There are essentially five things your synopsis needs. But first . . .
Why Do You Need a Synopsis?
One little word: Motivation, with BIG possibilities!
Synopsis's are a fantastic way to keep you inspired while you write. Just like an enticing book description makes you want to read a book, your synopsis is going to entice you to keep writing.
I use a synopsis all the time. Especially for things like NaNoWriMo. I put them above my desk when I'm writing and every day I have a reason to write that story.
You need a reason to write your story. Actually, you need 5 things combined into one big, motivating reason.
5 Things Your Synopsis Needs
The Protagonist - the hero of your story
The Goal - your hero's goal, and that of his friends united in a common purpose
The Antagonist - the bad guy or source of central conflict
What's at Stake - what does the hero risk losing?
The Theme - at the end of the story, how will your hero be different from who he was at the beginning?
Every thing else that makes up your story like the side-kick or the mentor, or any other subplots are not needed. You need to focus on the main plot for your synopsis.
Composing Your Synopsis
Get out a notebook, or open up a word processor, and ask yourself these questions about each element:
- What does he want?
- What are his dreams?
- Who is he?
- What is motivating him throughout the story?
In The Magnificent Seven, Chris is a gunfighter out for hire with only himself to care about, until he meets up with the three Mexicans who want him help rid their village of Calvera. Chris's motivation soon becomes helping these men save the lives of their families.
The Story Goal
- What is the goal for the story? How does your character want to end up?
- What will the final conflict involve?
- What is the protagonist willing to fight and die for?
The story goal in The Magnificent Seven is stopping Calvera, but that isn't exactly what Chris wants internally for himself. It must mean something to him personally. And obviously, there wouldn't be a film if it didn't mean anything more to the gunmen than $20.
What's stopping them?
- Is it an evil villain with a tragic back story?
- A global disaster?
- What kind of conflict presents itself?
Deviating from our previous example, in Pride & Prejudice there are several sources of conflict keeping the Bennet ladies from what they truly desire. Their lack of social status, connections, and wealth. For Jane, and for Lizzie, too, it's Bingley's sisters, at times Mr. Darcy himself, and Jane and Lizzie's own family.
Conflict may come from any number of things. This example shows that the most intriguing and worthwhile conflict comes from character interaction with other characters. That's not to say a global disaster isn't full of conflict, but inner and outer conflict of people vs. people is what should drive the story.
What's at Stake?
- If they take on this challenge, if they're willing to fight for what they truly desire, what could they possibly lose?
- If they don't triumph in the end what will happen to them? Their family? The world they live in? The person they are? Their morals, their beliefs?
It's got to be pretty bad if the protagonist is going to risk it to defeat the antagonist or the central conflict. Maybe not on a global scale, but a scale of 1 to 10 for the protagonist personally, it should be the 10.
The gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven are risking their very lives. In their eyes, that's what they are paid to do. But throughout the story the lives of the women and children and the honorable, hard-working farming men come to mean much more to them. And they begin to realize, that in some way, they were doing it for themselves as well.
- What's the overall conflict really about?
- What must your protagonist learn?
- How will they change?
Chris, Vin and the others don't really have anything to learn, but it's obvious that there's more keeping them in the village than just $20.
So it is a fight between good and evil? Hate versus love or forgiveness? Whatever it is, theme is one of the most important elements in a story and your protagonist needs to be a different person by the end of the story.
Fitting it All Together
Sum up each of these five elements into one sentence, more or less. This makes them easy and pliable to put together.
Now, combine them into a synopsis, joining all the elements up with a few appropriate in-between words. Don't feel pressured to put them in any certain order. Once you have all the elements, feel free to get creative!
Below is the synopsis I wrote for one of my NaNo novels. As you can see, I have What's at Stake in more than one place. Showing that there really isn't a specific spot for any element, but it also shows that What's at Stake needs to get worse throughout the story. It isn't a perfect synopsis, but oh, how it made me want to write that story, which was the whole point.
Deirbre Tuller(the protagonist) has dreamed of the day when her father will come to retrieve her from St. Margaret’s of Scotland School For Girls, when they can once again live together and be happy. But when the day comes, Coll Tuller is no where to be found. When her faithful guardian, Father Godfrey, makes the decision to send her to school to become a nun(what’s at stake), Deirbre becomes convinced her father would have come for her—if he could. She sets out on a journey to bridge the gap between them(the story goal).
But will she be able to find any shard of his existence midst the terrible bombings of England’s cities during WWII? Will she be able to elude Father Godfrey’s(the antagonist) determined, ruthless measures to take her back? When questions arise about her father’s past with Father Godfrey, will she cling to hate or learn to forgive(the theme, what’s at stake)? Will her love for her father be strong enough to defy death? When she finally finds her father, will it give her strength enough to face what she discovers?
The biggest thing to remember while writing your synopsis is that it needs to be awesome. Not perfect awesome, but the kind of awesome that would makes you want to write it. Something you look at to give you instant inspiration when it's time to write. It needs to be the kind of the synopsis that makes your desire to write the story greater than your fear of failure.
Let's talk! What are some of your biggest challenges to get motivated when you write?