How To Craft A One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats

www.suecoletta.com/tips-to-tighten-our-writingThe dreaded synopsis. Anyone who’s chosen the traditional path into publishing knows 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.

 

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.

SECOND PINCH POINT: You must devote an entire scene to this pinch point, which comes in around the 5/8th mark or 62.5%, 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.

ALL IS LOST MOMENT (optional): The title says it all with this one. Here’s where your hero is at her lowest point, believing she’s failed. It occurs 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.

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

Closeup of message stones on white background.

Never let go of your dreams.

 

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.

40 Comments

  1. Sorry–forgot to ask: would you consider writing an entire blog on the topic? Easier to share with friends, peers, students that way!

  2. Sue, just found your blog and have enjoyed clicking around it. Forgive me if you’ve already addressed this topic, but: if you’re a new writer but want to do serious research, what would your advice be about how to contact professionals who will help you in your research–Sheriffs, Coroners, CSI’s Federal Agents. And what would you say that would encourage them to take you seriously if you ask for an interview or a chance to take them to lunch and pick their brains? Any advice is welcome. And will probably be shared with my writing students.
    Thanks.

    • Great question, Carman. In fact, I’ve just created a new Twitter chat where writers can ask questions to homicide detectives, coroner, profiler, criminologist, bestselling crime writers, and cold case consultants every Wed. @ 3 p.m. EDT by gong to #ACrimeChat. We launch on Wed., June 1st @ 3 p.m. EDT. I created this chat to help new writers who don’t have access to law enforcement. Because so many detectives, etc, have busy lives, they tend to charge for their services. And rightfully so. Hope this helps!

  3. The more I read your articles, the more I want to read….
    Every trip to your blog is a school day!
    You really are quite exceptional, I have now decided to read every word of your blog before writing another word of my own…..thank you 🙂

  4. Pingback: How To Write A Killer Hook | Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

  5. I’m going to try this. I hate writing synopsis. I tried anything, but I still feel my synopsis suck.

    But I have a question, maybe you can help me. There are two main plots in my novel and they intertwine. Mostly, they evolve alongside one another, so their beats happened pretty close one another.
    This has alwyas bother me. At the beginning, I just chose one of the two plots (the one that finds a solution in the end) and just went with that one. But the actual story (the one that will go on in the other two books of the trilogy) is the other plot. So I think I should include it as well, especially considering that what’s ‘special’ about this story is in this plotline.

    Suggestions? I sure hope you have some…

    • Well, I’m no expert, but here are my thoughts. All major plot points must tie up at the end. No exceptions, even with series. So, if this plot point continues to the next book then don’t make a one of the two major plot points. Instead, include it but don’t shine a major light on it. In other words, instead of having it be a major plot point, use it as a foreshadowing of what’s to come in book two. It’s not easy, but I’m betting you could pull it off. Placement is key. You don’t want this foreshadowing at the 25% 50% or 75% mark or readers will expect you to answer the questions raised. This all depends, of course, on how critical the scene is to the first story. I’m thinking it won’t make much difference in book one since you could cut it without having it affect the story. So keep that in mind while reading this advice. Good luck!

      • Uhm… so basically you’re suggesting to keep Sinéad’s story as the main one, as I did at the beginning, even if the trilogy is Michael’s story.

        Thing is, what’s Michael’s climax in this story, it’s going to be the First Plot Point of the entire trilogy, and Micheal’s climax is different from Sinéad’s climax, thought the two episodes are very close. This is the tricky part about it, I think.

        I will try 🙂

        • So, book one is actually Michael’s story? Hmm. I didn’t realize you had two different characters with intertwined stories. Interesting! In that case, you could have two complete arcs for both characters, one that finishes with book one and one that continues with book two. Without reading it, it’s hard to help you with the right move. Have you thought about hiring a writing coach? Or asking your critique partner? They’d probably be better able to answer than I would. If people only knew how hard it was to write a book maybe writers would get more respect. LOL

          • Completely agreed!

            I won a critique by an intern of a agency once, who suggested to cut Michael’s story completely out. Which I don’t think is a good idea, if anything because he has a role in Sinéad’s story too. And Blood, who’s an essential part of Michael’s story as a whole, is very important to Sinéad’s story too.
            I did try to leave them out in the first attemps, but it didn’t really work.
            At present, I have Sinéad’s story on the forefront of the synopsis, but I devote quite some time to Michael’s clomax when it comes.

            Sorry, I know, I’m asking too much of you 😉

            • No problem at all. Always happy to help. The books sound fascinating. You’ll instinctively figure out the right way to go, but another pair of eyes is always a good thing.

  6. I couldn’t have found this post at a better time! Thank you so much for sharing these tips. I was literally drawing circles on a page trying to get my synopsis right!

  7. This frightens me as a pantser lol. I know this is exactly the reason I had so much trouble with my synopsis…And luckily, the editor critiquing my synopsis picked up some plot problems that I’m now fixing. I’m about to query book one, but for book two, I’m going to have to keep this in mind. I mean, if my plot is pants, then the ideas I’ve created without following a plan might never be shared! Thanks for this 🙂

    • I feel your pain, I really do. As a reformed pantser, I’ve had to deconstruct two different novels and pray I had the story beats in place. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It’s a crap shoot. Good luck, and remember to breathe. LOL

  8. Very helpful. You’re becoming quite the source. Keep it up. 🙂

    Anna from Elements of Writing

  9. Such a useful post!! It has really helped me Sue – thx 🙂

  10. Ack. I like this article, too! Can I also feature this one? Do you need me to ask permission for individual articles, or is a blanket permission okay for you, as long as the credit/bio/link is there (which it always would anyway) 🙂

    -Ryan

  11. Great article, Sue! I’m sharing this with my editing clients.

  12. Good stuff, Sue. I know you’re trying to put the synopsis in one page, which can be juggled with font size & line spacing, but what do you suggest as an optimum word count?

    • Actually, Garry, no, it can’t. You must have one inch margins all around and 12 point font. Times New Roman, usually. As far as word count… it depends. I’ve seen some who want no more than 500-1000 words, others who say one page single-spaced with no word count specified, and others who want double-spaced — all with the format as stated above. It’s not easy, mind you. But this way takes a lot of the pressure off. Actually, check the agent’s website you’re dealing with. If she doesn’t specify word count then you’d probably be safe with single-spaced, a double space between paragraphs. I only had one publisher that insisted on 500 words max. And that was a b%#ch!

  13. Excellent. This is one I had to bookmark 🙂

  14. What a great way to craft a synopsis, Sue! I really like this idea. One of its real appeals for me is that it doesn’t require the writer to learn a whole new ‘synopsis language.’ If you learn story beats, you can do synopses. Thanks!

    • Exactly! That’s why when the light bulb went off, so to speak, I knew I had to share. Lord knows I struggled with these things for far too long, most using ambiguous language to share their knowledge.

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