by Sue Coletta
The dreaded synopsis. Anyone who’s chosen the traditional path into publishing know that these pesky buggers are enough to drive a writer to drink…literally.
I have good news and bad. The good news is I’ve found a solution to help keep your liver intact. The bad, no matter how much you might hate writing these little darlings, a synopsis is the only way of selling your book to a publisher. You will have to learn.
Over the years I’ve read so many posts on this subject it felt like my eyeballs were bleeding. What surprised me most was that very few ever mentioned story beats, never mind using them for a synopsis. Which is why I’ve decided to share my discovery.
When you use story beats to create your synopsis, something amazing happens. All that pressure weighing down your shoulders, crushing your literary spirit, while you try to boil your 400 page novel down to one page, immediately eases. Because now you’re only dealing with the beats.
I know this because I wrote my synopsis this way. It took me no time at all, gained me a full request within an hour of sending it, and I actually enjoyed the process. I can hear the shaking of heads in disbelief on that last comment, but stay with me. It does get better; you’ll see.
First you need to know what story beats are. In simple terms, story beats are the milestones you hit when telling your story. The tent poles that hold your story up and keep it from sagging, the foundation on which your story stands. Those of you who plan your novels in advance know exactly what I’m talking about and can skip over the next part.
For pantsers without a firm knowledge of structure, this becomes more difficult. You’ll first need to find your beats. Which you should do anyway to make sure they’re placed properly. Without structure, your story could sag in the middle, have an early start, reduce tension, or veer totally off course.
Believe me, I have drawers full of novels like this at various stages, written before I learned to plan my stories. Now, however, since I know where my story is going and how to get there, I am less apt to trash a novel half or three-quarters of the way through.
Let’s get down to it.
HOOK: A scene meant to introduce the hero and hook the reader, keep them from putting your book down, entice them to read on. The reader must either relate to, or empathize with, the hero. Contrary to what some believe a reader does not have to like a main character. There have been plenty of unlikable heroes that have hooked us for an entire novel. Why? Because we empathize with them. Like them or not, the reader must root for them. And that’s key.
Many new writers start their story too late. Thus, not allowing the reader to care what happens to the protagonist. I’ve done this myself—more than once—and had to go back and rewrite the hook.
INCITING INCIDENT (OPTIONAL): Not every story has to have an inciting incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point, placed earlier than 20-25% mark, but without affecting the protagonist.
And that’s the difference here. Having an inciting incident, however, does not relieve you of properly placing the First Plot Point. It merely sets it up, foreshadows what’s to come. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but is actually a false start.
FIRST PLOT POINT: Here’s where your story really begins, perfectly placed at 20%-25% of the way into the story. For instance, in a 400 page novel this would occur around page 80-100. The First Plot Point is the single most important scene of all the beats because it kicks off the action and sends the hero on a quest, which IS your story. Even if it’s been foreshadowed or hinted at, the first plot point shows the reader how it affects or changes the protagonist. Get this one wrong and your story will fail.
FIRST PINCH POINT: A peek into the antagonist force preventing the hero from reaching her goal. The First Pinch Point comes about 37.5% into the story, or at the 3/8th mark.
MIDPOINT: Placed smack dab in the middle of the story, or at approximately 50%, this scene changes the protagonist from wanderer to warrior, attacking the problem head on.
ALL IS LOST MOMENT: The title says it all with this one. Here’s where your hero is at her lowest point, believing she’s failed. It occurs right before the second plot point, also known as the second plot point lull.
SECOND PLOT POINT: 75% of the way into your story, this scene launches the final push toward the story’s conclusion. This is the last place where you can add new information, characters, or clues. Everything the hero needs to know, to work with, or someone to work alongside, is now in play by the end of the 2nd Plot Point.
SECOND PINCH POINT: You must devote an entire scene to this pinch point, which comes in around the 5/8th mark, whereas with the first pinch point you don’t. It’s another glimpse of the antagonist force in all his glory, now more frightening than before because, like the hero, he too has upped his game.
CLIMAX: The hero conquers the antagonist force or, in some stories, martyrs herself. Personally, I’ve never read a story where the hero dies, but it is an option. And here’s when it will happen. The main thing to remember is that the protagonist must be the one to thwart the antagonist and not merely be present when it takes place. After all, this is her story you’re telling.
RESOLUTION: Completing the quest, stronger for the effort, the resolution shows the hero in her new life.
Okay, now you have your story beats that show the overall plot of your story. Don’t be concerned with subplots in your synopsis unless you’re allowed more than one page. Which rarely happens. Your one-page synopsis should have three or four paragraphs, depending on whether you use a three or four act structure. One paragraph per act.
Briefly tell what happens in each beat. This is not the time for showing. Use as few words as possible. Don’t worry that your story sounds as dry as burnt toast with no butter. If you’ve done it right—brief being the key word—you should have extra room to spice it up.
Once you’ve got your beats in paragraph form, go back to the beginning and look for places where you can tighten, where you’ve used two words instead of one, etc. Refer to a thesaurus or read the notes you took on your favorite novel and look at how the author condensed his/her words. If you’re not a note-taker, check out the mini-synopsis on any book cover. You can bet your favorite author has chosen his/her words carefully.
Now, go back and add a short line of dialogue here and there, and/or sprinkle adjectives that paint a better picture. Be direct when describing your protagonist. For instance, for my latest novel, MARRED, instead of just saying my character’s name, “Sage Quintano”, I could say, “Sage Quintano, a grief-stricken writer.”
That’s four extra words, but it gives the reader a better understanding of who she is. Unfortunately, “grief-stricken” is cliché, so I want to change that and see if I can whittle it down further to “A despondent novelist”. That’s only three words, more direct, and it raises a story question: Why is she despondent?
Keep in mind that you will have to answer any questions you raise. Nothing irks agents and editors more than a writer teasing them in a synopsis. Save that for your query letter.
Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. It doesn’t matter that the book is in first person or deep third, past tense. This is a rule, and it’s clearly stated on agents and publishers website. Break it at your own peril. Above all, relax and have fun. And don’t forget to breathe. LOL
With writing in general as well as crafting the perfect synopsis…
Make every word count.
Guest post contributed by Sue Coletta. Sue is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime and has a passion for crime fiction writing.
Great advice & format. I’m bookmarking this one. 🙂
Now, where’s the best place to find out more about these story beats? I don’t know how many typed pages my novel will be, but I know more or less chapter counts (because they tend to be 2000-3000 words.
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I need to research more but is the synopsis used for movie scripts as well? I’ve decided to use Camp Nano to write a script this year. I’ve never written one but the book in my head plays more into a movie than a book. So…learning curve to begin 1 april.
I used your template to write out a one page synopsis. But I’m not really sure how that works with a movie script.
It helped me to outline tighter however.
Lol this is so true and great advice.