No matter how I try to prepare a manuscript ahead of time for submission, once I start sending out queries I never seem to have the right type of synopsis to go with it. If I prepare a one page synopsis, everyone I want to query asks for a long one. If I prepare a long synopsis, then everyone wants a one page version. It’s the Murphy Rule of synopses. And since it’s the thing I hate to write, even more than query letters, I seem to be doomed to write them over and over again.
So what have I learned over this non-ending stream of summary writing? What makes a good synopsis?
A good synopsis has enough details of the plot to make the story interesting without bogging it down in confusion. It should start with the hero’s ordinary world, which is then changed by the inciting event—the event that kick-starts the story. After that comes the first change of direction. Everything up to that point seems to be headed in one direction, then something happens and sends the story off into a new direction. The next part is the middle leading up to the second change of direction where the stakes are upped. This leads directly to the climax followed by the wrapup where you say how the events in the story have changed your character’s life—the summation of his/her character arc.
Your synopsis should include the character’s motivation for what they do, and any transitional information you need to link the different parts together. It should be written with the tone/voice of the story so that you convey a sense of your style. If possible, you should also include the theme—what your story is really about.
A bad synopsis is one where you put in too much detail. You include all the characters’ names, all the ups and downs of the plot, and generally create total confusion because of too much information. Here’s a hint—if you name a character but only mention them once in the synopsis, cut them out. They aren’t important enough to include. Try to only name 1-3 characters in a one-page synopsis. Instead refer to other characters by their position or occupation in the story—the best friend, his teacher, etc. A longer synopsis can handle more character names, however, I would still keep it to 5 or less.
An ugly synopsis is one that is a flat recital of facts without any of the voice or spirit of the story. It’s boring—a yawn factory that won’t entice anyone to read farther. It usually takes the form of this happens, then this happens, then this happens next.
To show you what I mean I’ve pasted below a short and long synopsis for my YA science fiction novel, Snake Talker.
The short version:
It should have been an easy scam, but Griz discovers impersonating the lost heir could have deadly consequences when he is kidnapped and taken to Habu, as the missing heir.
Colas, a mercenary warlord, has taken over the planet, which was settled long ago by a group of techno-phobes. Normally such a place would hold little interest for him, but Colas is obsessed by the local legend of ultimate power, which only the true heir can access.
But not everyone is pleased by the heir’s return and Griz is nearly assassinated minutes after his arrival. At the palace he learns he must prove his bloodline by passing a series of ancient tests, which are of the pass you live, fail you die variety.
On the journey to the testing ground, rebel forces attack the camp and Griz escapes with Gschu, an attractive servant. But Gschu is playing her own game and delivers Griz to the rebels. He learns they want the source of all power in order to combat the drought devastating the planet. Famine is imminent and if something isn’t done, half the population will die.
Life has taught Griz to see the rest of the universe as suckers for his scamming, and to always put himself first. However, the faces of the drought-ravaged Habuans are hard to ignore. Griz feels the phantom pricks of a conscience he’d thought safely amputated. The rebel leader promises to fix the trials, so despite his doubts Griz agrees to return to Colas and face the ordeal.
During the testing, Gschu helps Griz survive poisonous snakes and a perilous trek over a lava river. They retrieve a data key, which will unlock the palace vault containing the source.
Back at the city, they face another delay. The bzos rgyal po, the heir’s ceremony, can only be done at the new moon. Colas has to wait or face a Habuan uprising.
Misunderstandings complicate Griz and Gschu’s relationship. Griz feels betrayed and a fool when Gschu reveals herself to be the true heir of Habu at the ceremony.
Gschu opens the vault, revealing the source of all power. But it’s not the prize Colas expected. The source is information, hidden away by the techno-phobic settlers—information that is five hundred years out of date for Colas, but invaluable to the current Habuans to help them combat the drought
Colas refuses to leave with empty pockets and orders his men to strip the palace and city of anything valuable. The devastating effect their vandalism will have on the Habuans makes Griz realize there are things, and people, worth believing in. He joins Gschu and the rebels and helps them defeat the mercenaries. The monks take charge of Colas’s rehabilitation, Gschu is declared the ruler, and together, she and Griz face the challenges of Habu’s future.
Here’s the long version:
SNAKE TALKER – SYNOPSIS
It should have been an easy scam. King murdered, rumors of a legitimate heir hidden at birth, and a secret fortune only the heir can access. Oh the romance of it all. Gets the suckers every time. But eighteen-year-old scam artist Griz discovers that impersonating the lost heir can have deadly consequences when he is kidnapped and taken to the technologically primitive planet, Habu.
Colas, a mercenary warlord, wants the source of all power, which only the true heir of Habu can access. The planet was settled hundreds of years ago by a group of techno-phobes fleeing Earth. Normally a backwater like Habu would hold little interest for Colas, but when the mercenary’s flagship is forced to stop for repairs, he becomes obsessed with the local legend of ultimate power. Colas has had his men bring Griz to the planet so he can get his hands on the source.
But not everyone is pleased by the heir’s return and Griz is nearly assassinated minutes after his arrival. Later, over a sumptuous dinner at the palace, he learns he must pass a series of ancient tests set by the planet’s religious leader to prove he is, in fact, the true heir. The tests are of the pass you live, fail you die variety and Griz decides to leave before he flunks. He enlists Gschu, an attractive serving girl, to help him escape, but his plan to buy passage and be off planet before sunrise is ruined when Colas shows up at the space dock. Griz learns that any future escape attempts would be futile, because Colas fed him a tracking device during dinner. For the next two weeks he will know where Griz is at every moment, including where he takes his dumps.
Next morning they leave for the mountaintop monastery where Griz will submit to the tests. On the journey Gschu is nearly bitten by a poisonous snake, but Griz chases it off. When the snake retreats, the Habuans in the group proclaim that Griz must be the true heir, since only Habuans of royal blood have the power to talk to snakes. Colas is encouraged by this sign and Griz knows better than to disabuse him.
Rebel forces attack their camp that night, blowing up their supplies. Griz takes a chance that the explosion might have taken out the tracking monitor and escapes with Gschu. But Gschu is playing her own game and delivers Griz to the rebels. He learns that they want the source of all power for themselves, in order to combat a drought that is devastating the planet. Famine is imminent and if something isn’t done, half the population will die.
In the rebel camp Griz runs into his old scamming partner, Demp, who is negotiating an arm’s sale to the rebels. Despite some bad history between them, Demp agrees to help Griz escape if Griz agrees not to tell the rebels about Demp’s less than stellar merchandize.
Life has taught Griz to see the rest of the universe as suckers for his scamming, and to always put himself first. However, the faces of the drought-ravaged Habuans are hard to ignore. Griz feels the phantom pricks of a conscience he’d thought safely amputated. The rebel leader promises to fix the tests, so despite his doubts, Griz agrees to return with Gschu. His best shot at staying alive until he can escape is to play along with the rebels and Colas. And if the rebels ultimately end up with the source, well, that’s fine with him.
Griz and Gschu wait for Colas to catch up with them, spinning a tale of rebels and a kidnapping, which satisfies the mercenary. Colas pushes the group up the mountain and they reach the monastery before nightfall. The religious leader, Master Ze, greets them when they arrive and sets the first test—a pit of poisonous snakes. Only one of the royal blood can survive, for the snakes will sense a pretender and kill him. Gschu helps Griz by washing his feet in cat piss, because cats are the snakes’ only natural enemy. Griz captures a snake, and that night the monks rejoice over the successful passing of the first test. The next day Griz, survives another assassination attempt, and with Gshu’s help, completes the second test—crossing a perilous bridge over a lava river to retrieve a data key. The key, which is old-style tech, will unlock a palace vault containing the source. Before they leave, Master Ze says the last test will be of the heir’s making. Griz has no idea what he means and doesn’t care, since Colas rushes everyone back to the palace to use the key. Griz knows his only chance of meeting up with Demp lies in getting back to the city.
But they face another delay once they arrive. Master Po, a rival monk and head of a techno-phobic splinter group, will lose most of his power if the heir is revealed. He delays the opening of the vault citing religious reasons—the bzos rgyal po, the heir’s ceremony, can only be done at the new moon. Colas has to wait or face a Habuan uprising.
After disabling the tracker monitor, Griz uses the delay to contact Demp. He surprises himself by making a deal with his former partner to buy the converter kits needed to upgrade the rebels’ weapons. Gschu and the Habuans have worked their magic and Griz has decided to help them instead of himself. He also contacts Colas’ second-in-command and makes a deal with him to double-cross his boss.
With his plan in place, Griz delivers the converter kits to the rebel camp. Unfortunately, he’s robbed of his ultimate “hero” moment and his “Gschu-will-love-me-for-this” gesture when he discovers that Demp has stolen the data key from him.
Griz leads the rebels in a raid on Demp’s camp to retrieve the data key, but they’re ambushed by Colas’ men. Griz is recaptured, and feels like a fool when he discovers that Gshcu was behind the trap. She’d planted her own tracking device on him, and turned the monitor over to Colas when Griz disappeared.
Gschu’s betrayal burns deep and Griz swears to never trust again. Even when the misunderstanding is exposed, Griz finds it hard to forgive Gschu. She should have known better than to believe Demp’s lies. Griz wasn’t abandoning her and had, in fact, used all his funds to help the rebels.
Gschu is devastated that she let doubt guide her actions, but the stakes were too high for her to dare to trust. Lives depend on her actions, including Griz’s, which she saves when she completes the third test at the ceremony and reveals she is the true heir of Habu.
Risking her life for him works pretty well as an apology, especially when Griz understands it wasn’t the first time. As the true heir of Habu, Gschu can talk to snakes. Cat piss had nothing to do with his triumph in the snake pit.
Gschu completes the ceremony and opens the vault, revealing the source of all power. But it’s not the prize Colas expected. The source is information, hidden away by the techno-phobic settlers—information that is five hundred years out of date for Colas, but invaluable to the current Habuans to help them combat the drought.
Colas refuses to leave with empty pockets and orders his men to strip the palace and city of anything valuable. The devastating effect their vandalism will have on the Habuans makes Griz realize there are things, and people, worth believing in. He joins Gschu and the rebels in fighting the mercenaries and tips the balance of the battle when he executes his deal with Colas’ second-in-command, giving the signal for half of Colas’ men to mutiny.
At the end of the fight one monk, a follower of Master Po’s, tries to assassinate Gschu. Griz gets his ultimate hero moment after all, taking out the monk before he can release the kill shot.
Master Po has to bow to the true heir, and Master Ze takes charge of the church—and of Colas’s rehabilitation. Gschu is declared the ruler, and together, she and Griz face the challenges of Habu’s future.