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I am a writer, editor and reviewer based in Perth, Western Australia: my first novel, The Dagger of Dresnia (Book 1 of The Talismans) is published by Satalyte and available from their website as well as Amazon.com and other online outlets. As both writer and editor, I specialise in historical and high or epic fantasy. If you have a manuscript in preparation, don't waste money on editing too early. Instead, let me help with a mini-assessment of your work, based on careful reading of your synopsis and first 20 pages. Then, when you've worked on the manuscript in line with our discussions, I will be happy to do a full edit before you send it off into the big wide world. My fees are very reasonable - for more about my editing work, CLICK HERE

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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Write a decent synopsis




When an agent or an editor at a publishing house asks for a sample of your work, s/he will usually want to see a synopsis as well. Even if you’re self-publishing and have done the right thing by engaging a freelance editor to help prepare your manuscript, you will usually find that she’ll want a synopsis. In fact, when I do a mini-assessment for you, it’s one of the things I’ll ask for, too.

Why? Because from a decent synopsis, an agent or editor can see whether your story will 'work'. Does it have interesting characters doing interesting things? Is there an underlying conflict that holds the plot together? Can the climaxes be made to occur in the right places? Is it original? Does it remind the reader of another book? (This can be either a good thing or a bad thing – a good thing if your book has an original take on an idea that has sold well before: a bad thing if you’ve obviously written still another re-hash of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Twilight.)

The first time you sit down to write a synopsis, you’ll probably tear your hair out when you realise that it’s going to take a lot more than the standard one or two pages to fit the whole story in. (It’s usually fine, BTW, to present your synopsis with single spacing – but be sure to note the requirements, if any, expressed by the person who will receive it.)

The very idea of compressing a 120k story into 700ww or even less throws many people into a tizzy as the task looks impossible! But relax! There’s trick to it – and that trick is that you don’t need to tell the whole story.

The Four Essentials
Any story can be summed up by looking at four things:
1.    Who is the main character?
2.    What does s/he want?
3.    What's stopping him/her from getting it?
4.    How does the MC set about defeating this opposition?

As an example, let’s take a look at Pride and Prejudice. (I’ve chosen this rather than a spec-fic novel because almost everyone has read it, seen the movie, seen the TV series — or all three!)

1.    Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters in a family whose estate is entailed to the nearest male heir, is a self-sufficient young woman who disapproves of her mother’s determination to marry the girls off advantageously.
2.    Elizabeth wants to marry for love.
3.    There is a dearth of even halfway-loveable men in her social circle, yet when two new eligible bachelors arrive in the area, she soon becomes prejudiced against Mr Darcy, a proud man of good family who looks down on those who don’t meet his high expectations.
4.    Elizabeth must conquer her prejudice and convince Mr Darcy that he needs to overcome his pride before they can find happiness together.

Ok, that’s the bare bones of the story. Now, to put flesh on those bones we need to add:
1.    Other important characters, their goals and motivations
2.    Important events in the story
3.    The eventual outcome, at least in general terms.

What you need to do first is to meld those four things into what’s often called an 'elevator pitch' – a short resumé that you could use to interest someone in your story in a very short space of time. It’s really just like a back cover blurb.

So, a blurb for Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth Bennet longs to marry for love, but for financial reasons it has to be to a wealthy man, and finding one who is both rich and loveable isn’t easy. When she meets the proud Mr Darcy, she quickly becomes prejudiced against his snobbery and his critical manner. Yet Mr Darcy is not all bad – and he is the one who can save the reputation of Elizabeth’s admittedly embarrassing, socially inept family. But can he overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, so they can learn to love each other?

Once you’ve done this, you have a handy tool for promoting your book – at the start of a query letter, for example.

Now let’s add more flesh to make our blurb into a real synopsis:
Elizabeth Bennet is the second of five daughters. Their family’s estate is entailed to the nearest male heir, the sisters’ obnoxious cousin, Mr Collins. Elizabeth wants to marry for love, and resents her mother’s determination to marry the girls off advantageously – but at least one of them must marry well to ensure the welfare of all five, once their parents have died and the estate has passed to Mr Collins.

The five sisters are quite un-alike, varying in character from sweet (Jane, the eldest) to sinful (Kitty and Lydia, the two youngest, whose main interests revolve around shopping – and flirting with army officers from a nearby garrison.)

When a wealthy bachelor, Mr Bingley, rents a nearby estate, Mrs Bennet’s hopes of pairing off her daughters rise. Mr Bingley, with his two condescending sisters and a well-born friend, Mr Darcy, attends a ball at the local assembly rooms, and it is apparent that Jane and Mr Bingley are attracted to each other. But Elizabeth overhears Mr Darcy criticising the company in general and her in particular, and she immediately writes him off as proud and snobbish.

One of the army officers, Mr Wickham, befriends Elizabeth. He tells her that he has been cheated out of his true vocation — the church — by Darcy’s mean behaviour, and Elizabeth, already prejudiced against Darcy, believes him.

Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth. She dislikes his obsequious yet conceited manner and turns him down, much to her mother’s ire. The angry Mr Collins then proposes to Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte. Being just as poor as Elizabeth but more practical, Charlotte marries Collins at once.

On a visit to the newly-weds, Elizabeth runs into Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, who tells her that Darcy has separated Bingley from Jane. Then, unprepared, Elizabeth receives a declaration of love from Darcy. She confronts him about his ruin of the budding relationship between Jane and Bingley and Wickham's account of Darcy's mistreatment of him. Darcy leaves, too shocked to reply, but he sends Elizabeth a letter telling of his estrangement from Wickham, who had tried to seduce Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana. Darcy also confesses his repugnance for the behaviour of certain members of Elizabeth’s family, which is why he persuaded Bingley to stop courting Jane. In this Elizabeth has to admit he is right — her mother and younger sisters often exhibit quite unseemly behaviour. Her opinion of Darcy softens.

Elizabeth, with her aunt and uncle, visits Darcy's estate. He unexpectedly returns home. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, once they have both overcome their embarrassment, he makes an obvious effort to be friendly.

The cautious new start to their relationship is interrupted by news that Lydia has run away with Wickham, apparently with no intention of marriage. This will reflect badly on the entire family, and Elizabeth is convinced that any chance of a relationship between her and Darcy is in ruins.
However, news comes that Lydia and Wickham are married. Elizabeth learns that this was almost entirely due to Mr Darcy’s intervention – he paid Wickham to marry Lydia. Bingley returns and proposes to Jane – and Darcy once again proposes to Elizabeth!

Et Voilà!
That’s just over 500 words – one single spaced A4 page. The bare bones of the story are there — enough to give agents and publishers an idea of whether or not you have a workable storyline, and whether or not it’s the kind of thing they are looking for. You don't need to mention all the characters and you can leave sub-plots out altogether unless they impinge on the main plot in a big way. You will notice that I haven't mentioned Eliza's father or Lady de Vere at all, and the story still hangs together.
If you start with those four basic elements - the main character, what s/he wants, what’s stopping him/her from getting it and how s/he sets about defeating the opposition – and build up from there, you’ll come up with a decent synopsis every time.

This article first appeared in the now-defunct webzine, The Specusphere, on 10 September 2011.

(Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons: © 2007 Nuno Pinheiro & David Vignoni & David Miller & Johann Ollivier Lapeyre & Kenneth Wimer & Riccardo Iaconelli / KDE / LGPL 3)

4 comments:

JB Thomas said...

That is brilliant! Have you been a teacher at some point? This is the kind of activity I could use with my advanced students.

I would love to read your thoughts on pitching to editors and publishers. When anyone asks me what my books are about, I freeze. It's so hard to put it into succinct, appealing words!

Satima Flavell said...

Glad you like it, JB! I was a dance teacher for about 25 years, but I do sometimes think I should have been an English teacher. However, my pedantry is probably better suited to editing!

Jeff Hargett said...

Most interesting post and very well constructed. Thank you!

I'm curious though. Most books these days deal with a single protagonist and this formula works great for that. But how does the formula change when there are multiple protagonists, say in an epic fantasy series or similar? If I choose only the most prominent protagonist in my first manuscript, the synopsis feels woefully incomplete.

Satima Flavell said...

I'm glad you liked the post, Jeff!

What I'd do if I had a story with several protags is this: pick the one who has the most to lose and make him/her the MC. Make sure that s/he is in the first scene and the last. I'd mention the other important players in the synopsis - it's even possible to mention what each one wants, if it impacts on the MC's journey.

By and large, readers will bond with the first character they are introduced to, that's why it's desirable to make one character's needs prominent and to ensure that s/he stays with the story from start to finish. (You might like to check out my post on "Readers' pet hates" at http://satimaflavell.blogspot.com.au/2009/03/readers-pet-hates.html)

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