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Selling the Tale:
Writing a Plot Synopsis

When fellow DAW author Josh Palmatier asked me to join a group of writers posting a synopsis of one of their published novels as a way of helping aspiring authors “see how it’s done,” I immediately said, “Yes.” Then my anal side kicked in and I asked if he wanted a marketing synopsis (that you would use to pitch your novel to an editor/agent) or a working synopsis (that you might develop to help you write your book).

They’re usually two different beasts. When my agent submitted my first novel – Heartwood – to DAW Books, they requested a full manuscript, so there was no need to write a detailed synopsis. At my agent’s recommendation, I crafted the following very brief one (and an equally brief resume) for her to include with the package:

Each year, at Midsummer and Midwinter, the Oak and the Holly battle in the ancient grove of the First Forest. When a mysterious force interrupts the Midwinter battle, the Oak’s spirit is lost, locking the land in eternal winter. When Darak learns that the spirit of his younger brother Tinnean was also lost during the rite, he undertakes a quest to find them both.

Embittered by the death of his wife, alienated from his tribe and the gods who seem to have abandoned him, Darak searches the First Forest, accompanied by his wife’s impulsive sister and the tribe’s shaman, whose past hides a secret that threatens them all. They face vengeful attacks from a mysterious creature of Chaos and the dangerous caprices of the Trickster-God. In the ever-shifting world of Chaos, Darak finally confronts the one who disrupted the Midwinter rite. Only by understanding and overcoming his personal weaknesses can Darak destroy his enemy and free the spirits of the Oak and Tinnean. A more difficult trial awaits him on his return to the First Forest, when he faces a choice that will change his brother’s life forever and determine the fate of the world.

When I sold Bloodstone, however, I gave my editor a sprawling 25-page synopsis that included questions and thoughts about the world of the novel, its themes, its characters and their conflicts, and the key plot incidents that propelled the story forward. This morphed into my working outline that I continued to refine and revise as I wrote. 

I usually know how a story begins and I have a pretty good idea of where it will end. How the journey unfolds and what incidents occur along the way...there are always surprises for me there. I never want to get so locked into my original idea that I close myself off to changes. 

If you compared my synopsis of Bloodstone to the final book, you would see that some incidents and characters remained pretty much as I had originally conceived them. More striking, though, are the changes as I refined characters, developed new scenes to advance the plot, and even changed the ending when I realized the arc of the story required that. (If you've read Bloodstone and are interested in comparing the two, contact me and I'll send you the synopsis.) 

Despite its brevity, the synopsis above includes several elements that most marketing synopses should have:

  • the premise of the novel and the external conflict (What would happen if the world were stuck in winter?);

  • a glimpse of the world (a tribal society that worships nature);

  • the protagonist’s goal (to get his brother back);

  • and a little bit about the ultimate challenge he faces before he can succeed.

If editors/agents request a synopsis of your novel, you need to give them a bit more than this! You’ll want to describe the key events in the novel and the conflicts that drive them. You might want to draw parallels between your book and those of other successful authors (especially those handled by the particular agent/publishing house to whom you’re submitting the synopsis).

Ultimately, I believe a marketing synopsis has to sing. It has to capture the spirit of your book, not just the events that happen in it. It has to demonstrate your passion for the story. And it has to ignite an answering spark in the reader who will (fingers crossed) request the complete manuscript.

If you’d like to read a revised marketing synopsis for Heartwood – hastily written in answer to Josh’s call to action – click here. Warning: spoiler alert!


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