The Novel Synopsis
Just What Is It?
By Mary Rosenblum
You’ve finished the novel and now it’s time to take a deep breath and start marketing it. If you’re writing in the SF/Fantasy/Horror universes, you can send your work directly to editors. In all other genres, you’ll have to acquire an agent who will submit your work to an editor. Every publisher and agent has guidelines for what they want to see, and most of the time, that is a synopsis, with or without chapters.
So just what is a synopsis? This stops many new writers cold. Is it an outline? A chapter by chapter description? A list of characters, theme, and so forth?
No. A synopsis is the story in brief. It is the answer to the question: So, what is your story about? How long should it be? Not long. Long enough to convey the story, not long enough to eat up the editor’s valuable time or bore her with unnecessary details. If the guidelines mention a length, use that, of course. If they don’t, figure three to five pages and three is better!
What should you include? The main plot elements – the main conflict, the dramatic high points, the climax, and, of course, the resolution. No do NOT leave out the end! You are not trying to entice your editor or agent by withholding that end. Many writers can’t do a good end, and your agent or editor must know that you CAN before he/she will ask to see that ms. So you want beginning, middle, climax, resolution and end. Leave all the complex subplots out. Yes, they’ll add to the story, but the editor will get to evaluate them as he/she reads the entire ms. Right now, that editor or agent merely wants proof that you have a marketable plot, you know what a dramatic arc is, and you can bring that story in for a landing. You don’t need subplots to do that! They simply clutter up your main plot with extraneous information and risk confusing the editor or agent.
Proceed from beginning to end. Sounds obvious, yes? But all too often, writers end up saying, ‘oh yes, and back when the story started, this character was only a stable boy’. That sort of ‘flashback reference’ halts the forward momentum of the story and brings us back to the early part of the story. Don’t do that. Mention that stable boy when you start the synopsis…don’t point us back to the beginning later.
For examples of the type of energetic and brisk voice you need for your synopsis read the backs of paperback novels. Yes, of course these blurbs don’t include the end. They are meant to entice YOU to buy the book. But use their tone of voice. And notice that they are written in present tense? That is what you do with your synopsis. It is written in present tense with all the energy and excitement of that book jacket blurb. You are saying to that editor or agent: Here is my dynamite plot, isn’t it cool? When can I send it to you?
If the guidelines mention chapters, do what they tell you. If there is no mention of chapters and the guidelines do not specify ‘synopsis only’, then send your first three chapters. A strong start that hooks the editor or agent into your story will help you.
Sometimes, the best way to understand how to do it is to look at an example. This is the actual synopsis that sold my mystery novel; ‘Devil’s Trumpet’, to the editor at Putnam/Berkeley. If you will notice, the synopsis sets up the story’s universe and quickly brings in the murder. It then follows the main plot, although the internal plot and a major subplot are mentioned. But they are not pursued in detail, so they do not obscure the main plot thread here.
Once the climax is reached, the resolution wraps up the story quickly. Certainly there are other subplots that enrich this story, but they are not as important as the one mentioned here and are left entirely out of the synopsis as are details of the other, supporting characters. By sticking to the main plot, the reader can follow the shape of the story easily…which is what your agent or editor needs to do.
Rachel O'Connor, with a Masters Degree in Botany, has opened her own landscaping business in her home town of Hood River, Oregon. The sleepy orchard town of her childhood has been irrevocably changed by the influx of tourists, drawn by windsurfing and nearby Mount Hood. Land values are increasing, and new houses and condos are going up. [sets the story]
Among her clients is fifty year old Henry Bassinger. Living alone in the now-closed Columbia River Inn, he hires her to restore the lovely old grounds as part of a proposed renovation of the old edifice. Even though Rachel suspects that the 'restoration' is actually his fantasy, she takes the job, just because the landscaping was beautiful once, and she appreciates that beauty. [introduces main character]
But the renovation turns out to be real. Henry Bassinger's nephew, Alex Cresswell arrives in town. An established architect, he has found investors to fund the reopening of the hotel. He has convinced them that the time is ripe to take advantage of Hood River's growing tourist appeal. Then, Rachel finds Henry at the bottom of the waterfall behind the old hotel. At first it appears to have been an accident, but then evidence of a violent argument turns up. When Cresswell fails to provide an alibi, he finds himself a suspect. [main external plot begins]
Rachel finds herself believing in Cresswell's innocence -- which brings her into conflict with Jeff Price, a childhood friend who moved to Los Angeles with his mother in tenth grade. Now he has returned to Hood River as a member of the Hood River police, and has been assigned to work with Homicide on this case. A budding romance between them is strained by her involvement with Cresswell. Rachel finds herself in an awkward situation between the two men. [internal plot begins]
To complicate matters, her mother returns to the family orchard after an extended stay with her ailing sister in Massachusetts. She is appalled by Rachel's involvement with a murder, and commits herself to keeping a close eye on her only daughter. Meanwhile, Rachel has stumbled across a past mystery. Henry Bassinger disappeared for nearly three years when he was in his thirties. The family never did explain where he was, and neither did Henry. Rumors at the time included the supposition that he was in a mental hospital, abroad, or had died. [main plot]
About this time, Rachel finds out from her friend Sandy that Henry had been making regular cash withdrawals from the bank, and had been doing so for years. Blackmail? Rachel wonders. And she wonders if that lost period of time is somehow connected to Henry's death. [main plot]
Meanwhile, Rachel stumbles onto another link with Bassinger, when she and her mother visit Dr. Meier, a client and jazz aficionado. A familiar trumpet solo -- one that Henry played incessantly -- provides her with the name of a young jazz musician who is playing local clubs in Portland. She and her Mother go listen to this Clyde Montaine play, and talk with him afterward. Uncooperative at first, he is stunned when she mentions Henry's death. He then shows her a birth certificate that identifies him as Henry Bassinger's son -- although he uses the name of his Aunt, who brought him up in Los Angeles after his young mother left him there. He was born just after Henry returned to Hood River. [main plot]
He claims that he has never met his father. But Jeff is suspicious, when Rachel informs him about the musician. And very worried that she has become too involved in this, and will be in danger. Sternly warning her to stay out of this case, he takes a copy of Montaine's press release with him. When he shows the man's picture around town, he discovers that the musician was after all in Hood River on the night of Henry's death, and that he has no solid alibi for the time. [main plot]
Arrested, Montaine confesses to coming to the hotel, because he wanted to meet his father. And angrily denies that Henry sent him money on a regular basis. He claims to have overheard a bitter fight between Cresswell and Henry, although he didn't stay to witness the outcome.
Evidence is evenly divided between Cresswell and Montaine. Both men claim to be heirs, and Rachel's Mother discovers through some local gossip among friends that someone has talked to a realtor about selling the property for condominiums. Through her friend Sandy, Rachel determines that it was Clyde Montaine. There is no will, so he will eventually inherit the property. He is Henry's next-of-kin. [main plot]
At this point, Rachel's mother begins to date Dr. Meier. Rachel isn't sure how she feels about it, even though her father has been dead for nearly five years. At the same time, she finds herself torn between her growing affections for Jeff...and for Alex, who is quite smitten with her. [main and subplot]
She is in the middle of relating this to her friend Sandy as they work on Sandy's new yard, when a chance comment of her mother's after a date with the Doctor comes to mind. It occurs to her that Henry might have spent his missing years playing jazz with a band. She realizes that the trumpet solo he plays over and over couldn't be a recording of his son, because the music is on a vinyl record. The band has recorded a single album -- on CD and cassette only. [main plot]
When she mentions this to Mom, she decides to visit Portland with Dr. Meier. She and Rachel's father had an old friend who promoted a lot of Portland bands. Rachel sees them off with mixed feelings. Meanwhile, back at Sandy's house again, Rachel remembers the record. It occurs to her that the band's name would be on the label. The promoter might remember the band, even if doesn't remember Henry himself. Sandy is not happy with her plan to go listen to Henry's music collection, and Rachel wonders with a twinge of guilt whether she shouldn't just call Jeff with her theory. But she and Jeff have had a bit of an argument, and she tells herself he won't take her theory seriously. She assures Sandy' she's quite safe. She has a key to the house -- given to her by Henry so that she could get to tools, the phone, and the bathroom. Cresswell is staying in town. Who will even know? [main and internal plot]
As they are leaving, Doreen, Sandy's middle-aged neighbor, comes to the fence to chat. It occurs to Rachel that she was eavesdropping. Rachel wonders what is going to show up on the gossip grapevine. At the hotel, she begins to sort through Henry's huge collection of jazz records. It takes her until dusk to find the correct album. As she listens to the familiar solo, she finds a picture slipped into the record's jacket, along with an envelope. Rachel examines the lovely darkhaired woman in the photo. The face looks very familiar, but she can't place it. The envelope holds Henry's will -- hand written, dated two weeks ago, and witnessed by Julio and Solidado, her employees. It leaves the hotel to Alex Cresswell, and the remains of his trust account to Clyde Montaine. [main plot]
It seems as if one of those two men must have killed Henry -- although there is still no clear evidence that he was pushed over the cliff at all. But Rachel isn't quite ready to believe that he stumbled accidentally through a tangle of thorny blackberry to fall to his death. He was sober, and certainly not suicidal. Taking the record and picture with her, she wanders across the hotel grounds, out to the old greenhouse that was her secret refuge as a child. As she admires the roses, she notices the weedy plot that was once an herb garden for the hotel. And remembers that her Aunt had mentioned at dinner that Henry's mother, Louise, was very knowledgeable about herbal medicines, and gave her chamomile tea to calm Rachel's infant colic. [main plot]
Rachel knows some medicinal herbs and idly identifies several varieties. A bank of white morning glory catches her eye. And then she notices that some of the white, trumpet-shaped flowers aren't morning glory at all. With a thrill of unease, she recognizes Jimsonweed, also called Datura, or Devil's Trumpet. The seeds can cause confusion, hallucination, and death. If Henry had been poisoned with Datura, he might indeed have stumbled through the blackberry thorns in a moment of drug-induced panic and confusion. [main plot]
A voice behind her startles Rachel. She whirls to find Doreen smiling coldly. And in that instant, Rachel realizes that she is the woman in the picture. Henry's wife, Doreen proudly tells Rachel. And explains that this property rightfully belongs to her son. And herself. Henry promised he'd leave it to her if she didn't tell anyone that they were married. But then he changed his mind -- decided to leave the hotel to Alex who was going to reopen it. She had to kill him, she tells Rachel. To protect what is rightfully hers. She learned about Devil's Trumpet from her own mother. It sent Henry scrambling in panic to his death. It was supposed to look like an accident, but her bad luck was that his nephew came to visit and they had a fight. If he'd stayed a half hour longer, he might have witnessed his Uncle's bizarre behavior as the drug took hold of him. [main plot]
Rachel tries to run, knowing that Doreen must plan to kill her, too. But Montaine has been hiding in the trees. He pursues her and catches her on the edge of the gorge cliffs. Doreen produces a small bottle of datura-seed extract. They will simply wait, she tells Rachel. When she begins to hallucinate, she will grow fearful of them, and run from them. And surely fall to her death. It will be called an accident. There will be no signs of a scuffle, no footprints but hers where she finally falls. [climax]
hile Montaine holds her, Doreen forces the tea down Rachel's throat. Coughing and gasping, Rachel gropes frantically for a way to escape before the drug begins to work. Meanwhile, Montaine argues with his mother. He doesn't want to do this -- he wasn't involved in his father's murder. Doreen reminds him that his father ignored him -- let him grow up in poverty. Rachel mentions the monthly payment -- and Montaine realizes his mother was living on the money, sending none of it to him and his aunt. Angry, he relaxes his vigilance. Rachel breaks free and flees. As she runs headlong through the brush, the drug begins to work and terror seizes her.
The world begins to disintegrate into shadows and imaginary monsters, and she is losing her grip on sanity. Something is pursuing her. Confused and terrified, she is at the cliff edge before she realizes it. Teetering on the brink, she feels hands seize her. Her drugged brain wants to imagine claws and a monster, but Jeff's voice penetrates the datura madness, and she clings to sanity with her last ounce of strength. He is able to pull her back to solid ground. [climax]
She is rushed to the hospital. She has not ingested a fatal dose of the drug -- just enough to cause her to hallucinate. Montaine confesses readily, blaming his mother. Alex continues with his plans to reopen the hotel, grieving because his Uncle won't get to see it as he remembers it. [resolution]
And Rachel's mother announces with some trepidation that she and the Doctor are now engaged. Rachel has learned a sharp lesson about the fragility of the moment, and surprises her mother with her congratulations. She is genuinely happy for them both. And she promises Jeff that she will stay out of police business after this. Really. [subplot resolution]
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