A Sexy Synopsis


The synopsis–we all hate writing them, and yet, it’s one of the most valuable tools a writer has. And it’s not just about condensing the story–for me, it’s really more about if I have an idea for where the story is going and  a clear handle on the conflict. It’s a place where flaws shine big and bright, which means I need to fix them in the book, too. But, oh, have I written some very, very bad synopses.

What set me on the course to learn how to do a better job of this was my first synopsis. Like many writers, I just wrote. And then I heard about RWA’s Golden Heart contest. Ah, ha–a way to get to an editor faster than through a slush pile. But I needed a synopsis to enter. So I wrote one–twenty pages of details about the book. Thank heavens, this was a time when you still got feedback from this contest, and some kind soul pointed out I really needed to condense my synopsis and do a better job of just telling the story.

With that in mind–and now as a member of RWA–I set about to learn how to do a better job.

One of the best tools came to me through Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I still reference his book when it comes to writing a new synopsis. His advice is to boil your story down to some immediate, big picture information.

  • Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of?
  • What does this person want?
  • What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?
  • What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

This was great. This allowed me to write an opening paragraph for each of my characters in the romance. The next year I went on to final in the Golden Heart–but I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, it was progress, but it wasn’t a win and it wasn’t a sale (my ultimate goal). So I kept at it. And I kept learning. I’d go listen to anyone talk about writing a synopsis, and gradually I learned I not only needed a good synopsis, but I could use that to show me if I had weaknesses in my book (if the middle of a synopsis is vague, the real problem is probably not enough conflict to keep the story going).

I was happy with the book, and the synopsis I wrote for A Compromising Situation–and the book won the Golden Heart and sold. That was a huge win.

A Compromising Situation

The synopsis then turned into a sales tool for me. From it, I was able to pick out possible cover scenes–because I knew by then that you needed a couple of key scenes in the synopsis to show the relationship developing. I was able to help focus cover copy, and also to write promotional copy that I could use on my website.

Now I realized just how powerful–although still painful–a synopsis could be.

Here’s the opening for that synopsis for A Compromising Situation.

After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.  But can she settled for that after she falls in love with COLONEL ANDREW RICHARD DERHURST, now LORD ROTHE, a man far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer, a man who may not be able to return her love?

And here’s how it fits into Dwight Swain’s advice:

Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of:

  • After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.

What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?

  • …far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …who may not be able to return her love?

Notice the consequences are not world-ending. This was (and is) a story about people and so the consequences are deeply personal–and, for Maeve, a woman who has experienced rejection before, this type of rejection is deeply wounding. This would be a loss that would scar her.

By this point I’d learned how to stick to the main plot points in the synopsis, to focus on the conflict and the relationship since this was a romance, and I’d learned how to be very picky about each word used in the synopsis so that it was crafted to convey a tone and feel for the story (there’s no sense writing an action-packed synopsis if your story is a character study).

And I’m still learning.

Which is also why I’m still giving the synopsis workshop. Except these days a synopsis has to be even shorter, and even more able to catch someone’s interest. Which is why I call this a “sexy synopsis“. It’s got to be like a little black dress. It’s got to be something you can wear anywhere, and that’s useful as well as sexy–but it has to cover all the vital parts.

Just like the perfect little black dress,  a synopsis can take a lot of work to find all the right parts–the parts that flatter as well as fit. So if you, too struggle with your synopsis, head on over to the workshop at ORIW to pick up more tips and help for learning to get a synopsis that’s more than just something you need for writing contests and queries.

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3 thoughts on “A Sexy Synopsis

  1. Pingback: Link Salad: The Fall Edition | Black Magic Dreams

  2. Hello, Ms. Donnelly.
    I’v read your book Lady Scandal and enjoyed it, however I will so very much want to reed the tale of Diana and her captain, but I do not know which book is that. Could you please tell me the name of the book? My Email address is gmaidaniuc@yahoo.com. Thank you very much

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