I’ve been meaning to write up this blog post for a while now so I can drop links to it instead of typing it all out again every time I want to explain it to other people. Synopses are the bane of most querying authors’ existences because if we could tell the story in two pages (single-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins, and a blank line between paragraphs) we wouldn’t have written 80,000+ words in a novel, now, would we?
We get caught up in trying to explain details, worldbuilding, and other things agents don’t need. The synopsis is only a diagnostic tool that tells them whether or not your story makes sense. They’re checking for things like story beats and logical progression. Sure, “it was all a dream” and deus ex machina endings are legitimate devices, but if they’re used, do they make sense within the context of the story? Is the ending a cliffhanger? Every agent is different and uses synopses differently (if at all) but, generally speaking, they want it short, sweet, and to the point. “Just the facts,” if you will.
I struggled with synopses, too, until I watched this video of Trey Parker and Matt Stone—the guys behind South Park, the Book of Mormon musical, and more—explaining how they work through plotting shows. It all boils down to this: everything that happens is a logical progression of choices and events, connected by BUT or THEREFORE.
- STATUS QUO: Main Character doesn’t like to share
- GOAL: She’s trying to be less selfish
- THEREFORE: When significant other asks for a bite of her sandwich, Main Character says yes
- BUT: Significant other scarfs the whole sandwich in one bite
- THEREFORE: Main Character gets angry
- BUT: Significant other points out that he only took one bite, as agreed
- RESOLUTION: Main Character rethinks both the goal AND the relationship
Of course, this works for plotting because if there’s no BUT or THEREFORE connection, things are only happening because the author wants them to happen. That’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, or the story driving the plot instead of the other way around. Often, when a writer is struggling to write a synopsis, it’s because there’s no logical progression to follow, or the logical bridges don’t stand up to scrutiny. That’s one of the ways synopses can be used as diagnostic tools. If you struggle to write a BUT/THEREFORE synopsis, you may need to look at why your characters are choosing to do the things they’re doing. It’s perfectly fine for their choices to be objectively illogical, but they have to have a compelling reason to take the illogical path.
All that being said, for synopsis-writing purposes, I’ve added the concept of MEANWHILE. In stories where there are multiple POVs, secondary characters often learn things then do or do not tell the main character. I write multi-POV and have characters who intersect with the main character’s experience in limited ways, but they have information that might change the main character’s calculus in making certain decisions. When I need to summarize something that’s happened outside of the main character’s knowledge, I think of it as a MEANWHILE statement.
- STATUS QUO: Main Character believes X is true
- GOAL: Decide which action to take, Y or Z
- THEREFORE: If X is true, Y is the best option, so she chooses Y
- MEANWHILE: Secondary character races to stop Main Character because they have recently learned that X is false
- BUT: He’s too late, Main Character can’t undo her selection
- THEREFORE: Main Character suffers Z repercussions
The above could be written with or without the MEANWHILE interjection. The determining factor is whether the logic was unsound or the result was unpredictable for plot-related reasons? If the characters are going to dig into that question and their quest for answers drives the action going forward, leave out the MEANWHILE and let the plot device play out. If the characters take the new situation at face value and ignore the fact that their logic didn’t work, that might indicate a plot hole.
To see the BUT/THEREFORE/MEANWHILE synopsis in action, let’s look at Cinderella. The Disney version is one hour and 14 minutes long. This synopsis—WITH the connecting words left in—is under 200 words.
- STATUS QUO: CINDERELLA, daughter of a nobleman, is treated like a servant by her STEPMOTHER and TWO STEPSISTERS
- GOAL: Go to the ball the PRINCE has invited everyone to attend
- BUT: Her stepmother and stepsisters refuse to allow her to go
- THEREFORE: She is left alone while the rest of the household attends the party
- MEANWHILE: Her FAIRY GODMOTHER knows she deserves to go to the ball
- THEREFORE: She works magic to dress Cinderella and outfit her with a carriage
- BUT: The magic is time-limited
- THEREFORE: Cinderella goes to the ball knowing she must return by midnight
- BUT: She meets the prince and dances with him
- THEREFORE: She loses track of time and stays too long
- BUT: When she runs away, her shoe falls off
- THEREFORE: The Prince has a way to find her
- BUT: When he comes to Cinderella’s home, she’s back to her normal life of abuse and drudgery
- THEREFORE: The stepmother and stepsisters ignore her and try to win the Prince’s affection
- BUT: Neither of the stepsisters fit the shoe
- THEREFORE: The Prince insists on trying it on Cinderella
- RESOLUTION: The shoe fits, so he marries her
Obviously, the more complex the plot the harder it is to sift out what needs to stay, but a good starting point is to list all the choices your main character makes (and all the choices that are made FOR them) and fill in the gaps of how they got from one point to the next.
I hope you find this synopsis method helpful. If you do, share this blog post and drop me a note to let me know!