The Winning Synopsis

A synopsis states in chronological sequence the significant external events of the plot and the internal evolution of the characters through those events.

A good synopsis is one that an editor can’t reject because all the elements are there: a compelling and complete story that fits the requirements of the target line.

Each year, I judge a number of contest entries for the Romance Writers of America and its chapters. Most of these entries comes with a synopsis which is also judged.

After completing the judging for this year, I went through all my comments to the authors.  Here is what I believe constitutes a synopsis that will grab an editor’s attention and lead to acceptance.

Use Your Space Wisely

Many synopses spent a great deal of time re-stating the entry. This forced the rest of the story into too small a space to do it justice.

For example, your entry is 50 pages and your target line is a maximum of 250 pages. Re-stating the entry should occupy approximately 1/5 of the entire synopsis. In a three-page synopsis, that will be 3/5, or just over half, of a single page. In a six-page synopsis, you’ll have 6/5, or just over one full page.

The same test can be applied to the midpoint at half way through, and the black moment, usually occurring around the 2/3 to 3/4 mark.

If math makes your head hurt, just remember to keep the space allotted to the entry in proportion to the length of the total synopsis. If you’ve taken four of six pages to re-tell your entry, you need to do some serious chopping.

One style of synopsis includes an introductory section with a story hook and character sketches for the hero and heroine. If you’re using this style, consider how long this section is relative to the total synopsis, and make sure you’ve still covered the main points of your story.

Research your Target Line

The hero’s family has called in the heroine for up-to-the-minute techniques on how to get the farm ready for a quick sale before financial ruin hits. The hero doesn’t want the farm sold and believes he can save it using the tried and true methods.  He could also save the farm by marrying another woman. But, there’s this attraction between the hero and heroine. She is engaged to the man her father cares for like a son. So far, so good; you can see lots of opportunity for conflict. Then more conflict was added in the criminal activities of the other woman’s father who’s creating the financial ruin. The heroine is kidnapped by the other woman’s father in order to blackmail the hero into marrying his daughter.

When I researched the target line on, the requirements were an emotional character-driven plot focused on the hero and heroine. To keep the focus firmly on the couple in a short (50k to 55k words) contemporary, I suggested that the other woman’s father and his nefarious deeds be eliminated from the plot. I felt, the streamlined story was better suited to the line.

The most effective way to get a feel for a target line is to buy a subscription (if available) and read the books. A careful analysis of the characters and circumstances favoured by the editors and readers will get that synopsis accepted.

Another targeted line clearly stated 60k to 65k was required. The entry stated the length to be almost 80k. That information alone would get the editor to reject a submission as ‘doesn’t meet requirements’.

If your target line demands a subplot, it had better be there, fully stated with goals and motivations, conflicts and resolutions, just like the main plot. If it’s missing, that’s another easy rejection.

The Devil’s in the Details

Unless the colour of the heroine’s eyes or the hero’s automotive preferences are pivotal plot details, they don’t belong in a synopsis. Neither do the names of minor characters like the housemaid or secretary unless they impact the plot. Dialogue is forbidden, as are rhetorical questions.

Avoid scene by scene re-enactments. Stick to the big story. Several scenes can frequently be connected with an inclusive statement like ‘Danni and Carter share a special weekend at the cottage where they make love for the first time.’

Setting details that are key to the story do belong; sketch them quickly and show their impact. Describe relationships with secondary characters concisely and avoid irrelevant details. Once you name a character and state the relationship, use that name or relationship every time the character hits the page. He’s and she’s can be confusing.

Reveal Your Goal, Motivation and Conflict

In the chapter portion of the entry, it’s perfectly acceptable, even de rigeur, to reveal the goal, motivation and conflict gradually. In a synopsis, state it baldly: ‘Ethan has abandonment issues stemming from his mother’s death when he was seven, so his adult relationships are possessive and jealous’. There’s no need to chew up whole paragraphs to explain it. Judges, editors, and agents can figure out the emotional trauma and subsequent behaviors.

State the hero’s and heroine’s goals at the opening of the book. Then show how those goals are altered by the events of the plot. Describe how the motivations of the characters come into conflict with these new goals.

Show your Character’s Growth

An interesting story has external and internal conflicts that are shown to be resolved in a satisfying manner.

Many times the character growth arc is missing. How did those external events create internal tensions that were eventually resolved? One external plot was almost perfect. But, it ended with ‘he came to realize love conquered all and asked her to marry him’. My initial response was a puzzled “Huh?”. I read the synopsis three times before I detected the characters’ growth between the lines. Expose your characters, show their growth, help me to sympathize with them and celebrate their well-deserved happily-ever-after.

Resolve All of Your Conflicts

The heroine’s brother-in-law has disappeared. The heroine’s sister was arrested for suspicion of murder by the policeman hero. The heroine is torn between believing her sister or the hero.

Excellent. You can see the external events that led to the internal conflict. What was the big problem? The synopsis never stated what happened to the brother-in-law, or if the sister was convicted or released.

Romance Above All

Your story is a romance. Show the progression of the romantic relationship from first meeting, first kiss, first love-making (if included), the black moment, and the final resolution. Link the progression to the significant events in the story.

Get Critiqued

If you’re uncertain, find a critique group or loop that will help you identify problems and suggest solutions. Authors, myself included, are frequently too close, too invested, in their work to see the flaws that result in rejection.

Consider all suggestions carefully. Remember, your critiquers have your best interests at heart. Don’t waste your energy arguing and explaining. If you don’t understand a comment, ask for further explanation. If you still don’t agree, that’s fine. But if you hear the same comment several times, it’s wise to give the feedback some careful thought.

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More articles by Joan Leacott can be found at Articles for Writers.

© Joan Leacott 2011, 
previously published in romANTICS, 
newsletter of the Toronto Romance Writers