One down, one to go. Your query letter is shiny and new, let’s move on to the next piece of submission material for you to prepare…
Synopses are one of the hardest things to write and one of the most hotly debated pieces of the submission process. We all hate them. Find a person who enjoys writing a synopsis, and give them a medal for me.
Some even debate their use. If you want to know what happens in the book…
But in my opinion, the synopsis provides a crucial piece of information for any agent/publisher: has the writer plotted their novel correctly and efficiently?
Now, not every agent is going to ask for a synopsis. I’d say maybe a third do though, so having one in your back pocket is necessary. I am far from an expert on this topic, but I am going to do my best to share some tips and tricks on writing a synopsis that proves your plotting skills, enhances your story and doesn’t bore your reader.
A quick rundown for those unfamiliar… The synopsis is a 1-2 page breakdown of exactly what happens in your story from beginning to end.
There are several different ways to start your synopsis. Some write a sentence for every chapter then weave them together, some create a layering effect of basics, relationships, goals, etc.
This article from Pub(lishing) Crawl is one of the best I’ve found.
But I am going to take a slightly different approach by using my old friend… The Hero’s Journey. (Unfamiliar with the topic? Check out my previous blog on plotting here.)
The biggest mistake most authors make with writing their synopsis is by giving the bones of plot as a play-by-play. First, this happened. Then, that happened.
But by using The Hero’s Journey, you’ll have much more of an entire story arc which can be weaved with emotions, surprises, and internal insight while showing whoever is reading that there are no major plot holes. How you ask? Well we are going to use this summer’s blockbuster hit – Wonder Woman – as an example, writing a few sentences for each step of the journey.
NOTE: If you didn’t write or originally plot your novel with this method, that’s okay! It can still be applicable after the fact. But if while writing your synopsis, you realize you are missing one of the steps, I’d strongly recommend taking another quick look at your plot. A revision may be in order.
Set the stage with an opening image – introduce the world if you’re dealing with science fiction/fantasy – and introduce your protagonist. Don’t forget to include their goals, positive qualities, and flaw. This should give a glimpse of your hero’s life before entering into the adventure.
In present-day Paris, a woman receives a photograph from World War I – depicting herself and a troop of men – which prompts her to recall her past.
On a hidden island called Themyscira, a race of Amazonian women created by Zeus are destined to protect mankind from Ares, god of war. Diana, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, trains against her mother’s wishes to become a warrior and fulfill her calling.
Call to Adventure.
What shakes up the situation? Your hero is starting to experience change from an initial inciting incident that prompts him to take action.
In 1918, Diana rescues Captain Steve Taylor after his plane crashes off the coast. The German forces following him invade the island, and while the Amazons win, her aunt is killed.
Steve describes the war to Diana and Hippolyta, explaining that he is a spy for the Allies and has stolen a valuable notebook from a deadly chemical engineer and General Ludendorff, leader of the German troops.
Refusal of the Call.
No one likes change though. So your hero will try to turn away from or question the adventure.
Diana tries to convince her mother that Ares is responsible for the war and they need to help, but Hippolyta refuses, claiming men are too easily corrupted.
Meeting with Mentor.
Whether through an additional character or some source of internal strength, your hero encounters something that helps to convince them to accept the mission.
But Steve reassures her that doing something is always better than doing nothing, and his words strike a chord within Diana.
Crossing the Threshold.
Your hero accepts their mission and enters into the new world.
Diana steals the “Godkiller” sword and – with her mother’s reluctant approval – leaves Themyscira with Steve to find and kill Ares.
Tests, Allies & Enemies.
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but condensing it into a sentence or two is tough. There will be several scenes that are crucial to the story itself but not to the synopsis. Here is where you show the external and internal growth.
In London, Steve and Diana take the notebook to the Allies’ war council and reveal Germany’s plan to release mustard gas at the warfront. But the commanders are close to an armistice with Germany, so they refuse to help. Steve and Diana decide to go anyway and – with a contribution from war council member Sir Patrick – gather their team.
They reach the front in Belgium, but when Diana sees that a local village has been enslaved, she resists German fire and leads the troops to save the village and its people.
The team celebrates their victory, and Diana and Steve begin a romantic relationship.
Approach to the Inmost Cave.
Here’s where things start to ramp up to the major conflict. How are your characters preparing for the final showdown?
To learn the location of the gas, Steve infiltrates a gala held by the German commanders. Despite Steve’s order for her to stay away, Diana follows him, intent on killing General Ludendorff who she believes is Ares.
But Steve stops her – believing his mission to destroy the gas more important – and as a result, gas is unleashed on the villagers they just saved.
The Supreme Ordeal.
Your hero confronts his biggest enermy/fear, and in moment of literal or metaphorical death and rebirth, your character emerges – having drawn on all the skills learned thus far – with new insight into their challenge.
Diana blames Steve, believing she could’ve stopped the war by killing the general. She follows Ludendorff to find the gas being loaded on a bomber and kills him with the “Godkiller” sword.
Your character has faced death and come out successful… Or maybe not. But there the story isn’t over yet, they’re in danger of losing it all over again. How does your hero make it through the final stretch?
Despite his death, the war continues. Confused and disheartened, Diana tells Steve that her mother was right and men don’t deserve her help. Sir Patrick appears soon after as the true Ares and confirms her belief that while he has led humans toward violence, they made the decision themselves.
Driven to complete the adventure, the hero is driven toward the final moment in the special world.
Diana tries to kill Ares, but he destroys the sword and reveals that Diana is the true “Godkiller” and Zeus’ daughter. He asks her to join him in his quest to crush mankind. But she refuses, and the battle begins – showcasing both Diana and Ares’ god-like powers. Meanwhile – after a quick goodbye – Steve commandeers the bomber plane, carrying the gas away to a safe distance to detonate and dying in the process.
The hero is test once more but differently – to show the ultimate growth he’s made over the course of the story. The polarities shown in the ordinary world are finally resolved.
In a rage of grief, Diana begins killing German soldiers, and Ares brings forth the evil chemist who created the gas for her to kill. Instead, she recalls her last moment with Steve and decides that humans are worth saving. She spares the rest and kills Ares, acknowledging her true identity and destiny as “Godkiller.”
Return with the Elixir.
Your hero returns home to a regular life, but shows tangible evidence of how he has faced his fear, won his challenge, and come home transformed.
The team – and the world – celebrate the end of the war, but the memory of Steve never leaves them. Back in present day, Diana acknowledges that only love can truly save mankind, reaffirming her dedication to protect the world – forever.
Bam! You’ve got yourself a synopsis. And hopefully a correctly plotted!
And now I’m so exhausted from writing this damn thing that I need a nap.
A few other rules of thumb:
- Don’t forget to incorporate your characters’ emotions to keep from becoming a play-by-play.
- Name only a few characters: protagonist, antagonist, main support. The others can stay vague, and their roles can be used instead (see: evil chemist).
- Stick to lean, tight writing, and save the flowery stuff for the actual novel.
- Write in third person, present tense.
- Aim for 500-600ish words or one page, single-spaced as your default length.
The same formatting rules apply as the query letter. No funky text or playing with the margins to get everything to fit on one page. Agents see too many of these a day and will spot weirdness from a mile away.
So now you have both necessary items to begin querying. But where do you start? How do you go about all the intricate and political rules?
Stay tuned for next week’s blog on next steps, etiquette, and strategy!