You’ve labored on your novel for months, maybe years, until finally it’s ready. Your query letter is polished, or you’ve had a conference face-to-face, and then… your potential agent requests a synopsis. “What?” you say. Sixty, eighty, one hundred thousand words reduced to two pages or worse, one double-spaced page? How is that possible? For days or weeks you struggle with it. You toss page after page and still, at the end of it all, it’s crap, a real yawner. You have crafted a tight, gripping, compelling book and your synopsis reads, “He did this, Then, he said that. The other guy did something bad, so he … ” It’s what happened, alright, but you can’t deny this reads like death on paper. It’s happened to me, time and again. And though with each iteration the crafting improved, the excitement was still missing. What was wrong with this picture?
Online instructions didn’t help. Some have been undeniable garbage. One blogger suggested reducing each chapter to a single sentence. For my epic fantasy, two pages would permit seven words per chapter. My thriller wouldn’t fare much better.
My first clue as to what I was doing wrong stemmed from last year’s PNWA literary contest which stipulated that the synopsis focus on the arc of the story: the protagonist’s journey. With that caveat in mind, I began anew, crafting incredible dullness. Then, this morning, an epiphany: I realized I did not understand my story. I knew every twist and turn, every confrontation, but I did not understand what was at the heart of it. I did not understand what excited me and, hence, could not understand what would excite the reader… or the agent.
It began when I could not find a way to include the woman who was the protagonist’s love interest—no way to discuss her without descending into bland exposition. All at once, it came to me: as prominent as she was in the narrative, in reality she was nothing more than a device I created to evoke an emotional response from the reader. She had nothing to do with the protagonist’s mission: to deliver a story on television that could draw the world back from an impending nuclear war. And while much of the other action supplied suspense or excitement, these scenes, too, were devices—not the story.
The story, I realized, begins with the protagonist’s problem and concludes with the riveting, hopefully unexpected solution to that problem. In between, it consists of only those elements that specifically propel him from one to the other or offer setbacks. It also consists of what he learns and how he changes in the process. Everything else is device. Even to include subplots, except as they contribute to this journey, is to deviate. The story is a journey of the mind, of the heart, of the soul—not one of action. If action were what compels the reader to turn the page, we would all regularly tune in to TV wrestling. There is action aplenty in the ring. It was certainly not action that brought millions to A Room With A View. Presumed Innocent was about something deeper than murder and violence. Great fantasies like Lord of the Rings or science fiction classics like Dune were really about the essence of humanity. When I arrived at that simple truth, the synopsis became easy. Now that I understand, I can describe this journey in one double-spaced page.
To be continued.