The Dreaded Synopsis

or “They want it in how many pages?”

By Jordan Dane
(Article published in the Mystery Writers of America SW Regional Newsletter—Sept 06)

First off, my qualifier—this is only one way to write a synopsis. It works for me. Please don’t construe my points as THE definitive rules on how to write one. That said, here goes:

For the first paragraph or two, I create a synopsis brief, with the emphasis on BRIEF. Describe your story (without using character names) in an intriguing fashion, like a short book jacket blurb. Show the main character(s), the conflict, and what’s at stake. Get this right and you can use it for a website story brief or within the body of a query letter or for a pitch to an editor at conference. An example from my debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM:

A relentless detective with the San Antonio Police Department is barred from an investigation into the disappearance and murder of her younger sister and forced to take another assignment. Skeletal remains buried in the wall of an old theatre destroyed by arson make an intriguing new case. But when the bones turn out to be a woman, close in age to her sister, the hunt for a killer gets personal—a vendetta for justice.

In the next few paragraphs, I focus on the main characters, capitalizing their FULL NAME when they appear for the first time. I stress the emotional landscape, the conflicts, or what they must have and why they can’t get it. And since the characters are linked to each other, I add a transition line leading from one to the other to provide a flow to the narrative. (i.e. The last thing on her mind is a detour of seduction with a mysterious stranger—a Mafia enforcer with a secret life he guards at all cost.)

The brief section on my main characters gives the internal/external conflicts and emotional risk—the compelling human factor. Then I launch into the story line, a seamless maneuver if done right. A synopsis is not a regurgitation of the story, blow by blow. It showcases your story telling and voice. Don’t telegraph your twists. Hook your reader then tease them with the threads of your mystery/suspense story. Keep upping the stakes on both the plot and the emotional upheaval between your main characters. Treat the emotional aspects like a subplot you weave into the story, escalating the turmoil. The layers add complexity to the unfolding drama, show your sense of urgency, and convey the depths of your black moment. No back story dumps. Pacing is important here too.

To avoid a detailed recounting of the case and retain my mystery, I outline who the major players are without revealing ‘whodunnit’. This is another way to keep your synopsis brief, yet show the intricacies of your plot.

Every step of her case reveals another suspect to consider. RUDY MARQUEZ is the guilt-ridden brother with something to hide. FATHER VICTOR MARQUEZ is a catholic priest and the older brother of the victim, but is he trying to protect his family or only himself by keeping secrets? SONJA GARZA was the victim’s friend, but Becca fears she has an agenda all her own when she catches the girl in several lies. At first, Becca feels compassion for the murder victim, ISABEL MARQUEZ. That is, until Isabel’s past reveals a more sinister side. Did the dead girl play a part in her own demise or was she an innocent pawn in a deadly game? And MATT BROGAN, the dangerous leader of the trafficking ring, is one of the last people to see Isabel alive—providing the detective another direct link to Cavanaugh.

For proposals, I limit my synopsis to 5-7 pages. (It’s intended to entice an editor to request your full manuscript from a partial submission.) In romantic suspense, editors generally expect the world to be restored with an emotionally satisfying ending. But no matter what genre you write, the ending of your book should be clear and all main questions answered. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

© Jordan Dane, 2007