I promised someone a while back to put down a formula on how to write a synopsis. I don't have a formula, per say, but I have a system. Hinterland's synopsis was the easiest one I ever wrote. (I did have lots of help from people too numerous to list here.) This was my starting point. This chart is vaguely based on Story Magic, but I designed my own based on my own thought process. I also did this after the first draft was written, mostly because that's my discovery process and I couldn't outline before I start writing to save my life. Here's a page of my plot notes (the first bit is about how the characters play in and what he wants and what he's up against, mostly internal (the external are really obvious):
Overriding internal goals: Sean wants revenge against his father and to take back the (figurative) home that his father destroyed
Work as success, home—Principality, Elena
He takes revenge on Le Chat but does not achieve satisfaction, Le Chat stole another woman who meant home to Sean. –Killing Reth
He achieves home, accepts Hinterland, and then peace becomes paramount
Weaknesses and minor goals:
protecting women to make up for the ones he could not help—protecting an entire people
Overriding guilt—Bruche, not like father, helps him come to grips with his own penchant for violence
Revenge as solution—gives up on revenge and can kill Reth for the right reasons
Fierce control on his sadness limits his happiness—Friends who help, Elena
Learning to Trust—Jaim
Action Int Goal Ext Goal Obstacle/Achievement Tension
Kills LeChat revenge Kill him does not bring back home high/hook
Pub scene Forgiveness Home destroys all hope of home,
(Shallow) (work) insanity medium
Steps through door loses home physically end mini arc,
Major goal frustrated Begin new
Finds wife’s killer, doesn’t know
Take stock survival low
Finds Reavan Control Frees Oklai makes enemy of Reavan medium
Bane Attack survival high
Jaim rescue Trust survival irony- savior being saved medium, trust
Taken Captive Control, strong woman medium/high
Realizes new world home
I first wrote this to see the pattern of my work in a format that was easily discernable. I was looking at tension, goals, and how his weaknesses come back to haunt him. He has some control/women/violence issues he inherited from his good-for-nothing father that bite him in the ass frequently because the women in Hinterland are quite strong--truly equals with men. Even the Queen is strong, though she appears vulnerable at first, she's using him, recognizing he'll respond to a woman in need.
So having his goals and weaknesses spelled out like this made it easy to put together a basic hook:
Revenge figurative and literal complicates duty Sean survives emotionally by the rigor and discipline of duty as modern-day bounty hunter Sean Kelly hunts an assassin and defends a queen in an archaic world on the verge of war. what happens
And then we start with the story itself, starting with the propelling crisis. Most actions are coupled with a motivation and followed by a difficulty.
The first graph looks like this, listing the propelling crisis and how things go downhill for poor Sean from there:
propelling crisis; If only the dead would stay dead, revenge would be a simple business for bounty hunter Sean Kelly. motivation/"guilt" theme: Though he’s always tried to differentiate himself from his assassin father by keeping on the right side of the law, action: Sean kills the man motivation: who murdered his wife. obstacle: Rather, he thinks he did, until the body disappears right in front of him. motivation:Convinced the death was staged somehow, action: Sean tracks the assassin through a rainy mist that conceals a strange world of necromancy, murderous spirits, racial tension, conspiracy, and rebellion. obstacle/stakes: There’s no assassin in sight, serious stakes: and he can’t seem to get back to France to clean up his crime scene.
See the pattern emerging? A good book is written like this as well.
I'm not saying my synopsis is an end-all be-all of synopses, but it runs pretty well this way until the end.
But really, the easiest thing to do is write your synopsis alongside your draft. That's what I'm working on right now. It's much rougher and for my own purposes. Let's take a look at the first graph and see how much work I have left to do:
In a large world in which a largely mundane Empire reigns, the slit-pupil Ijokaelfes have cloistered themselves on a hidden island enclave. In centuries past, they erradicated the Dokkaelfes, Conjurae who would pervert magic for power. Though it cost the Ijokaelfes their homeland, they considered the triumph worth the cost. Convinced the Dokkaelfes are all dead and Conjur safe and pure, they currently live a life of leisure and peace. But unbeknownst to them, the Dokkaelfes have been biding their time and rebuilding their race in the hopes of obliterating the only people who can defeat them.
This is all backstory and has no real place in a synopsis to sell a book--you want to be sparing with this sort of detail. It's also filled with "lingo" that must be explained. I'm experimenting with word use here for my own purposes. For synopsis purposes: Conjurae=sorcerer and I'll probably use sorcerer so I don't have to explain it. I may even go back to it in the book.
Then I launch into a character sketch. These are useful when you've got multiple POVs--give each POV their own graph to introduce them. This book has only one (so far) which is Coel, and this is for my purposes only. I'll use some of this, sparingly, in a selling synopsis.
Though he is born Conjurae, Prince Coel inherited little talent of his own. Despite the finest tutors, his only real skill is in swordplay, considered by the magical-bound and peace-loving Ijokaelfen mere aristocratic sport. The fourth son of the Ijokaelfen King, the Princeling, as Coel is called, will never be king and is at heart an immature, spoiled, fun-loving libertine who uses his position at court to lift the skirts of the ladies and his skill in the lists to win the friendship of the Knights.
Then I have another backstory/setting description. Remember, this is my own rough notes.
Finally, the fourth graph tackles the plot:
Prince Coel is spared and exiled to the heart the desert empire built upon the stones and bones of his own forebears. Unbeknownst to him, his appearance is a message to the Dokkaelfes who have infiltrated all level of Tosquin society to rise up and begin the revolution. His meager magical ability, his identity, past, and even his name forever sealed inside him by legerdemain, or blood rite, Coel must forgo his vows and commit blood magic with a dead snake to survive (the only sort of magic a mundane is afforded) . Unfortunately, it’s a Crown Snake, protected as divine creatures in Tosquia. Within hours he is found, charged with a the crime of killing the snake, and sentenced to “execution” in the Tosque tradition of dueling.
So I allude to the propelling crisis. I've even toyed with him knowing he's a message and having to hide from any Dokkaelfes he sees. It would make for fun, constant obstacles. He's forced to forgo his vows against blood magic, but he's given good motivation--survival. Then he's presented with a significant obstacle/consequence for doing so.
But the point is, having all this info at hand in a shortened form will make it way easier come query/synopsis time.
I hope this helps someone sort out the Seven Hells of Synopsis. I have a ton of smart writers who read this, so please chime in with tips, arguments, or even "Your synopsis sucks."
Happy friday and may you live to not loathe writing synopses.