The Joy of the One Page Synopsis

This is a killer, right? You’re not wrong. How do you get everything you want into one page? Well, it’s not easy but it’s entirely possible. After Michelle S gave me her critique of my sorry synopses, she suggested that I try doing them in one page. This was really hard but in doing so, I had a bit of an inkling about how an editor might read it and why certain things were important.

Now, obviously I am no expert in this but I thought I’d share my insights just in case they’re helpful.

To help illustrate points, I’m going to use the synopsis I subbed for the FTH contest. This was two pages double-spaced and quite frankly, not very good. See if you can spot why.

When Alex Woolf, Auckland millionaire property developer, discovers eco-activist Kate Weaver protesting at one of his constructions sites, his self-contained world is suddenly thrown into chaos by a sudden attack of the lustful kind. But Kate is wary: he’s the very antithesis of her green ideals and is also, unfortunately, incredibly attractive. Unfortunate because she’s susceptible to physical chemistry and has learned from past mistakes that it means nothing in the end.
Incensed by the blatant way Alex shows his interest, Kate organises a protest outside his offices but this turns nasty and she ends up being rescued by him. Naturally she tells him exactly what she thinks of him. His response? A kiss to her palm that leaves her trembling. Alex is hooked on the chase. He tracks Kate down with a demand: dinner at her house or he presses charges regarding her protest: Kate has no choice but to agree.
At dinner, Kate tries to scare him off with her blunt opinions but Alex is even more attracted. The evening ends with him pulling her into his arms and kissing her senseless. Then he goes further by manipulating her into having lunch with him at his Waiheke Island home.
Kate, hating to be manipulated, fears the worst but over the course of the afternoon, realises that her initial impressions about him are misplaced. There is a vulnerability to him that she, champion of the vulnerable, finds very intriguing. But, worse than that, he makes her laugh.
That night, finally unable to resist her own sensual nature, a side of herself she’s always mistrusted, it’s Kate who does the seducing. Their lovemaking is a transcendent experience, a true meeting of both bodies and spirits, and it changes everything between them.
The next day circumstances force Kate into staying on the island but after the night she spent with Alex, she feels she knows him, is sure he would never hurt her. He brings out her humour, her sense of fun. Things she’d hadn’t even known she’d lost. She soon doesn’t want to leave. Alex too is changed by the experience. A lonely childhood has led to a life of emotional self-sufficiency but passionate Kate has opened a door in his heart. A door that leads to a world where caring about someone does not lead to dependency but emotional fulfilment.
But the spell breaks when they return to the mainland. Attending a party with Alex, Kate is served with a reminder about how out of place she is in his world: a chance meeting with her ex leads to bitter humiliation and it’s enough for Kate to decide that it can never work between her and Alex. They’re too different and she’s too afraid of being hurt again.
Alex feels betrayed at Kate’s rejection after the party. He defended her – stepping in to help someone else was a huge step for him in the first place – so why did she throw it back in his face? He wants what they had on the island but he still can’t reconcile these feelings with what he’s been brought up to believe: that being dependent on someone else for your happiness makes you weak. Way out of his comfort zone, he decides that perhaps his parents were right after all, that looking after number one is the most important thing.
But then they discover that their island tryst has had consequences: Kate is pregnant. She’s appalled. Not only is she in love with someone she doesn’t want to be in love with, she’s also having his baby! Alex is horrified too – the ultimate in dependency requires the ultimate in unselfishness. But now it’s happened, he realises he wants it more than anything in the world. So he challenges her: she must get over her fear of not being good enough for him and understand that their differences need not divide them. Kate answers with a challenge of her own: if she’ll do that for him, can he get over his need for emotional self-sufficiency and commit to her as well as their child? But for Alex, admitting finally that he loves her, there’s no need to compromise. He’ll do whatever it takes to have her and his child in his life. Permanently.

I think I put everything but the kitchen sink into that synopsis but anyway, here’s what’s wrong with it:
Firstly and most importantly, where are Kate and Alex’s conflicts? They’re not in the first couple of paragraphs and because they’re not, nothing the characters do or feel really makes any sense. When an editor reads a synopsis (this is just a guess here folks ’cause I’ve actually got no idea. It’s more how I would read a synopsis) she’ll want to know immediately why these two feel they can’t be together. If she knows straight up, then she’ll be able to see why/how the characters make the decisions they do and if they make sense.
If not, she’ll be left asking herself questions like these:
What were Kate’s past mistakes? Why does Alex’s interest incense Kate? Why is he vulnerable? Why is that attractive to her? What made her lose her sense of fun? What does being not of his world have anything to do with their romance? Why are they too different? Why will it never work? Why was it a huge step for him to defend her? Why did he learn this lesson from his parents?

You see? I’m sure you can spot the other questions in the subsequent paragraphs too. But all these questions pretty much stem from the same reason – what are the conflicts here? And the short answer to that is: there aren’t any. Not anything internal anyway. All the baby stuff etc, scene with the ex, is all just me trying to cover the fact that there was nothing to keep Kate and Alex apart. There’s hints – Kate’s past mistakes, Alex’s parents, but nothing concrete.

So if that’s not a very good synopsis, what’s a good one? I’m not the world’s greatest synopsis writer and I’m certainly not setting myself up as one, but I can do better than the above these days. Next post I’ll redo the synopsis the way it probably should have been done the first time and you can see if it’s better or not.

13 thoughts on “The Joy of the One Page Synopsis”

  1. I gobbled up your post, Jackie.

    Many thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve gone a bit cross eyed trying to squeeze more info by turning sentences around, upside down.

    From what I gather, editors read the partial first and then the synopsis so I’ve decided to omit space fillers such as age, reasoning that the editor would already have picked that up from the partial.

  2. Veronica, the synopsis is only to tell the editor you actually have a story to go with the partial. And also so she can see how the conflicts play out and how they’re resolved. So, yep, anything that does not revolve around the central conflict should be omitted. As should be any ‘voice’ type fancy-bits in your writing. You’ll see how I manage that in the updated synop. When I do it. Argh! 🙂

  3. I’m so looking forward to your follow up synopsis.

    I spent the weekend working on my comp one and you’re absolutely right. Bare bones is the way to go. At this point it reads like a house of cards, pull something out and everything collapses, as one sentence flows onto the next. Of course, now I’m having a hair tearing moment ‘cos there’s a line I want to shift as it’s out sequence (from the story).

    I’m comparing your blog to a box of chocolates. I never know what I’m going to learn, but it’s bound to be good (so long as it’s not Turkish Delight…never did acquire the taste for it. I’m more of a soft centre/cointreau choc truffle type)

  4. I’m hoping I don’t end up giving you a Turkish Delight, Veronica! Or worse (for me at least) a coconut one.

    Glad it’s been helpful, Joyce. Keep asking yourself those ‘why’ questions. You can’t include everything in a short synopsis so only keep the internal conflict and the main emotional turning points of the story.

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