? What does he need to change? EX: forgiveness, to be complete, acceptance of who is truly is.

      1. The Inciting Incident: (the door opens):

    As explained earlier, keep this fairly simple. Often first step in the progression of change, or the precursor to change. In mystery, first indication of problem that needs solution.

    Some Tips:

    Very effective to show the first step in your protagonist’s emotional journey
    Often the first meet in a romance
    Can pit the protagonists against each other
    Sets up the situation or the story

    This is the moment of change—this is the first step in the series of change in the book. This is the first catalyst of change or can be the precursor to the change.

    In some stories, the opening starts just before the change. In some it starts just after the change. Often in mysteries, the prologue is in the villain’s POV and Chapter One opens in the protagonist’s. The villain prologue often establishes that a crime took place, and Chapter One introduces the protagonist and how he/she will be affected by the crime.

    Think about your current opening, underlining the change and where it occurs (so you’ll know) or if your book isn’t finished yet, you might brainstorm different possible openings than you currently have or plan to have. Play with moving the opening from A) just before the change (life as it was) B) At the moment of change or C) Just after the change. You can try an opening affecting another character’s first step in change (for instance in a romance, if your current opening is in the heroine’s pov, you might see what would happen if you instead showed the first step in the hero’s moment of change).

      1. The Hero takes control:

    Your protagonist confronted a necessity for change (or a need to react). Based on his current internal conflict, he will deal with it with as little internal change as possible. After dealing with it, he feels successful. How does your protagonist react to your opening? In what way does this make him feel successful? Be careful here to make sure this rings true for readers (that they would react in the same manner or that it seems a logical progression to them). I think about Grisham’s The Firm and how in the opening, the protagonist is given a great job offer—and of course, he reacts by jumping at the job. We all would. But by the very nature of taking this job, it sets the entire course of the story. If we as readers had been in the protagonist’s shoes, we would have reacted exactly as he did. In this case, the inciting incident is the job offer and the reaction is acceptance of the job and life looks like it’s gonna be good.

      1. A Monkey Wrench is Thrown: (1/4 mark)

    This is what happens just when your character feels like everything is under control—you know something has to go wrong. A screw up happens, a new threat arises, or a complication develops. It will show that your protagonist’s initial change/reaction was not enough to solve the story dilemma.

    In Chasing Charlie, this occurs when the hero shows up on the heroine’s doorstep. This quite likely, but not always, will fall at or close to the one-fourth mark of your story. It’s the next plot point. It shows that the change/reaction didn’t solve the story question and it ups the stakes for your protagonist.

      1. Things Fall Apart (middle of the book)

    This is the middle of your book. This is where you show the emotional change and growth of your characters. In a mystery, this is where the protagonist follows clues and red herrings. Another dead body may turn up or the protagonist’s life might be at stake. For instance, in the mystery I mentioned earlier, this is the section where Summer pursues leads and clues without any clear indication of who done it—and where her internal conflict of being a softy for the elderly particularly gets in her way.

    List three key scenes in which the hero must change or react or he will be challenged in some way. Again, these could be key scenes leading to solution of the mystery.
    1 )
    2 )
    3 )

      1. The Hero/Heroine hits bottom

    The black moment.

    This is the moment that fulfills your character’s inner goal—because they have to take the big risk or make the big/ultimate change—the change they’ve been trying to avoid from the get-go. They are willing to risk everything in order to gain love, or to solve the mystery, even though they are almost assured of failure. In some mysteries, this is when the detective comes up with the wrong solution—and when there’s no other way out, he’s lead to the only solution possible. Remember, after getting it wrong (emotionally or clue-wise) all through the story, this is where your protagonist will finally get it right when facing his black moment.

      1. What does the Hero get?

    What does your protagonist get for facing his inner demons, or going through tough emotional change, for overcoming external and internal plot obstacles? This can include safety in a suspense, love everlasting and a happily ever after in a romance. Don’t short cut on this; the reader wants to experience it, too. The reader has been along for the emotional ride as well!

    Now, using your original hook to open your synopsis, you can type in the answers to the questions on these forms and you’ll end up with a first draft of your synopsis. Then, using Kathy’s cheat sheet, go back and layer in whatever is missing. Good luck and remember to have fun with this!