The Top Ten Questions for a Successful Synopsis
It arrived like a bolt of lightning from the heavens, on the gossamer wings of angels singing “Alleluia.” Okay, not quite. It actually came to me the day my daughter said, “My teacher thinks my book reports are too light, and I don’t put enough information in them. What am I doing wrong?”
Well, I took a look at her book report and instantly realized what she was doing wrong. Isn’t that always the case? It’s so much easier to notice someone else’s mistakes, even when that same glaring error escapes you in your own work. To assist her, I drafted a list of ten questions that every book report should cover. And that’s when the idea came to me.
A synopsis is nothing more than a book report for adults. No wonder we all hate writing one! It brings back memories of cringing at our desks when a teacher would say, “And over the vacation I expect you to read these eighteen tomes and write a detailed report on each.”
When an agent or an editor requests a synopsis, our minds revert to those days and we freeze. Well, I believe you can satisfy the teacher and the editor by answering ten basic questions. Trust me. Once you’ve answered them for your own work, the Ghost of Book Reports Past will no longer darken your door. You’ll find writing a synopsis isn’t so bad after all.
And so without further ado, I present to you the top ten questions you need to answer in a successful synopsis. To help you, I’ll refer to a familiar work, Walt Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” and give example answers for each question.
- Who is the heroine and what does she want?
Example: The heroine is Belle, the beautiful young daughter of an eccentric inventor who is bored with her life in her village in France and longs for a life of adventure similar to that in the characters of the books she loves to read.
- Who is the hero and what does he want?
Example: The hero is a prince who has been turned into a beast by an enchantress because he has lived his life as a spoiled brat, never caring for anyone else’s feelings. He wishes to regain his human appearance, but in order to do so, he must be loved, despite his hideousness, and learn to love in return.
- What brings the hero and heroine together?
Example: Belle’s father is captured and imprisoned by the Beast. Belle offers to take his place and remain in the castle.
- What problem do they encounter at their first meeting or shortly thereafter?
Example: Belle disobeys his order to stay away from the room where all his secrets are kept, his temper erupts when he finds her there, and she runs away.
- How do they overcome their initial problems and achieve some measure of success?
Example: The Beast rescues her from a pack of wolves and is injured in the process. She takes him back to the castle and tends his wounds. Through these actions, she learns to conquer her fear of him, and he learns to control his temper. Affection blossoms between them.
- What happens to spoil the initial success?
Example: After a romantic dinner, Belle sees her father in the Beast’s magic mirror; he’s lost in the woods and deathly ill. The Beast allows her to leave the castle to find her father and bring him home.
- Where does this new problem lead?
Example: Belle proves to the villagers that the Beast is real by showing them his image in the magic mirror. The Beast is alone and miserable in his castle, knowing Belle’s departure has sealed his fate to remain a beast forever. Seeing his misery, the villagers decide the Beast is a monster and must be destroyed.
- What risk do the hero and heroine take to deal with this new challenge?
Example: The villagers attack the castle, planning to kill the Beast. But he does not prepare to fight their onslaught. Without Belle, his life has no meaning. Meanwhile, Belle and her father follow the marauders, and return to the castle, hoping to rescue the Beast.
- What is their ‘dark moment?’
Example: The Beast is stabbed during the attack, and Belle arrives to see him crumple to the ground. As he lies dying, the two profess their love for one another.
- How do they overcome this last obstacle to achieve their ‘Happily Ever After?’
Example: The moment Belle tells the Beast she loves him, the spell is broken. Instantly the Beast is transformed back into his true form as a handsome prince, with one exception. Now he has learned to love, becoming a better man in the process. The two marry and dance happily into their future together.
So now that we’ve answered the ten questions, let’s put them together in some semblance of a synopsis, bearing in mind our synopsis must be written in present tense.
“In a castle in France, an enchantress casts a spell on a spoiled, selfish prince, dooming him to live life as an ugly BEAST until he learns the meaning of true love. In a nearby village, BELLE despairs of ever experiencing the excitement and adventure she reads in her favorite stories. Their two worlds collide when her father, lost during a storm, enters the Beast’s castle and is taken prisoner. After tracking him down, Belle offers to exchange places with her father.
On their first evening together, the Beast’s temper flares, and a terrified Belle runs away, only to be caught in the woods by a pack of ravenous wolves. Just when all seems lost, the Beast rescues her, but is injured in the ensuing melee. Belle transports him back to his castle and tends his wounds. She apologizes for running away, and he apologizes for losing his temper. Peace reigns between them for a long time, and one night, they celebrate their friendship and blossoming romance with a candlelit dinner. After the dinner, Belle sees a vision of her father in the Beast’s magic mirror; he’s lost and gravely ill. The Beast insists she must leave the castle and find him.
Belle finds her father, takes him home, and tends to him but is plagued by the local villagers who wish to have proof of the Beast’s existence. Belle shows them his image in the magic mirror. Terrified at the thought that such a monster lives nearby, the villagers rally to storm the castle, intent upon killing the Beast. Belle and her father follow, hoping to stop them.
The Beast, meanwhile, is devastated at Belle’s loss for it means that he will remain a beast for the rest of his life. The villagers arrive, but he plans no defense, surrendering to what fate has in store for him. However when he sees Belle has returned to him after all, he fights back, too late.
One of the villagers stabs the Beast, and as Belle watches in horror, the Beast sinks to the ground. She cradles his head in her lap, and the two profess their love for one another without a moment to spare. Just as the words, “I love you,” leave Belle’s lips, the Beast closes his eyes. But in the next instant, shooting stars explode around them as the Beast’s body is lifted high in the air by a magical force. Before Belle’s very eyes, he is transformed into a handsome prince, alive, well, and still very much the creature with whom she’s fallen in love.
At last, Belle has had her adventure, and the Beast has regained his true self. Shortly thereafter, the two are married and plan a beautiful future together in their castle.”
Behold! We’ve just condensed a two-hour movie into a page and a half of facts, grand total: 458 words. Not bad.
Notice that in my synopsis, I do not mention Gaston or the enchanted servants. While these characters may be important to the inner workings of the story, they DO NOT AFFECT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE HERO AND HEROINE.
In a synopsis of a romance manuscript, the relationship between hero and heroine is all that matters. It’s easy to get bogged down in details if you allow it; Gaston’s plans for Belle’s father, or the quaint characters of Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Cogsworth. They might add danger or charm to the tale, but secondary characters are not required elements of the romance, and their inclusion in the synopsis should be kept to a minimum.
And there you have it. Wouldn’t David Letterman be proud? Now, ask these questions of your own work, write the answers into a present tense summary and snap! You’ve got your synopsis. Give it to your child, it’s a book report. Fold it into three triangular columns, it becomes a paper airplane. Anyway you look at it, it’s just that simple.