Synopsis Hand-outs

11 Basic Synopsis Tips (aka Kathy’s Cheat Sheet)

by Kathy Carmichael

As presented at the 2001 RWA National Conference in New Orleans

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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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.

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.


Vorhaus Story Structure

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

Who is the hero?

What does the hero want?

The door opens.

The hero takes control.

A monkey wrench is thrown.

Things fall apart.

The hero hits bottom.

The hero risks all.

What does the hero get?


Synopsis Written Using Info From Template

Plotting To Catch A Wife by Kathy Lynch Carmichael

Kat Markham loves her job as secret shopper for the Le Claire Corporation, an international chain of luxury hotels. A jewel thief is operating at the Le Claire hotel on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. The Le Claire Hotels are her turf, and although security isn’t her job, she’s determined to do something about it. Kat enjoys watching (her boss calls it spying on) other people and this skill makes her very good at her job ensuring the hotels are run efficiently and seamlessly. If she’s lonely at times and shy outside her work, the job keeps her busy enough she doesn’t notice.

Kat arrives at the Le Claire Maui a few days early, using the alias Elizabeth, as is routine for her job. She finds the manager is on vacation and the assistant manager is new—and his actions are exceedingly suspicious. Not only is he far too debonair and witty, he leaves her senses reeling and she catches him following the wealthier guests. His management style also leaves something to be desired. His idea of giving orders to the staff is to either ask them how they think things should be handled or what he should do next. Not exactly Le Claire management material. And he keeps turning up in the most unusual of places—including her room. Between his oddball style and the eccentric staff, she wonders if she checked in at the wrong hotel—the Le Claire Hell.

Kat (Elizabeth) raises Parker Nicholas’s suspicions, too. Not only does she fail to answer to her name, he catches her taking notes after watching guests and staff. Perhaps she is the cat burglar he’s determined to nab. He decides to investigate by searching her room. Parker is a wealthy and world-renowned detective, famous for always getting his “cat.” Hired by Lloyds of London, he goes undercover, using a false identity, as the assistant manager of the Le Claire Maui. He will not fail.

When Kat catches him in her room, he does what any other red blooded American male would do, he punts—by kissing her. The minute his lips touch hers, rockets go off and sirens scream. He’s always considered himself a connoisseur of fine women and nothing about Kat’s outward appearance prepares him for his reaction to her. Perhaps it’s pheromones and equally possible, it could be because she’s something other than she pretends.

When Kat recovers from the most startling kiss of her lifetime, she trusts Parker even less than before. He has to be up to something. She knows her people skills are lousy and men simply don’t feel passionate about her.

The jewel thief leads Kat and Parker on a merry chase. After a failed robbery, Kat breaks down and tells Parker her true identity but Parker cannot risk his reputation by telling her the truth about himself.

A successful robbery occurs and all clues point to Kat. He is disillusioned when he realizes Kat is quite likely The Cat. Parker’s instincts tell him she can’t be guilty.

In a last ditch effort to recover the jewels and catch the thief, he has to risk exposing his identity as well as being wrong about Kat. His careful plan backfires and she learns who he is. Kat is heartbroken by his deception and while she agrees to help him with his plan to catch the thief, demands he leave her alone otherwise.

Parker’s new plan is successful and he catches the cat and recovers the jewels. His reputation and instinct are frayed but intact. Kat realizes her people skills aren’t quite so awful when Parker asks her to be his wife. Parker is delighted to report he got both The Cat and the Kat of his dreams.


To Catch a Wife by Kathy Lynch Carmichael Plotted Using Vorhaus’ Story Template

Who is the hero/heroine? The heroine is the anal retentive, give me the details, strictly the details secret shopper/guest for a large chain of luxury hotels. The hero is a famous one time jewel thief turned honest detective who earns his living by catching other thieves. His success rate is 100% and he is often retained by Lloyd’s of London. Currently, he’s working in a hotel undercover, trying to learn why so many jewel thefts have taken place there and who the culprit is. He’s a lot like Remington Steele—tends to be debonair, charming and fairly laid back which have been helpful traits in his career.

What do the h/h want?

External hero: To find the thief and put him out of business. The hero has been retained by Lloyds of London to catch the jewel thief at the hotel where he’s gone undercover. Losing would mean he’s the loser he felt he was which had driven him originally to become a jewel thief. Without the trappings of success, he feels he’s a failure. Internally: He’d like to be loved for himself without the trappings of wealth and prestige.

External heroine: She’d like her chain to be perfect. She’s devoted her entire life to it. Internally: She’s afraid that her job might not be enough. People have accused her of being cold, icy and she fears this may be true. She worries that the whole chance of a successful relationship has passed her by while she was busy making her chain perfect and that with her job she doesn’t stand a chance of having a normal relationship. She’s not good with people and has found her job to be a great solace and as a result, she has little time to feel lonely.

The door opens: The heroine comes to the same hotel as the hero is undercover in…. The manager is out of town and hero is acting as manager. She doesn’t let him know who she is (because it’s her job to be undercover). She is aware of the jewel thefts and is searching quietly to find ways to discourage this from happening again as well as hoping secretly to ferrot out the thief herself. The hero is suspicious since she’s nosy and had obviously been in the hotel previously yet her name isn’t on the register.

The h/h takes control: An attempt is made to rob a hotel patron of jewels which the heroine manages to keep from happening. The thief gets away, though, without her being any more aware of the thief’s identity. The hero is more suspcious than ever, believing she herself could be the thief. He decides to keep a =close= watch on her under the aspices of an attraction. It doesn’t help that he’s truly attracted to her despite the chance that she’s a thief. She’s suspcious of him, however, because she’s caught him spying on the hotel patrons. She doesn’t think much of his management skills, either, since his idea of an order to staff consists of asking the employees how they think things should be handled.

A monkey wrench is thrown: A successful minor jewel theft takes place while he is attempting to seduce the heroine. he now realizes he’s in over his head with her and wonders if she’s fully aware of it and perhaps has an accomplice to throw the scent. She feels she deserted her post while dallying with the asst manager of her chain. She knows her job could be on the line for dating/being interested in someone she’s supposed to be spying on yet she’s attracted in spite of knowing it’s not in her own best interests. Guilt sets in as well as an internal war.

Things fall apart: A major theft occurs and the jewels are stolen in a situation that seems impossible to have occurred. The heroine tells the hero her identity…but the hero can’t tell her is. His job and reputation are on the line and there’s still a good likelihood that she might be in on the thefts. In one way, not telling her seems reassuring—meaning the relationship won’t go any further. On the other hand, this makes him feel awful and he can’t figure out why (dumb guy!).

The h/h hits bottom: Although the jewels have been stolen, he’s believed they were still in the hotel. Word reaches him they are now on the market as for sale which leads him to believe they are no longer within the hotel. The clues all point back to the heroine. She’s the only one who could have gotten them out of the building. He realizes he’d rather lose his success reputation than lose her. She’s clawed her way under his skin.

The h/h risks all: The hero’s instinct says that the heroine cannot be guilty. He’s certain he wouldn’t keep trusting her if she were the felon. Also, he runs the risk of his identity being exposed before he can tell her the truth and he’s certain she won’t be able to forgive him for suspecting her and continuing in his false identity. In a last ditch effort to recover the jewels and catch the thief, he has to risk exposing his identity and being wrong about the heroine. His careful plan backfires and the heroine learns who he is. The heroine is incredibly upset and heartbroken by his deception and while she agrees to help him with his plan to catch the thief, demands he leave her alone otherwise.

What does the hero/heroine get? The hero was right about the heroine. She was not the guilty party. He catches the thief AND gets the girl. After all, she loved him before she learned who he really was. The heroine clears up the problems with her fine hotel. She learns she’s more than capable of loving and being loved and finds a wonderful and satisfying relationship with the hero and a marriage between them will allow them to work together frequently.

Comedic Premise: Centers and eccentrics (heroine is the center…hero and staff are the eccentrics). Fish out of water (hero in hotel management position). Slapstick (his incompetance vs self confidence opposed to her competence and social ineptness).

Everything you always wanted to know about…

by Kathy Lynch Carmichael

As printed in the Silken Sands Newsletter

The New Year brings this new question and answer column to the Silken Sands newsletter. Email, call or write me with your question and I’ll do my best to get you an answer. Each month, we’ll feature a question and the responses. Questions can be for published authors, unpublished authors, chapter members, board members, National board members, editors and agents. So please, get your questions to me!

This month’s question is: What are the elements I should include in my synopsis?

Mary Theresa Hussey, Editor, Silhouette Books:

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!
Certainly the major plot points and conflicts need to be covered. But the most important thing—something I’ve noticed has been getting a little short shrift lately—is the clear and powerful development of the romance between the hero and heroine.
This means not only having a strong romantic and emotional conflict for the characters, but also illustrating the magic between them. Show how their relationship becomes inevitable. Don’t just mention dates or times spent together—plan how those encounters awaken the characters own emotions and propel the romance and plot to its triumphant conclusion.
Never assume that editors realize and accept the fact that the book is a romance simply because there is a hero and heroine. If the romance can so easily become secondary in the synopsis, it doesn’t bode well for the manuscript.
Oh, and please indicate where the actual manuscript begins—especially if the synopsis starts with the back story.
Good luck!

Teresa Hill, writing as Sally Tyler Hayes, has sold 9 books to Silhouette Intimate Moments. Her most recent, Second Father, was a December 1996 release. Teresa responds:

In judging contests, I’ve found that many people leave out the most basic points of their love story in a synopsis. These being the points where the hero and heroine first meet, the fact that they’re attracted to each other, the first time they kiss, first time they make love, first time they admit their love for each other.
I have to admit, I used to do this, too. It seemed so obvious to me that I was writing a love story, so of course those elements would be in the story. But I’ve learned that writers have to show an editor in the synopsis that they are indeed writing a love story by including all of these points.
I also tended to gloss over the emotional development of the story in favor of including all the external plot elements. And emotional development is every bit as important to an editor in the synopsis. This is the why of the story—why does your hero feel the way he does, how do his feelings change from the beginning of the book to the end, how does he grow as a person, what does he have to learn from whatever challenges he faces. Remember that what’s happening to them, is equally as important as what is happening in the book.
Currently, I try to tell myself a synopsis consists of four equally important points—character description, internal plot points (the emotional development), external plot points (the bad guys, the mystery, the deep dark secret) and the love story. And I try very hard to give each element equal weight in the synopsis.
Another trick I’ve learned—give your character descriptions and your story setup in the beginning, get it all out of way and then once you move into the action of the story, stay there. Drop in the magic words, “As the book opens….” and then tell your story.

Terry Kanago, who has done numerous reviews for Painted Rock and Genie, is the author of two historical romances with a third in process. She is a past president of Inland Empire Chapter RWA in Spokane, WA, and was a contributing writer to the serial Valentine’s Day story the group sold to the Spokesman Review. Terry responds:

What does a selling synopsis tell about your story? The answer is one simple word: Why?
Why should the editor (and later the reader) care about these people? Why do they feel, think, act, fall in love the way they do? You the writer know, and your synopsis is the tool that lets you share that knowledge with the editor.
As a critiquer I’ve been told (with a smile, I hope!) that my comments on synopses are no longer necessary; my partner just prints it out, takes a red pen, and writes Why? at the end of every paragraph to save me the trouble of doing it myself. Why is Why important? Because it shifts the focus from the external plot onto the emotional arc of the story.
The emotional arc is the flow of growth and awareness in your story, the rhythm of the developing love between your characters. It’s that get-away-closer struggle beween personal pain and eventual triumph that resonates in the readers’ hearts and makes the story a part of them. And Why is the key to conveying that in a synopsis. It’s past, present and future all wrapped up together in one moment of time.
So let the editor into your characters’ hearts with Why, and perhaps she will do the same for them.