Your Guide to the Guide: Part 9 The Story Synopsis
When you’re marketing your book, you have two distinct sets of audience: one is the group of readers whom you hope will buy the book; the other is the group —narrowing down to one — who will publish the book, and so ‘buy’ it in a different way. If you can get a big-name publisher interested, they can take care of the first group.
Blurbs are aimed at the first group: you want prospective readers to be attracted by your blurb and want to open the book and read it.
The Story Synopsis is aimed at the second group: you want prospective publishers to be convinced enough by a synopsis to open the book and read it — and then publish it.
But many writers blur the distinction, and think that a really good blurb is what will attract a publisher. Some go so far as to think that a really good story synopsis is just another, larger blurb. And so they miss the point, and perhaps an opportunity.
We’ve talked about blurbs already as those attention-capturing devices on the backs of books. My Blurb Workshop helps you to construct these so as to produce maximum attractive power.
Let’s take a look at the Story Synopsis.
The story synopsis isn’t aimed at readers. It’s aimed at agents and publishers. They are not looking to buy and read your book for pleasure — they are looking for the vital signs which mean that others will want to. What they need to see is that the book has ‘vacuum potential’ - that it has the power to attract readers.
A story synopsis should ideally be less than 500 words in length - that’s less than one page of A4, single spaced — though some are much longer and some publishers ask for more than that. The synopsis should be written in third-person, present tense, irrespective of how the novel is written.
Start by describing the setting – when and where the story is placed - and then introduce the protagonist, the character with whom the reader is meant to most identify, the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ of the story.
This character should have a problem. In most stories this problem is caused by the antagonist. It might be truer to say that the protagonist is missing something — a concentrated incompleteness/a vacuum — and the reason that they are missing whatever it is has something to do with the antagonist.
You’ll come across the idea of the ‘quest’ in many guides about storytelling. This is simply the sequence of actions which the protagonist must go through, or attempt to go through, in order to get whatever it is that he or she is missing. In many stories, this translates as a geographic journey; in some stories it’s a psychological journey. It is whatever the protagonist has to do to get the missing thing or quality and to achieve completion or resolution of incompleteness, if you prefer.
Your synopsis needs to describe the complications that occur on the way to the resolution of the incompleteness, and then finally show how the protagonist achieves completeness. Complications serve to increase the vacuum power and thus create more motion.
Here’s a sample short pitch for J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which follows the above pattern. My bracketed notes show where each aspect of the pitch has been placed:
Long, long ago in the world of Middle-earth (setting), young Frodo Baggins (protagonist) inherits a ring from his Uncle Bilbo which grants invisibility to its wearer. But Frodo discovers from the wizard Gandalf that the ring is none other than the One Ring, a devastatingly powerful artefact sought after by dark forces. Frodo must give up everything that he cherishes and set out to destroy this thing before it is found by enemies. (concentrated incompleteness) Battling against the Ring’s evil power, and lost in a world where anything could happen and where the folk he encounters could be foes in disguise, Frodo must make a series of dangerous choices. Accompanied by his servant Sam, and meeting various companions on his journey, Frodo finds that not all are to be trusted. (complications designed to increase the vacuum power) When he is separated from allies and left to travel with Sam alone, Frodo finds himself guided by an earlier wearer of the Ring, Gollum - but Gollum’s mind has been twisted by the evil thing, and his guidance becomes betrayal (more complication). Finally, Frodo’s steps lead him to the very edge of the Cracks of Doom and a final confrontation with the Enemy (antagonist revealed). Only the intervention of miraculous chance saves him from death and brings about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings (resolution).
Of course, it’s fairly easy to outline this with a straightforward fantasy story like The Lord of the Rings. So here’s a less obvious example - Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
In early 19th century England (setting), young Elizabeth Bennett (protagonist) is faced with the prospect of having to marry purely for money in order to save her family from ruin. (concentrated incompleteness) Confronted with unwanted suitors and Darcy, a repellent and arrogant stranger, Lizzie must decide whether her feelings for the soldier Wickham are sound and should lead to something more permanent. But Wickham is not to be trusted. (complications designed to increase the vacuum power) When Lizzie’s sister elopes with the devious Wickham, Lizzie finds herself forced to rely upon the prejudiced Darcy - only to discover that he is not what he had seemed to be either. (more complication) Finally, the realisation and declaration of affinity between Lizzie and Darcy leads to a final confrontation with the overbearing and pompous Lady Catherine Du Bergh. (antagonist revealed) By standing up to the weight of social reproof, Lizzie determines the true value of love. (resolution)
Agents and publishers aren’t interested in the story themselves except as a ‘machine’ for drawing in readers — and therefore making the agent or publisher some money. Think of them as motor mechanics, checking over the ‘engine’ of the story to make sure that it has enough working parts to do the job that you say it can do.
Leave out unnecessary details and descriptions. This includes any sub- plots: just leave them out.
Remember, this isn’t a blurb: you are not trying to press vacuum power buttons particularly, but to explain how your story presses vacuum power buttons. You are trying to give a concise overview of your story’s key points to someone who might be interested in publishing it and who needs to know if it ‘works’ as an attention-gathering and guiding device.
Try this with a story of your own.
Putting together a synopsis has the occasional side-effect of making you see weaknesses in the story itself. Adjust the narrative and re-write the synopsis.
Too much for you? Try my Story Synopsis Workshop: I can help you to craft a powerful synopsis which will help ‘sell’ your story to potential agents and publishers. Contact me for details.