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:
premise of the novel and the external conflict (What would happen if
the world were stuck in winter?);
glimpse of the world (a tribal society that worships nature);
protagonist’s goal (to get his brother back);
a little bit about the ultimate challenge he faces before he can
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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