We’ve all been there or at least seen it in a film: a group of avid campers, gathers around a fire, chins tilted, eyes glittering as a teller holds them spellbound with a story. Campfire stories all share a common DNA, and that same genetic structure can become the basis of a synopsis for your work – no matter the genre. Before we get started, click on the link below marked SYNOPSIS WORKSHEET and print a copy. With this form and your trusty pencil in hand, I invite you to consider the following elements necessary to create enthralled audiences (even when over-stuffed with s’mores and up past bedtime).
1) Atmosphere – Campfire stories of course draw on the features of the landscape around them – dark, isolated, eerily quiet – but none of these factors is truly enough to make the average camper afraid. The teller must amplify these features and draw the attention of his listeners to them in order to create the exact frisson of fear. For your synopsis, you will want to find those elements of your story that amplify the setting. In Regency romance, fine clothes, fine manners and fine houses. In spy thrillers, guns, covert ops and a racing clock. No matter what kind of story you have written, take time to identify what makes up the unique atmosphere of your story. Write a list of these items on your synopsis worksheet. Choose four or five of the most commonly occurring atmospheric elements and highlight them.
2) Tropes – This is story shorthand. Tropes are elements that need no explanation, because our audience knows the drill. The virgin does not die is one such trope. Even if you have written the most original story since the dawn of time, it will contain tropes, because we humans use story tropes to organize and make sense of our lives. In the links below, I have included a list of the most common story tropes. Find the ones that exist in your story and make note of them on the synopsis worksheet.
3) Rising Tension – Campfire stories build. They start low and quiet and build to a fevered tension. This is why we are so rapt during their telling – even if the story itself is somewhat lacking in substance. The curiosity driving us to discover ‘and then what happened’ demands we move to the edge of our seats, we hold our breath, we strain for the climax. One of the links below is a Tent Pole plotting worksheet it will help you identify your climax points so you can visually recognize the rising and falling tension in your story. Note that the smaller poles are the secondary conflicts, the largest center pole is the final conflict. Add other poles to represent the obstacles that stop your hero from reaching his goal and though they will vary in length and number from story to story, they always fall into order between the beginning and end. As you label each plot-pole use the space next to it to write your main character’s reaction/emotion towards this complication. These are the key factors in the character’s arc. Complete this worksheet and attach it to your synopsis worksheet.
4) Subverted expectations – Just when you believe you are safe, BAM! The ghost reappears. Alternatively, when all hope is lost, the heroine dresses as a bounty hunter and sneaks in to free the hero from the carbonite. These reversals are key to good storytelling and you need to include these points in your synopsis. Make note of any key reversals or surprises in your story on your synopsis worksheet. These items should also be marked as poles on the other worksheet. If they are not there, add them now.
5) Big finish – How does the ghost get you? How do you escape? Is the ghost permanently vanquished or only for ‘this time’? On the back of your synopsis worksheet write three sentences about your climax – 1) Why there was no other choice but to XYZ. 2) My hero XYZd in this particular manner. 3) What happened after he/she XYZd. This climax is, of course the center pole on your Tent-pole worksheet.
You now have the tools to build the bones of your synopsis. Review your Tent-pole worksheet and decide (based on the length of your synopsis) how many of the poles to include. For this stage of the work, you want to use an odd number of plot points so that you can find the true middle of your story. Remember that a synopsis does not contain every detail of your story; it is there to serve as an overview of your character’s journey.
Now list the poles on the numbered lines provided on your Synopsis Worksheet, starting with the shortest pole on line one, and the longest/climax on the second tp bottom line. (Save the final line for what happens AFTER the hero completes the final conflict.) What happens after the beginning? That will be pole #2. What happens just before the final climax? That will be the third one up from the bottom. Continue filling in top and then bottom poles until you have listed all your plot points. This list is now your outline for writing your synopsis. Take a look at each of these items and mark the rising and falling action with up or down arrows. Does your story seem to flow with ups and downs leading constantly towards the final conflict? If so, good! If not, then perhaps you need to re-order some scenes.
Now it is time to write. Before you write the first paragraph of the synopsis, keep in mind the voice of a synopsis is always in third person, present tense – no matter what the tense or POV of the novel. The key is to keep the writing immediate and compelling. Also note, that convention requires character names appear in ALL CAPS for the first mention, and in normal Title Case from there on.
In your first paragraph, you need to set our expectations for the story. Build the atmosphere and prepare us for the main trope of your story. This paragraph should touch on the exposition of the first few chapters; it introduces the characters, the setting, and the conflict. Then in roughly one paragraph per plot point tell us the story, using as much detail from the atmosphere list as needed. Paragraphs can end with mini-cliffhangers to push us along from point to point. Keep the running phrase ‘and then what happened’ in mind as you write; push the pace and keep us on the edge of our seats.
When you are done, read back over what you have written. Look for holes in the narrative, and opportunities to use those atmospheric elements you discovered in step one. Finally – when you believe you have effectively created your synopsis, check the efficacy of it by gathering an audience (campfire is optional) and telling your story. Are they breathless, engaged, and desperate to know how it all ends? If yes, congratulations! If no, then re-work the synopsis until they are. Good luck campers and I cannot wait to hear your tales!
This has led her into all sorts of trouble throughout her life, most notably for the past 32 years with her husband and partner in crime, The Genius Composer.
Eddie has lived on a Wyoming cattle ranch, the Central California beaches, a Scottish city with a Castle in the middle, and most comfortably in her own imagination.