How To Craft A One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats

The dreaded synopsis. Anyone who’s chosen the traditional path into publishing know that these pesky buggers are enough to drive a writer to drink… literally.

I have good news and bad. The good news is I’ve found a solution to help keep your liver in tact. The bad, no matter how much you might hate writing these little darlings a synopsis is the only way of selling your book to a publisher. You will have to learn.

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Over the years I’ve read so many posts on this subject it felt like my eyeballs were bleeding. What surprised me most was that very few ever mentioned story beats, never mind using them for a synopsis. Which is why I’ve decided to share my discovery.

When you use story beats to create your synopsis something amazing happens. All that pressure weighing down your shoulders, crushing your literary spirit, while you try to boil your 400 page novel down to one page, immediately eases. Because now you’re only dealing with the beats.

I know this because I wrote my synopsis this way. It took me no time at all, gained me a full request within an hour of sending it, and I actually enjoyed the process. I can hear the shaking of heads in disbelief on that last comment, but stay with me. It does get better; you’ll see.

First you need to know what story beats are. In simple terms, story beats are the milestones you hit when telling your story. The tent poles that hold your story up and keep it from sagging, the foundation on which your story stands. Those of you who plan your novels in advance know exactly what I’m talking about and can skip over the next part. For pantsers without a firm knowledge of structure, this becomes more difficult. You’ll first need to find your beats. Which you should do anyway to make sure they’re placed properly. Without structure your story could sag in the middle, have an early start, reduce tension, or veer totally off course.

Believe me, I have drawers full of novels like this at various stages, written before I learned to plan my stories. Now, however, since I know where my story is going and how to get there, I am less apt to trash a novel half or three-quarters of the way through.

Let’s get down to it.

STORY BEATS

HOOK: A scene meant to introduce the hero and hook the reader, keep them from putting your book down, entice them to read on. The reader must either relate to, or empathize with, the hero. Contrary to what some believe a reader does not have to like a main character. There have been plenty of unlikable heroes that have hooked us for an entire novel. Why? Because we empathize with them. Like them or not, the reader must root for them. And that’s key.

Many new writers start their story too late. Thus, not allowing the reader to care what happens to the protagonist. I’ve done this myself — more than once — and had to go back and rewrite the hook.

INCITING INCIDENT (OPTIONAL): Not every story has to have an inciting incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point, placed earlier than 20-25% mark, but without affecting the protagonist. And that’s the difference here. Having an inciting incident, however, does not relieve you of properly placing the First Plot Point. It merely sets it up, foreshadows what’s to come. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but is actually a false start.

FIRST PLOT POINT: Here’s where your story really begins, perfectly placed at 20%-25% of the way into the story. For instance, in a 400 page novel this would occur around page 80-100. The First Plot Point is the single most important scene of all the beats because it kicks off the action and sends the hero on a quest, which IS your story. Even if it’s been foreshadowed or hinted at, the first plot point shows the reader how it affects or changes the protagonist. Get this one wrong and your story will fail.

FIRST PINCH POINT: A peek into the antagonist force preventing the hero from reaching her goal. If you missed my post on Pinch Points you can find it here. The First Pinch Point comes about 37.5% into the story, or at the 3/8th mark.

MIDPOINT: Placed smack dab in the middle of the story, or at approximately 50%, this scene changes the protagonist from wanderer to warrior, attacking the problem head on.

ALL IS LOST MOMENT: The title says it all with this one. Here’s where your hero is at her lowest point, believing she’s failed. It occurs right before the second plot point, also known as the second plot point lull.

SECOND PLOT POINT: 75% of the way into your story, this scene launches the final push toward the story’s conclusion. This is the last place where you can add new information, characters, or clues. Everything the hero needs to know, to work with, or someone to work alongside, is now in play by the end of the 2nd Plot Point.

SECOND PINCH POINT: You must devote an entire scene to this pinch point, which comes in around the 5/8th mark, whereas with the first pinch point you don’t. It’s another glimpse of the antagonist force in all his glory, now more frightening than before because, like the hero, he too has upped his game.

CLIMAX: The hero conquers the antagonist force or, in some stories, martyrs herself. Personally, I’ve never read a story where the hero dies, but it is an option. And here’s when it will happen. The main thing to remember is that the protagonist must be the one to thwart the antagonist and not merely be present when it takes place. After all, this is her story you’re telling.

RESOLUTION: Completing the quest, stronger for the effort, the resolution shows the hero in her new life.

Okay, now you have your story beats that show the overall plot of your story. Don’t be concerned with subplots in your synopsis unless you’re allowed more than one page. Which rarely happens. Your one-page synopsis should have three or four paragraphs, depending on whether you use a three or four act structure. One paragraph per act.

Briefly tell what happens in each beat. This is not the time for showing. Use as few words as possible. Don’t worry that your story sounds as dry as burnt toast with no butter. If you’ve done it right — brief being the key word — you should have extra room to spice it up.

Once you’ve got your beats in paragraph form go back to the beginning and look for places where you can tighten, where you’ve used two words instead of one, etc. Refer to a thesaurus, or read the notes you took on your favorite novel and look at how the author condensed his/her words. If you’re not a note-taker check out the mini-synopsis on any book cover. You can bet your favorite author has chosen his/her words carefully.

Now, go back and add a short line of dialogue here and there, and/or sprinkle adjectives that paint a better picture. Be direct when describing your protagonist. For instance, for my latest novel, MARRED, instead of just saying my character’s name, “Sage Quintano”. I could say, “Sage Quintano, a grief-stricken writer.” That’s four extra words, but it gives the reader a better understanding of who she is. Unfortunately, “grief-stricken” is cliché, so I want to change that and see if I can whittle it down further. “A despondent novelist”. That’s only three words, more direct, and it raises a story question: Why is she despondent? Keep in mind that you will have to answer any questions you raise. Nothing irks agents and editors more than a writer teasing them in a synopsis. Save that for your query letter.

Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. It doesn’t matter that the book is in first person or deep third, past tense. This is a rule, and it’s clearly stated on agents and publishers website. Break it at your own peril. Above all, relax and have fun. And don’t forget to breathe. LOL

With writing in general as well as crafting the perfect synopsis…

MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT

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If you’ve written a successful synopsis and have any pointers not mentioned here please share in the comments. As always, I wish you huge success. If the synopsis you write using this method aids you in securing representation or a publishing contract please let me know so I can help you celebrate.

If you haven’t received your FREE copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters you can read a sampling and sign-up here, or click the title.

To The Writer Who Dares To Dream…

Friends often ask me why I’m glued to my computer, always in the house working and not out having fun. My answer, “Because I have a dream.”

When I first started writing a book it was exciting, new, shiny. I wanted to tell everyone about this huge undertaking. By the time I finished writing 90K words half my world knew about it. It’s human nature to want to share a new venture with the people in our lives. So I filled everyone in about rewriting my first draft, tried to educate them a bit about the process. They politely smiled and nodded because they were sick of hearing about it by this time.

Then it came time to choose a publishing path. That was when everyone had an opinion, and most didn’t know enough about either option to properly list the pros and cons. Since I didn’t know any other writers I listened to my heart and chose traditional, and then sent out my “masterpiece” just knowing that some lucky agent would snatch it up and make me an over-night sensation. A star.

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And then…

When that first rejection came in my dreams shattered into a million pieces. Some of you will quit at this point. Some of you, like me, will be too stubborn to admit defeat. I told myself things like, “Maybe it wasn’t the right agent. I just need someone who will appreciate my hard work.”

Again, I was fooling myself. I was still riding the high of dreaming about becoming a best seller. And you know what? That’s okay. I should dream. And dream big. That’s what drives us. That’s what keeps our rear-end in the chair and us working. It’s the kind of thinking that WILL turn us into stars one day. That’s what differentiates us from the ones who quit after four rejection letters.

But I also learned that it was important to set smaller goals along the way toward that dream. And I’ll tell you why. By conquering small hurdles I had something to be proud of, a reason to pat myself on the back, a reason to keep forging ahead.

Some small goals of mine were:

1. Finish writing the first draft.

2. Finish rewriting and editing the first draft until I could not make it any better.

3. Show my polished work to a beta-reader. At this point most probably won’t have a critique partner yet unless they have friends who are writers. At least for me this step took time. It took years for me to find good critique partners. Which is why I’d bind and gag them before I’d let them go. Just kidding… sort of.

4. Tackle the query letter. Don’t rush this step. I made this mistake too. This is your first impression and you can only make it once. Trust me on this.

Once I conquered one of these goals I rewarded myself in some small way. Had my favorite treat or gave myself an hour of free time to surf the net or chat with a neighbor. Each small goal drove me toward my dream. And I was building confidence along the way in an industry that can be crushing to one’s spirit.

Writing is hard. If you don’t agree with this you’re probably not doing it right. No one– and I mean no one– ever quickly jotted down a story and sent it off only to discover it soared to number one on the New York Times’ Best Sellers List. It just doesn’t work that way. Writing is work, it’s passion, it’s art. When you write you should pour your soul into your words. Feel the emotions you’re trying to portray. Robert Frost’s famous quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” It’s so true. If your words don’t move you, how do you expect them to move anyone else?

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Then I had to face a hard truth that my first novel might never see the light of day unless I published it myself. Which, for me, wasn’t an option. For me, that would mean compromising my dream. And I wasn’t willing to do that. Not then, not now.

Here’s a little fact that will be a hard pill to swallow for most of you. I know it was for me. Most traditionally published authors wrote four to six novels before they ever got an agent. Honestly, I almost fell off my chair when I read that one. Now, does that mean you can’t rewrite that first novel over and over again? In my opinion, no. I don’t see that it would make a difference whether you rewrite one or write four new ones as long as you’re honing your craft.

Letting go of that first novel was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I lived with this book for years. It was my baby, my first-born. I’d held on to it longer than I should have because I’d poured my heart and soul into it, rewrote it so many times that I got sick of looking at it. My husband could practically recite the novel from memory. It’s called A Strangled Rose, and it will always be close to my heart, which is why I keep it listed on my website. Maybe someday I’ll rewrite it one more time and set it free. Never say never.

But it was a necessary step in order for me to grow as a writer. I needed to let go of my baby and create something new, fresh, have a new adventure. I needed to do this for me. Now, you may not need the same thing. You may be happy rewriting the same story 400+ times, because when you first start learning that’s about how many times you’ll need to do it before you hone your craft. Ask any writer out there. I bet they all tell you the same thing.

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It all comes down to perseverance. How badly do you want it? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get there? If you can’t imagine not fulfilling your dreams then you will succeed. It’s the writer who sacrifices, who writes when they don’t feel like it, who studies the craft when they’d rather be out with friends, who writes and writes and reads and reads who will rise above the others. I believe this with every inch of my being.

But it all depends on what your definition of success is. Some are happy to sell 100 copies of their book. Some shoot for 1000. Others say anything under 10K is failure. Whatever your idea of success is the most important thing you can do is never, ever give up on your dream. No matter how many times you fall, get back up and keep going.

Writing is not for everyone. Some write as a hobby, and that’s fine too. It’s the writer who dares to dream beyond that I’m really speaking to today. The writer who wants it all and won’t settle for less. The writer who won’t quit until they see their name at the top of the New York Times’ Best Sellers List. And even then, who will strive for not one book on that list but two, three, twenty. The writer who sees their books turned into television series and movies. That’s my dream. What’s yours?

 

Tips To Correct The Pacing In Your Novel (part 2)

If you missed part one of this post series you can find it here. Today I’d like to talk about structure and show vs. tell vs. really showing. By structure I mean scene and sequel. If you are not familiar with the proper structure of scene and sequel go here, or to a earlier post called Showing Structure: scene, sequel, and MRUs in a novel, or click on the link.

To quickly refresh your memory the proper structure of a scene is:

GOAL: What your POV character wants.

CONFLICT: What prevents him/her from achieving that goal.

DISASTER/SETBACK: Something that makes it even harder to achieve the goal.

Sequel structure is:

REACTION: Your POV character’s reaction to the disaster.

DILEMMA: Another obstacle.

DECISION: Their decision. Which often is the same as or leads to a new goal.

Okay, now let’s see it action. To quicken the pace race through the steps. “Show” them but quickly. Here is an example from my novel, TIMBER POINT.

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3 Tips To Correct The Pacing In Your Novel – Part One

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What is pacing?

Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences. It is also the rate at which the reader reads and the speed at which the events unfold. By using specific word choices and sentence structure– scene, sequel, chapter, novel structure– we can tap the emotions of the reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants them to feel at any given point in the story.

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Pacing is especially important in crime writing.

Almost everything you read on the internet deals with picking up the pace, because so many new writers pace their novels too slowly. But what if you’re like me, someone who writes at break-neck speed, never giving the reader a break from the action? I know when I’m doing it too. I’m literally on the edge of my seat, feeling like I just drank 40 cups of caffeine.

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One Lovely Blog Award

This morning I received a comment on my blog from a fellow writer and blogger, David J. Delaney, nominating me for the One Lovely Blog Award.

YES

This is how I felt receiving the news…

David’s blog I have always enjoyed. He creatively mixes musings on life, writing tips and reblogs with just the right flair. If you follow David when he posts one of his short stories you are in for a treat. They are gripping, well written, and suspenseful. I have followed David for a while now and have never been disappointed by his posts. If you haven’t checked out his blog I highly recommend it. You can find him at: www.davidjdelaney.wordpress.com, or click the link. Thanks again, David!

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Sisters In Crime Blog Hop

As I told you in my last post, I Swear To Tell The Truth, I recently joined Sisters In Crime. The mission of Sisters in Crime: to promote the professional development and advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry…

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They are a great organization. Anyone interested in signing up can go to: SistersInCrime.org, or click on the link. They have a lot to offer writers at any stage in their career– the traditional, the self-published, the not-yet or soon-to-be published author, as well as the newbie writer. Sisters In Crime call newbie writers “Guppies”, which I think is adorable.  However, the guppies have an entire section dedicated to helping them improve their craft. Amazing, right?  Sisters In Crime are co-hosting The New England Crime Bake this year with Mystery Writers of America. It should be a great time.

I could go on and on. I can’t say enough about this organization. Clearly, I am a proud member.

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Channeling Your Emotion to The Page

This morning at 5 a.m. I woke to a nightmare. Before I get to that story let me give you a little back story. For those of you who don’t know I have two Rottweilers. Cascius turned eight years old this past June and Gideon just had his eighth birthday on the twelve of this month. If any of you have, or have ever had, a Rottie than you know that they have a tendency to get cancer, as well as other terminal illnesses. The vet tells me Rotties have a 95% chance of getting sick before the age of eight. I know, it blew my mind too.

This is Cascius. I think he has bone cancer in his right front leg. I had two others with bone cancer and he’s exhibiting the same symptoms. Cascius Kit To really appreciate his size, here is a picture of Cascius on top of Bob last winter.casBig Bob is nearly six feet tall and weighs about 180 lbs., so it’s not like he’s a little man. I seriously don’t know how Cascius got so big! He’s very active. Give him a ball and he’ll entertain himself for hours.

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