The 2012 Royal Ascot is Complete
Please look for the 2013 Royal Ascot early next year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Crafting the Winning Synopsis

The question has come up of whether the synopsis for the Royal Ascot entries is judged. Yes. I'm still surprised when I hear this question because it's only been recently that the notion of submitting something that's not judged has developed any popularity. But I'm an old contest maven, remember. I entered my first contest back when notifications of contests were done entirely by circulating flyers to other RWA chapters. They weren't even listed in the RWR back then (which by itself was a pretty primitive magazine at the time). Okay, that was 1993, if you really need to know.

Another thing about back then: You could read books on how to write a novel, but nobody wrote one about how to write a synopsis. Nobody taught any courses about it, and you couldn't find any information online. Heck, you couldn't find anything online. Chances were, you hadn't even heard the word modem then.

So I spent a lot of time trying to igure out how to do a decent synopsis. I still have one of my earlier ones, and I'll guarantee, it is awful. It's a 12 page list of events in chronological order, in sentences that all have the same structure, short and clipped, and bare. No wonder no one was interested in buying my stories then.

But no matter who I asked, no one could, would maybe, tell me what I needed to know. There was "You've got to get the emotion into it." Yeah, I did ask over and over how to do that and got what amounted to blank stares in return.

And mine were long. The first one I wrote was 42 pages. I did have the sense to not submit it, and realized it was really a story outline, the kind I'd use for myself. With great effort, I got it down to something almost useful. The above-mentioned 12 pages.

So what have I learned over the years? Well, most of that is covered in these three links to some great information for synopsis writers. I swiped this list from another author, Jenna Bayley-Burke, right out from under her nose, because I thought you could use them:

Synopsis Creation-Plot Revision by Alicia Rasley - example of how to fix a bad synopsis

Honing your Synopsis Skills by Joanne Rock - emotional landmarks make the synopsis, not just a string of events

Synopsis by Linda Needham - synopsis worksheet

What did I personally do to make my synopses work? Well, I started with my first tool, whiich was my first excited notes/outline of the story. Sometimes, if I'd finished the story, I'd go back and briefly edit to make the synopsis fit however the story had changed. Then I'd get out my YELLOW highlighter and mark all my major points- plot turning points, emotional turning points, motivations-- everything I thought needed to be in the synopsis. I'd then copy and paste them into a long list, which I would whittle down further by using the PINK highlighter in the same way as I'd done the yellow one. That makes orange, by the way. Delete the stuff that's still only yellow. I'd re-phrase next, trying to consolidate sentences. This usually got me down to the 12-15 page stage. Still too long, and it didn't exactly make exciting reading.

Next, I'd look for ways to generalize the plot. Instead of the detailed interaction of the hero and heroine going fishing, I'd just say they went fishing, where he rescued the trapped otter-- whatever, and she saw a softer side of him.

I discovered that by making a separate emotional plot line, which sometimes I run in a separate column side by side with the physical plot, I can see how it's the emotional line, the romantic growth, that makes the story strong. Then it's much easier for me to write sentences that combine the two, while minimizing plot and maximizing emotion.

A number of times my first plot sketch has been good enough to work into a synopsis. This has usually happened when I set out to keep my story-teller voice in the sketch. I just act like I'm explaining-telling- my exciting new story to my best friend. Somehow it ha better voice and shorter, too.

Another approach when I'm stumped, and need a much shorter synopsis but it wont trim down: I go to the extreme in shortening it. All the way to a blurb that would fit on the back of a business card. Sometimes not any more than a sentence. The question I ask: What's the essence of my story? Think Elevator Pitch. How would you describe your story to an editor if she asked you in an elevator, and you know she's getting off on the eighth floor?

An example: Sunrise on the Cornish Coast: Two ladies. One spyglass. Two naked men dashing into the surf. One of them is the man Lady Juliette hoped would never find her.

Sure, there's lots more story after that. But this captures the theme, suspense, setting-- go from there.

This one better encapsulates the entire story: What was intended to be a restorative tonic for women turns out to have an entirely different effect on men. And the bachelors of the Ton re running scared.

The object is to keep your tiny blurb in mind as you expand it. Build your synopsis from that point, maybe occasionally checking with your long one where you think you had it just right before. But build like you're putting up house framework, then adding on the remainder. Stop with the framing for a very short synopsis- just the emotional guts with clear but very general plot line. Add more detail for one that's 3-4 pages long, more emotion and motivation, more plot. Then your 7-10 page synopsis can be your mainstay that fleshes thing out. But again, keep your concentration on motivation and emotion.

Hope this helps! Now go get busy and polish up your synopsis!


  1. Motivations and emotions--yes! I've seen so many contest entries where the synopsis can drag down someone's score because the overall story makes no sense.

    One thing I recommend to folks is have someone read your synopsis and just write WHY every time the reader has a question. Then revise to answer all those questions. A synopsis should always answer all questions raised, and it's the place where you can just tell the reader 'this is why this character thinks this way and does this action.

  2. WHY is the most important question the synopsis must answer!

    I you have to go through a lot of mental gyrations to explain why your characters are doing something, those could be good places to re-evaluate their motivations.

  3. Is it ok to send a synopsis that is only three or four pages long? That is how long mine is. I'm afraid if I get into too much detail I'd be telling the story.

  4. 3-4 pages is a very good length if it does everything it needs to do. You're right in not wanting to tell the whole story. Remember that took a few hundred pages to do right. But you do have to tell the major plot points.

    And don't skip the ending. Some authors end with a question "Will Laura triumph over the evil tax collector and win Jake's love?" (okay, so I'm doing my taxes now) the way a back cover blurb does, hoping this makes the editor want to read more. No, she's seen that done, and what she wants is a synopsis, not a hook. She wants to know is if you have a good ending that works for her.

  5. Let me add, 1 page is almost always too short for a novel size synopsis, and it leaves far too much out. I'd even be reluctant to do just 2 pages for a full length novel, not that I've ever succeeded in doing that.

    There's a traditional rule of 1 page per 10,000 words, but I think that's running a bit too long these days. A large number of editors don't want anything longer than 5 to 7 pages, so I think you may save yourself time if you keep it to a fairly short length iun the beginning..