And just to clarify, by plot synopsis, I mean the (usually) 3-5 page summary of the book that is (usually) included in a submission package to the agent or editor, along with a cover letter or query letter, and sometimes with the first few chapters of the novel. This is not the one paragraph pitch, or even the one line pitch. Some of the other authors will talk about these other things as well in their discussion, but the main thrust of these posts is the 3-5 page synopsis.
So, what you have here is my entry in the Plot Synopsis Project. At the end of every participating post in the project, there will be links to the other authors’ blogs and their posts there. So take a moment to read through what I have to say, and then at the end, click on one of the links to find out what some other authors have to say about the subject. Hopefully, this will help all of the aspiring writers out there.
First off, there are two types of plot synopses: the one written AFTER the novel is finished, and the one written BEFORE the novel is finished, both used to send to the agent or editor in the hopes they’ll buy the novel. I’ll start with the one written AFTER the novel is finished, since this is typically what happens for a writer who has yet to be published.
In order to be considered for publication, most agents and editors require that the novel you’re trying to submit actually be FINISHED. This is important. So finish the novel first, then worry about the plot synopsis you might include in the package. Assuming the novel is finished, you then have to boil it down into a 3-5 page summary of most of what has happened in the novel. Notice I said most. The synopsis should be a skeleton of the novel itself. So how do you go from a 120,000 word novel down to 750-1250 words?
Well, what I do is I figure out who the main character is in the novel. Who is the novel about? Even in multi-character novels, there’s usually one character who stands out, and whose story is being told. I focus in on that character and I look at that character’s emotional arc in the book. How did that character grow and progress throughout the course of the novel? What were the triggers for that growth? What or who pushed the person to change? Who was a major factor in that change? From this one character’s emotional arc, I get a sense of what’s important for making that arc MAKE SENSE. And that’s the key. You need all of the scenes and people and motivations that make the novel and the character changes make sense. There should be no sense of confusion at all in the plot synopsis.
So the main character and his/her emotional arc forms the trunk of the plot synopsis that I would write. Every other character who impacted that main character, every event that forced that main character to change, all of that gives me the branches of the tree. And the tree becomes the plot synopsis in the end. This usually means that many of the other minor characters in the novel get cut out of the synopsis. Similarly for lots of the events, including lots of events that I find extremely cool. But if you could pack everything interesting and cool into the plot synopsis . . . why’d you write the novel? So some of the cool stuff has to wait so that it can surprise and delight the agent or editor when they read the full manuscript.
This does not mean you should leave major events out of the synopsis just because its cool and you want them to be astounded when they read it. Anything major, anything that impacted the main character and forced them to go on their journey or provided motivation for them, that HAS to be in the synopsis. Including—and this is important—THE END. You have to tell the agent or editor how the story resolves itself. This is not the time to try to surprise them, or to keep them guessing. It also isn’t the time to hope that if you leave that last little bit out they’ll HAVE to request the full manuscript because they’ll be dying to find out what happens. Nope. They’ll just reject you. Trust me. They have plenty of other stories and endings IN HAND; they’re not going to be concerned about how this one book ends if it’s going to cause them to work more to get it.
That’s how I write a synopsis for a book that is already written. Of course, it takes a few drafts to get it down to 3-5 pages that good. Usually my first draft is WAY too long and I have do major cutting. But I think this process is good, because it really requires you to focus on ONLY the events and characters that are important. You realize that a lot of what you have in the novel, while necessary for the NOVEL, isn’t as important to the main character’s story arc as you originally thought.
In any case, here’s my sample plot synopsis, for the first book in my Throne of Amenkor series, published by DAW Books, called The Skewed Throne [Amazon; Mysterious Galaxy]. Keep in mind that if you haven’t read the book, this synopsis will reveal all of the major plot twists and turning points in the novel, so spoilerage is possible. Well, not possible. Spoilerage is DEFINITE. I think you’d still find the book enjoyable even after reading this though. In fact, it might be an interesting exercise to read both the synopsis and the book itself so you can compare them and see what I put in the synopsis and, more importantly, what I left out. You certainly can't put everything in the book in the synopsis.
After the sample, I discuss writing a plot synopsis BEFORE the book has been written.
THE SKEWED THRONE Plot Synopsis
The Skewed Throne is the story of an assassin, VARIS, who lives like an animal off of the people of Amenkor. At eleven, she steals from a baker and is caught. But instead of beating her, the baker lets her go. Before Varis has a chance to act on the act of kindness, she is abducted and hauled up to the rooftops. During the rape, a White Fire emerges out of the east. When it passes over Varis and her attacker, the new spark of humanity flares up and Varis strikes out at her attacker, slashing his throat. It is Varis’s first kill and her first step out of the slums. For the White Fire has reacted with a power within Varis herself. Varis sees the world as gray, where people shift with color, dangerous men and women appearing red. It is this power that has allowed Varis to survive. Now the White Fire has augmented it.
When Varis is forced to kill a second time, she is seen by a city guard named ERICK. He is impressed with her knowledge of the slums. He offers her a deal: he will give Varis “marks,” people he is searching for, in exchange for food and training. Varis accepts Erick’s offer. Varis becomes more confident with each mark, and learns that the men and women she is hunting down for Erick have been judged by Amenkor’s ruler, the MISTRESS, and found guilty. Erick brings in another hunter named BLOODMARK and a rivalry forms. Varis notices Bloodmark is more interested in killing than in justice and tries to tell Erick, but is ignored until Erick witnesses Bloodmark viciously killing a woman. Erick lets Bloodmark go, but Bloodmark blames Varis, so kills the only other person in the slums that Varis cares about: the baker. Devastated by the baker’s death, Varis seeks out Bloodmark and kills him. But this time the kill wasn’t a judgment brought down by the Mistress. Varis fears that she may have become a mark herself and flees the slums . . . into the heart of Amenkor itself.
In her first few days in Amenkor, Varis is forced to defend herself from a pair of merchantmen, killing one of them. The other escapes. The act is witnessed by another merchant, BORUND, who suggests Varis come work for him as a personal guard. As Borund’s bodyguard, Varis learns that the city of Amenkor has been steadily declining since the passage of the White Fire years before. The Mistress, ruler of the Skewed Throne, has gone insane. A merchant war has begun, and Varis offers a blunt solution to Borund’s problems: have her kill his adversaries.
During one assassination, Varis is seen by the merchantman who escaped earlier, and who is the son of one of Borund’s rivals. When Varis is sent to kill this rival, they are waiting in ambush. Varis is saved by Erick, fleeing as the ambush descends on Erick instead. But now everything she fled in the slums comes back, plunging her into a deep despair at what she has become. As the city continues to fall into chaos--the Mistress closing the harbor, blocking the city’s main source for trade--Varis comes to a grudging revelation: she doesn’t want to kill anymore.
Then she is approached by Borund with the most stunning assassination of all: the Mistress herself. The merchants need the Mistress replaced in order to free up the trade routes, and killing the current Mistress is the only possible solution. If Varis succeeds, she will never have to kill again. Varis accepts.
In the final confrontation, in the throne room of the palace itself, the Mistress thrusts Varis onto the Skewed Throne. It is on the throne that Varis is forced to face her own past, and her own growing sense of humanity. For the Skewed Throne--the true power behind the Mistress--is insane. It is Varis’s unique powers and her basic humanity that allows her to control the Throne’s insanity . . . and allows her to see that the current Mistress need not die for the insanity to end.
The Skewed Throne ends with Varis seizing control of the throne, and thus the city, and in the process finding her own strength and humanity within herself.
Ok, that’s what the beast looks like if the book has already been written. However, once you’ve been published, the agent or editor is more willing to work with a book that hasn’t been written yet. At this stage, they’ll likely demand a plot synopsis, and sometimes they’ll want a plot synopsis and the first few chapters (even if the rest hasn’t been written). I find this a much MUCH harder beast to tame, because of the way that I write.
I’m an organic writer. What this means is that when I sit down to write, I don’t really know much about the book except for a few scenes scattered here and there, usually including the end scene. What happens between these scenes is up in the air. Part of the fun for writing (for me) is figuring out how all of the scenes and character end up connecting together in the end. That’s where I can be creative, and where often the book takes a sharp left corner and becomes something I wasn’t expecting.
So how do I write a plot synopsis for a book that doesn’t exist yet? I lie. Well, I don’t know I’m lying at the time of course, but I haven’t nothing to base the synopsis on, so I allow myself to be creative. I’m still trying to figure out the main character and his/her emotional arc for the book. And I’m still trying to figure out what kinds of people and events altered that emotional arc and forced the main character to change . . . but I’m just making it all up. I try to incorporate the few scenes that I do think occur in the book into the synopsis as well, and that’s usually what provides my most basic structure. I then work out from there, asking myself questions: Why did the main character do this? Who forced them to do that? How did they go from here to there? Why? Why would they care? What’s driving them? What’s pushing them? These are the questions I try to answer, and what I use to flesh out the few scenes I do know.
Notice the difference between the two approaches: In the first, I’m taking what I already have and CUTTING IT DOWN to the few pages I have; while in the second I have little and I’m trying to BUILD IT UP. In both cases I’m trying to make the plot make sense. Everything has to happen for a reason and you need to include those reasons in the plot synopsis. If you don’t have a reason, you aren’t done writing it yet.
I struggle with this second type of synopsis the most because of my writing style, but unfortunately that’s how the business works. After a few books (perhaps even just one), you sell the novel before you’ve written the majority of it. But the good news is that by then you usually have an agent and/or editor that you’re working with, and they usually understand that writing the synopsis first is not your typical mode of operation. I have an understanding editor, so usually after I send in the synopsis, we have a long phone conversation where she helps me flesh things out. There’s also the understanding that when I write the novel, IT MAY NOT BE EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE SYNOPSIS. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed to be different because of the way I write. She knows this and accepts it (I think; it may just drive her batty).
So here’s my sample of a synopsis written BEFORE the novel was written. It's from the second book in the Throne of Amenkor series, called The Cracked Throne [Amazon; Mysterious Galaxy]. Again, if you read this, it WILL spoiler the book. (But also again, it might be good to read the synopsis AND the book so you can see what was included and not included . . . and also what I thought would happen and what actually happened.) You’ll notice some differences. I didn’t capitalize the characters names when they first appeared in this one, for example. Some editors/agents like them to be capped, some not. You should always read and follow the guidelines for the publishing house or agency where you’re submitting in order to see what kinds of rules they like you to follow. You’ll also notice that the synopsis doesn’t read as smoothly as the previous one; that’s because the novel wasn’t written and I was flailing around in the dark while writing it. And for those that have read the book already, you’ll notice that the final version of the book had some serious changes (the part about Erick and Baill leaps to mind). The end product didn’t follow this synopsis exactly. Editors and agents know this might happen, and they generally accept it.
THE CRACKED THRONE (tentative title)
Sequel to The Skewed Throne
The Cracked Throne begins immediately after The Skewed Throne with the main character of The Skewed Throne, Varis, coming to terms with the ascendancy to the throne and its madness. Using the remnants of the Fire that lives inside her, a Fire that is uniquely hers, she has managed to seize control of the multiple personalities stored in the throne, but the damage that the previous Mistress has done to the city before Varis seized control must now be undone.
The most urgent need for the city of Amenkor’s survival is food. Trade in the year before her ascendancy had become scarce and the merchants of the city had scrambled to find even the most basic resources. This led to a trade war, in which a consortium of a few merchants, led by Alendor, began consolidating resources by the simple expedient of killing off rival merchants. Only three merchants in the city of Amenkor not part of the consortium remain, including Borund, Varis’s erstwhile boss during the merchant war. In The Skewed Throne, Varis attempted to destroy the consortium by murdering Alendor, and in the process started a fire in the warehouse district that destroyed most of the city’s stored resources. Alendor escaped.
Working with Borund and the remaining merchants, as well as the palace guard, Varis seizes control of all of Amenkor’s assets and begins to take stock, while at the same time sending the merchants’ trading ships out to find as many new resources as possible. Varis is surprised to find that the previous Mistress had begun hoarding basic supplies a few years before, scattering the resources throughout the city so that much of it survived the warehouse fire, as if she knew the fire would happen. Meanwhile, the trading ships begin to return with whatever they can find. But not all. As winter sets in, only a third of the ships sent out have returned, and Varis begins to turn her focus away from the city of Amenkor itself to the entire Frigean coast.
The city barely survives the winter, foodstocks running dangerously low. Concerned over the loss of the ships, Varis commands her surrogate father-figure and weapons trainer Erick, now captain of the assassins known of as the Seekers, to find out what has happened to the ships. But no one on the lost ships has ever returned. How can they determine what has happened when no one survives and there are no witnesses?
The problem is that once the ships leave the bay, Varis loses the connection to them that the throne provides. Part of the throne’s, and thus the Mistress’s, power is that the ruling Mistress can feel the city, can sense and see if necessary what is happening on its streets, as if the Mistress were a living embodiment of the city itself. But the influence of the throne does not extend beyond the harbor. Once the ships leave, Varis can no longer sense them.
To overcome this, Varis must turn to her other power: the remnants of the Fire inside her. She discovers that she can transfer a small portion of the Fire to another person, and then after that she can locate and see what that person sees, as if with her own eyes. As soon as winter ends, Varis “tags” Erick and the Seekers with the Fire and places one each on the ships sent out from the harbor. Through their eyes, she sees that the reason the ships have vanished is because they are being attacked at sea by an unknown enemy, one not seen on the Frigean coast before, and one that employs magical as well as mundane attacks. This enemy controls powerful warships that far outmatch the trading ships of the coast . . . as well as the armadas of any of the cities on the coast, including Amenkor’s. Through the tagged Seekers taken prisoner by the fleet--including Erick--she also learns that the ships attacking the trading vessels are only the scouting party of a much larger fleet . . . and that the larger fleet is already on the move, intending to attack the entire Frigean coast and seize control. It is composed of the remnants of a blue-skinned race of people that call themselves the Chorl, and it is led by a powerful sorceress called the Ochean. The Chorl’s homeland, a group of islands far out in the ocean, have been threatened with volcanic destruction and the Chorl were forced into the sea in search of a new land to settle. Watching through Erick’s eyes, Varis sees the Ochean herself and discovers that the fleet plans to attack the Frigean coast at the height of summer. But before Varis can learn more, the Ochean discovers the Fire tag placed on Erick and Varis’s link is broken. Varis fears that Erick is dead, but there is nothing she can do to aid him and so focuses on the coming attack.
Left with only the remains of spring and summer to prepare, Varis begins to plan the defense of the city with the help of the merchants, the palace guard led by captain Baill, and the First of the Mistress, Avrell. Young girls with the same Talent as Varis are gathered and trained in the use of their magic by Varis, who has the stored knowledge of all of the previous Mistress’s in the throne itself to aid her. This task is also aided by Eryn, the Mistress before Varis, who Varis managed to save at the end of The Skewed Throne. Avrell and Baill begin building outer defenses as well as augmenting the fleet, Avrell acting as diplomat and coordinating with the surrounding cities as much as possible. The merchants begin once again to hoard foodstocks, easier now that the threat is known and precautions can be taken against the loss of the ships.
But problems immediately arise. The attacks on the trade ships have lessened, but the Chorl still seem to be receiving supplies somehow. At the same time, supplies within Amenkor itself begin disappearing. There is a traitor in Amenkor. Varis is loathe to use the throne and her connection to the city to find out who because her control of the throne has been steadily decreasing since she assumed control. The voices that aid her are also slowly tearing her apart. It is only the Fire and her experiences growing up on the Dredge that have allowed her to survive this long. But the need becomes too great, and using the throne she discovers that the traitor is Alendor himself . . . and Baill, the captain of the guard. Together, they have been filtering Amenkor’s resources to the enemy, and intend to support them when the attack arrives. Baill escapes, but Alendor is apprehended, and Varis forces him to touch the throne, thus exposing all of his thoughts, while at the same time killing him. She learns that the attack timeline has been moved up, that the ships of the Chorl are already offshore, and that they intend to take Amenkor first because the Ochean is interested in the throne. Varis also learns that Baill has sabotaged some of the defenses of the city.
But there is no more time. The attack has come. With her control of the throne wavering, Varis and the city of Amenkor is forced to face the Chorl fleet with weakened defenses and young women barely trained in the art of magic. But Varis has always been a survivor. She grew up in the slums of the city, was trained to be merciless by Erick. She knows what is it like to be backed into a corner, with no real hope of escape.
The Chorl attack and in the horrific battle that ensues the city of Amenkor, beaten down over the last twelve years since the Fire, finds its heart again. Erick, kept alive and tortured for information about Varis and the throne, escapes during the fighting and runs into the traitor Baill, killing him. But the number of Chorl is too great, their use of magic in battle too experienced. They overwhelm the outer defenses and spill into the harbor, their mages and numbers forcing the defenders back into the city proper. The Chorl makes landfall and fighting begins in the streets. Varis is forced to rely more and more on the erratic powers of the throne to slow their attack. But she knows she cannot hold for long.
Then the Ochean joins the battle. In the end, the victor will be determined by a personal struggle between Varis and the Ochean in the throne room of the palace itself. They face off, and after a spectacular duel of unimaginable powers, the Ochean seems the victor, standing over Varis’s prone figure before the throne.
But during the fighting Varis has realized that there is only one chance at survival for the city. The only thing powerful enough to defeat the Ochean, to kill her, is the power stored inside the throne itself. Using the patience and cunning she learned on the Dredge, Varis has allowed herself to be defeated. As the Ochean takes her place upon the Skewed Throne, Varis unlocks the binding that holds the throne together, even though it will destroy the throne . . . and perhaps Varis in the process.
All of the energy, all of the power stored in the throne at its construction and then built upon over the generations of ruling Mistresses is unleashed in a final burst of uncontrolled magic. It destroys the Ochean, and nearly destroys Varis. It is only the Fire that has protected her since she was eleven that saves her.
The Cracked Throne ends with the repulsing of the Chorl fleet by the city of Amenkor and the help of some of the surrounding cities, and with the return of Erick. Varis has retained control of the city of Amenkor, but at the loss of the Skewed Throne.
So that’s my take on writing plot synopses and a few examples to give you guys something to work from. Hopefully you found some helpful advice in there. But my way isn’t always the best, and doesn’t always work for everyone, so take the time to read some of the other authors’ posts about their process and see some of their examples. I think what you’ll find is that there isn’t one set way to do these things, and there’s not one set road to publication. Some include synopses and some don’t. Some synopses are 1 page long (if that) and some are 10 or more. It depends on the editor’s and/or agent’s preferences.
And keep in mind that you can have the perfect synopsis but if the STORY ITSELF SUCKS, it won’t help. You have to have a good story to tell. And if the story is good, most editors and agents will cut you some slack if your plot synopsis isn’t perfect.
Here are the other authors participating in the Plot Synopsis Project. Check them out . . . and then check out all of our books! We worked hard on them and we hope you enjoy them.
Plot Synopsis Project participant links:
Patricia Bray (pbray): http://www.sff.net/people/patriciabray/s
Chaz Brenchley (desperance): http://desperance.livejournal.com
Mike Brotherton: http://www.mikebrotherton.com
Tobias Buckell: http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2008/02/01/a
S.C. Butler (scbutler): http://scbutler.livejournal.com
Barbara Campbell: www.barbara-campbell.com/inside.htm
David B. Coe (davidbcoe): http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
Jennifer Dunne (jennifer_dunne): http://jennifer_dunne.livejournal.com
S.L. Farrell (sleigh): http://sleigh.livejournal.com
Diana Francis (difrancis): http://difrancis.livejournal.com
Gregory Frost (frostokovich): http://frostokovich.livejournal.com
Felix Gilman: http://www.felixgilman.com/wordpress/
Jim C. Hines (jimhines): http://jimhines.livejournal.com
Jackie Kessler (jackiekessler): http://www.jackiekessler.com/blog
Mindy Klasky (mindyklasky): http://mindyklasky.livejournal.com
Misty Massey (madkestrel): http://madkestrel.livejournal.com
C.E. Murphy (mizkit): http://mizkit.livejournal.com
Naomi Novik (naominovik): http://naominovik.livejournal.com
Joshua Palmatier (jpsorrow): http://jpsorrow.livejournal.com
Maria V. Snyder: http://blog.myspace.com/mariavsnyder
Jennifer Stevenson (smokingpigeon): http://smokingpigeon.livejournal.com
Michelle West (msagara): http://msagara.livejournal.com
Sean Williams (ladnews): http://ladnews.livejournal.com
There’s also a book available that has other samples of plot synopses in it. It’s called I Have This Nifty Idea: Now What Do I Do With It? [Amazon; Mysterious Galaxy], edited by Mike Resnick. Check it out for more samples!
Additional Authors who've posted their own Plot Synopses:
Kelly McCullough: http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com
ETA: There was a typo in Diana Francis' link in the original posting. I've corrected it, but more than likely the other authors don't have the corrected version (although I'll send them a note on it).
ETA 2: I've changed the links for the other authors so that they go directly to the blog entry on the Plot Synopsis Project.