The Women’s Fiction Writers Association asked me to write the FIX IT column about “The Dreaded Synopsis” for their newsletter. They provided a submission from a fabulous, ripped-from-the-headlines story, How Far We’ll Go, by Caitlyn Weaver, for me to revise. If you haven’t joined the WFWA yet, I recommend you do. Meanwhile, we can thank them for letting me share these tips with you here.
Why do we dread the synopsis? Because it’s hard! It’s completely different from all the things we love about writing. Unfortunately, the synopsis is a critical tool for agents, editors, marketing, and publicity people who either don’t have time to read your manuscript or aren’t sure it’s worth the time. The synopsis is essentially a cheat sheet. That’s why it needs to be good.
Beyond describing what the story is about, or summarizing it in glowing terms, a synopsis needs to actually tell the story. Don’t waste time explaining why you love it, why it’s important, or withholding the ending as a surprise. The synopsis is one action-packed page that tells the main story as it happens.
HERE IS A SAMPLE SYNOPSIS SUBMITTED FOR REVISION:
Stay-at-home moms LORRIE and EDEN have long been the lifeblood of their neighborhood, and of each other. Their decades-long friendship is tested when Lorrie’s oldest son and golden child, KNOX (18 years, high school senior), is accused of rape after an alcohol-fueled teenage party. In a nightmarish twist, the accuser is Eden’s daughter, SUMMER (18 years).
Summer has been in love with Knox as long as she can remember. When he finally returns her affections their relationship quickly becomes serious, yet they struggle with different expectations of what “love” means. Summer’s hinges on the fairy tale of being Knox’s girlfriend at long last, while Knox’s attempts at intimacy are tainted by a crippling, secret addiction to pornography.
Eden learns of her daughter’s accusation when a neighbor discovers Summer after a night of drinking and brings her to the hospital. Frightened and angry, Eden confronts Lorrie.
Lorrie, who considers herself a feminist and believes she has raised a good son, is stunned by the accusation. With their friendship hanging in the balance, and Eden warns Lorrie that she will seek retribution.
Determined to protect Knox, Lorrie’s husband, ED, hires a slick lawyer with a reputation for making sexual assault cases “disappear”. Lorrie doesn’t agree with this approach, and she and Ed fight — something they do more and more often. Without Eden to turn, to Lorrie feels isolated in a community where appearances are everything and rumors can be devastating.
Lorrie’s younger son, ARCHIE (15 years), is torn between allegiance to his brother and to Summer, on whom he’s harbored a secret crush for years. He also faces his own struggles with forging his identity in the shadow of his popular, all-star athlete older brother.
Knox is crushed when he suspects Archie’s divided loyalty. Though outwardly popular and well-liked, he feels increasingly isolated as he struggles with his pornography addiction and bigger questions about what it means to be a man.
Rumors fly once the news about Summer’s accusation gets out at school. She is taunted by allies of Knox and a fight breaks out. Archie is suspended for entering the fray. While Lorrie knows she needs to address Archie’s suspension and the increasing tension between her sons, she is waylaid by a shocking discovery of her own: that the lawyer her husband hired to protect Knox once defended Ed against his own case of sexual misconduct.
As Eden fights to protect her daughter and hold Knox accountable, her own history with sexual assault clouds her judgement. Tensions rise between her and her husband, who wants to seek justice through the courts, while Eden prefers to plot revenge.
Though a formal trial does not occur due to lack of evidence, judgement abounds as the community chooses sides. Summer’s supporters, including Eden and the other mothers who have rallied around her, plan a public takedown of Knox at the Spring Salon, a high profile end-of-school-year event that’s attended by the entire student body and their parents. Archie secretly plans to join them, unbeknownst to his parents and Knox.
The Spring Salon devolves into chaos as Team Summer storms the event in protest. In the aftermath the student newspaper publishes an article in support of Summer. It goes viral and results in Knox’s college admission being rescinded.
A reckoning for all parties ensues. Knox struggles with the realization that his encounter with Summer was not consensual and considers what to do next now that college is off the table. Knox and Archie begin to mend their relationship, while Lorrie and Eden are unable to reconcile. Summer, who has found her voice, begins to heal and look toward the future. After the firestorm, Lorrie considers the ashes of the “perfect” life she’d so painstakingly architected, including her marriage, and realizes she must build something new that feels true to herself.
REVISION NOTES: This novel, How Far We’ll Go, by Caitlyn Weaver, has a clear and simple narrative that will attract many readers. She makes good use of active present tense. She understands the gold of the story, the unique perspective of a friendship between two mothers – one of whom has a son who rapes the other’s daughter.
The original synopsis begins with the friendship, the existing situation. Yet in a synopsis, there is no time to set the scene. It must be woven into the action. The first significant action in this story is the rape. If this is the mothers’ story, then the moment they hear about it is the place to begin.
Sometimes, this initial challenge is buried in the premise line. When I asked Caitlin for her premise line, she said: Lorrie’s comfortable life of PTA meetings and playground gossip is upended when her teenage son is accused of rape by her best friend’s daughter.
A more dynamic premise line: When Lorrie, a devoted PTA mom, learns that her teenaged son raped her best friend’s daughter, she struggles to save her friendship, her marriage, and do what’s best for her son in a battle that rips the small town apart.
Here are suggestions specific to this sample that will be useful for every synopsis:
- START WHERE THE ACTION BEGINS: This story begins with the rape. Or at least, the moment the main character hears about it.
- GROUND THE READER IMMEDIATELY WITH FOUR OF THE FIVE W’S OF JOURNALISM: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, AND WHEN: Like most writers, Caitlin is so familiar with her story that she has left out important facts. Where does this take place? How old are the mothers? What year is this? If it’s present day, how does it address the #metoo movement?
- CHRONOLOGY: The first paragraph here is perfect for a short promotional summary, but the actual synopsis begins in the second paragraph. And as we bounce from person to person, the order gets muddy. I recommend making a list of events and important revelations before writing your synopsis. Share the events as they happen in order. You can play with how you tell the story flashbacks in the actual manuscript. For the synopsis, use the natural chronology.
- EXPAND STEREOTYPES INTO UNIVERSAL ISSUES BY DOING RESEARCH: The main character’s son is described as having a “crippling secret porn addiction.” Currently, this would be worthy of therapeutic treatment. In fact, there is a 12-step program called Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Also, the widespread use of pornography has changed the expectations of sexuality. This “golden boy” is guilty, but the influence of the culture makes his journey more complex.
NOTE: Since Summer and Knox have different expectations of a relationship, there is potential to also address current gender expectations, feminism, cancel culture, and #metoo. Reference to this can raise universal questions worthy of many book club discussions.
- FOCUS ON THE MAIN PLOT AND THE MAIN PROTAGONIST: This is a family drama, so everyone is affected. But focus only on the main characters unless you can weave in details that do not disrupt the main narrative line. In this story, we already have four important names, so I eliminated the husband’s name.
- AVOID SUMMARIZING CRITICAL EVENTS: This story is about a crime, but there is no trial. This needs to be explained as a major turning point so it doesn’t look like a plot hole. A few extra words can make a difference.
- CREDIBILITY: Since there is no trial, the son is not formally charged. How does that eliminate his potential for higher education? Perhaps the fuss prevents him from getting a scholarship to his ideal college, but what about other colleges, later?
- BE SPECIFIC: Avoid flowery language and vague descriptions. Details make your story unique. For example, why suggest a “a nightmarish twist” when the details are forthcoming? What is the “chaos” at the Spring Salon? What is the “reckoning” that “ensues”?
- POINT OF VIEW: Caitlin’s synopsis is structured in a way that suggests that she will be alternating points of view. Bravo for not telling us that outright. In such a short space, however, it can still help to be consistent with the opening character throughout. The reader needs to root for someone. Be sure to weave the other perspectives into the natural flow of the story.
- NARRATIVE DRIVE: There must be a constant urgency in the story. Every event in the synopsis, like in the larger story, must have a cause and effect. Think of it like dominoes. Also, Caitlin opens with the mothers, but the synopsis loses that focus. I added a sentence in the middle and also addressed it more at the end to keep that as the main narrative thread.
HERE IS ONE WAY TO REVISE THE SYNOPSIS:
EDEN, a stay at home mom in a close-knit Atlanta suburb, is called to the hospital after her daughter, SUMMER, has been raped at an alcohol-fueled high school party. Summer reveals that the rapist is her long-time crush, KNOX, the son of her mother’s best friend, LORRIE. Eden contacts Lorrie and vows revenge.
Lorrie, a self-proclaimed feminist who prides herself on having the perfect life, is stunned by the accusation. Knox is her golden boy, a star athlete with a college scholarship in his pocket. She goes to her husband who hires a slick lawyer with a reputation for making sexual assault cases disappear. Lorrie wants to help her son but also hold him accountable, so she fights her husband over this strategy. She loses. Lorrie becomes a pariah in the community, and sorely misses her friend, Eden.
Lorrie’s younger son, ARCHIE, struggles with loyalty to his popular brother due to a secret love for Summer. When Knox’s friends at school taunt Summer over the rape accusation, his brother Archie comes to her rescue. Archie gets in a fight and is suspended.
Knox is crushed by his brother’s betrayal. Now he must deal with his unhealthy appetite for porn as well as a larger insecurity about what it means to be a man in today’s world.
As Lorrie grapples with her troubled sons, she learns that her husband was accused of a sexual
misconduct in the past. The same lawyer now representing Knox won a dismissal of her husband’s charges. She reaches out to Eden….
Eden, clouded by her own memory of a sexual assault, is out for revenge. She battles with her husband over the lack of closure the legal system provides. And she’s right— the charges against Knox are dropped due to lack of evidence.
Eden enlists other mothers and students, including Knox’s brother Archie, to Team Summer. The group expands into a popular cause that divides the close-knit community. Eden plans a protest at school’s annual end of the year event, the Spring Salon.
When the Spring Salon is ruined by the Team Summer protest, a videotape of the chaos goes viral. Knox’s college admission is canceled. He begins to address his serious problems and makes up with his brother while facing an uncertain future.
Eden mends her relationship with her husband as Summer begins to heal. However, she cannot remain friends with Lorrie. Alone, Lorrie must end her marriage and focus on what really matters. Lorrie picks herself up from the ashes, helps her children, and begins a new, truer life.
Ready to write yours?