The importance of the synopsis – or lack thereof.
I have mentioned before that I was a winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in 2012. The prize was getting to spend the day meeting with about twenty agents and publishers. One of the questions I asked them was what weight they gave the synopsis. Nineteen of them said little to none. The twentieth said he read it to see if the author managed to progress the plot and finally resolve it. However, he added, it was just a tool and not a major one at that. The sample chapters were hands down the most important selling point for the author.
With that in mind, I’ve yet to see an agent tell authors not to bother sending a synopsis. And of course you can’t be sure that the people you pitch to won’t be big fans of the thing. My advice, then, is do a good job but don’t tie yourself into knots over it. I find it helpful to have a template, so I’ll show you how I wrote mine, but there are many other models you can follow if you take a look around the internet.
I allowed myself two weeks to complete my synopsis. I actually finished it in about a week, but given the complexities of my novel, I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to touch on all the important plot points while keeping within the 500 word limit.
Here are a few basic points:
- The synopsis should be written in the present tense, third person, regardless of the tense and voice used in the novel.
- It should be single-spaced.
- It should identify the antagonist and protagonist and no other characters unless they are major. Pride and Prejudice would identify Elizabeth and Darcy, but probably also George Wickham. No need to go down the road of the other Bennett girls, nor Bingley, nor Lady Catherine…
- The synopsis must reveal the highpoints of the plot.
- Don’t include subplots.
- Do include the ending.
- Grammar and spelling are just as important here as they are in your novel so don’t let your attention drop.
The purpose of the synopsis:
The purpose of the synopsis is to tell your story in an engaging manner. That involves two things:
- The important plot points must be identified and
- The method of narrating those events must appeal to the reader and make them want to read the whole novel
What the synopsis is not:
- It’s not an outline.
- It’s not a chapter by chapter description.
- It’s not a list of the characters, or a discussion of the theme.
What are the plot points?
I used a combination of tools to create my template. The first of these is “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, which he adapted from Joseph Campbell’s 17 stages of the Hero’s Journey. This is used primarily by screenwriters but can be adapted by the novelist. A word of caution however: a novel is not a screenplay, no matter how many elements they have in common. If your book is missing one of the stages listed below, or if you have more than one, don’t think that means you’re doing something wrong.
I’ve borrowed the following graphic from Dramatica.com, but you will see I have made some modifications to the various stages.
I’ve also used the ‘W’ storyboard format. I use this when I am structuring my novel.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about either of these sources here because it would take us away from the subject. However, if you’re not familiar with them, I really urge you to check them out. They can make a big difference in how you structure your novel.
This link will bring you to a short YouTube explanation of storyboarding:
You’ll note there’s an overlap between The Hero’s Journey and the W-Storyboard.
If you start out with each of the key points listed below and write a sentence or two for each, you’ll have a first draft of your synopsis. All that then remains is for you to tweak it afterwards.
Always write with the action being led by the hero / heroine, rather than making him or her passive. “The villains beat Marty…” doesn’t work so well as, “Marty refuses to tell where the heroine is, despite a savage beating…”
Using Pride and Prejudice as a guide, we’ll examine how the template works. Note, that different types of novels will have interpretations of these elements unique unto themselves. For instance, the ‘Pop moment’ in Austen’s novel is Darcy’s declaration of love. In a thriller, it might be when the hero discovers the man he thought was the killer died two years earlier. In a literary novel, it might be some quiet truth the heroine discovers.
1. The status quo: What is the situation at the beginning of the story? What does the hero or heroine need or want?
Elizabeth Bennett is the second of five daughters who wants to marry for love.
2. The inciting incident: What is the event that sets the rest of the plot in motion?
For Elizabeth that would be the arrival of Mr Darcy in her neighbourhood.
3. The first plot point: The decision the hero (or heroine) takes that means there’s no going back.
Elizabeth decides Mr Darcy is the most proud and insufferable man she’s ever met. She’s determined to hate him. Note, this decision is key to the rest of the book and Austen shows us how Elizabeth is proved, well, prejudiced.
4. The Rise or turnaround: Where things seem to be settling down.
Elizabeth learns that Mr Darcy has left Hertfordshire and seems unlikely to return.
5. The POP moment: AKA, the ‘OMG moment’. There’s a big reveal, a battle, someone important dies.
Elizabeth encounters Mr Darcy at the home of Lady Catherine and he tells her he loves her. He proposes! Eek!
6. The Fall: the situation gets much worse.
Elizabeth’s sister runs away with George Wickham. The Bennett family name is besmirched. There’s no hope of marriage to any decent man now.
7. The second turning point: The worst the situation seems able to get.
Elizabeth realises she’s in love with Mr Darcy. Only now he must, surely, shun her. Aww…
8. The Rise: Our hero determines to overcome the problem, refuses to give up.
Elizabeth refuses to be downcast by circumstances. She urges her father to keep in touch with her uncle, who is trying to find the runaway sister.
9. The Epiphany: When the hero makes the big breakthrough. The crime is solved.
Elizabeth discovers it is Mr Darcy who has found the missing couple and restored honour to her family. What’s more, he still loves Elizabeth and proposes for a second time. This time she accepts.
10. The Resolution: An evaluation of what’s been won – or lost. Recognition that things will never be the same.
The novel ends with Elizabeth happily married to Mr Darcy and gives a brief summary of what happens to the rest of her family.
Remember, you don’t need a paragraph for each one of these elements. Also, some very complicated plots may have more than a couple of plot points. Your job is to condense them as much as possible while still depicting a coherent plot.
Here’s how I applied the above template to my own synopsis. I’ve redacted a few key plot points but you should still be able to see how I used all the elements from the above template.
Note that you don’t need a separate paragraph or even a sentence for every single item. If you can condense a couple of different elements into one paragraph it can make for a tighter summary.
I have opened by establishing the status quo. I’ve set the scene and told the reader the time, the place, and the protagonist, and I’ve done it in 28 words:
It’s 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and Sherlock Holmes has been back in London for four years since his apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls.
With the current proliferation of Sherlockian tales on television such as the BBC’s amazing Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, or the films with Robert Downey Jr, it’s important to establish at the start that my story is based on the original canon and is set in Victorian London. The synopsis helps accomplish that in the opening paragraph, and the cover letter should also make that clear.
The next paragraph relates the inciting incident, or the event that sets the rest of the novel in motion:
On his way home following an evening with his brother at the Diogenes Club, Holmes is stabbed and seriously injured. He is rescued by a boy, Jack, who nurses him back to health but vanishes as soon as Holmes recovers. The detective is furious with himself that he did not thank his rescuer or reward him. He is determined to find Jack and repay the debt. Easier said than done: he has nothing but the boy’s first name to go on. Yet he can’t shake the feeling that there was something… odd about the boy. If only he could remember.
100 words here. It states clearly what has happened and introduces ‘Jack’, a character who will prove of major importance later on. It also tells us something about what Holmes wants, his primary motivation.
The synopsis shouldn’t be flat. “X gets hurt. Y helps him. He looks for Z.” There needs to be some energy to it. Including some emotion helps. Holmes is furious, determined and I’ve implied frustration if only he could remember…
The first plot point includes a complication for Holmes’s main objective (the hero loves overcoming obstacles. Don’t be too kind to him.) Note, too, that Holmes is still the subject of the paragraph. I chose to lead with him rather than ‘The British government request…’ This event seems to lead us away from our main action – Holmes looking for Jack – but it’s a major plot point and will ultimately serve to help our hero meet his goals:
Holmes’s search is interrupted by a request from the British government that he investigate the assassination of the Spanish Prime Minister. He uncovers a network of international assassins who seem bent on destroying the Empire.
Now we have the rise. Things seem to have settled down and the next stage of the story is looming. I’ve condensed a huge amount of action into 60 words but managed to include the important elements:
Holmes suspects Albrecht Porlock, an old school friend of the late Professor Moriarty, is head of the network. However, Porlock’s secrets are well guarded, and potential witnesses die before they can tell what they know. To further complicate matters, Holmes is being followed. Destroying the assassins’ network becomes even more difficult when Porlock’s lackeys are watching the detective’s every move.
More here of the rise of the action and that POP moment comes in the last sentence. Sorry, readers. You’ll have to wait for the book to see what it is.
A seemingly unrelated murder takes Holmes to Southampton. Aided by Lady Beatrice, a woman almost as brilliant as the detective himself, Holmes finds the murder victim possessed letters implicating government officials in Porlock’s network. More astonishing still is Holmes’s realization that XXX.
The fall here leads directly to a major complication. Although I’ve redacted it, you can probably guess what happens.
Despite her title, wealth and privilege, Lady Beatrice has problems of her own. Her godmother, Queen Victoria, insists she marry. Holmes… XXX.
The second turning point. Things are as bad as they can get:
With increasing suspicions that an attempt against the queen is planned, Holmes reluctantly sends a disguised Beatrice into Porlock’s home to retrieve information about the assassins’ network. However, disaster follows and Beatrice goes missing. Worse, Holmes finds evidence that she has been injured.
The rise comes here:
After several frantic days, Beatrice is found. She is badly hurt, but has managed to salvage Porlock’s secret papers. These contain the names of assassins, and the plans of his network. They also reveal that the intended assassination of Queen Victoria has already been set in motion.
The epiphany is a little different from a detective novel because my book is a thriller rather than a mystery. Instead, my endgame shows the bad guys are defeated and the status quo is re-established – albeit with some major changes.
Working with Windsor Castle’s constabulary and aided by the always reliable Watson, Holmes manages to save the queen and capture the assassin. Upon his arrest, Porlock tells Holmes that he has already had his revenge. A few days later, Holmes learns XXX.
And the epilogue or conclusion:
By year’s end, Holmes accepts that XXX.
As you can see, I have tried to tell my story in an engaging way. I’ve covered the important points of the novel but not got bogged down in too much detail.
I hope I have succeeded in making the synopsis both compelling and easy to read. Even if an agent gives it no more than a cursory glance, I can be satisfied that I got the job done. And in 495 words too.
I am conscious of the fact that the redacted information leaves some apparent holes in structure. Rest assured, the full synopsis offers an agent a coherent story and one that answers any questions about the plot.
How are you doing on your own synopsis? Has this helped?