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Saturday, March 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Synopsis Work?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines
 
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Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s questions:

Does this synopsis work?

Is it confusing and hard to follow?

Do you get a sense of characters?


Market/Genre:

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Vanessa Barrett is only fourteen, when her grandmother, Cecilia, asks for an extraordinary favor. In order to prevent a blackmail attempt from an affair, Cecilia begs Vanessa to agree to an arranged marriage. A shocked Vanessa refuses, angering the mobster attempting to bargain off his grandson, Quinn Grant.

Twenty years later, after a recent divorce, Vanessa moves to San Francisco. Now settled into her family home, she slips back into the role of an offspring from a famous aviation family.

At the airport one afternoon, while waiting for a cab, Vanessa meets Quinn. Their paths cross again at a retirement dinner for her brother. Quinn chases Vanessa, asking her to marry him after a few dates.

Vanessa is leery. She questions whether this man is sincere with his love, or if his attempt to marry her is part of a long-ago scheme to use her family for unlawful purposes. She accepts his proposal, giving her the opportunity to explore his intentions.

Quinn's grandfather sends a messenger to Vanessa, warning her to step away from her proposed marriage to Quinn. Plans to merge families did not include her, other arrangements were made. Another woman was chosen.

After Quinn rescues Vanessa from a kidnapping, she becomes determined to stay in their relationship. When Quinn leaves on a trip to Paris, Vanessa seeks to end her dispute with his grandfather without getting killed in the process.

While on a horseback riding adventure, Vanessa lures Quinn’s grandfather into a meeting. She convinces Richard that she's the only one who can produce a Grant offspring. Without her, their line will be lost. But, it takes a gunshot to his foot before Richard agrees not interfere with their marriage.

Quinn returns in time for a sunset ceremony on the beach.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Vanessa Barrett is only fourteen, when her grandmother, Cecilia, asks for an extraordinary favor.] This looks like backstory, but it’s phrased as if this is the opening of the book. Perhaps say “When Vanessa was…” instead to show this was a past event and not how the book opens? [In order to prevent a blackmail attempt from an affair,] This is hard to understand Cecilia begs Vanessa to agree to an arranged marriage. [A shocked Vanessa refuses, angering the mobster attempting to bargain off his grandson, Quinn Grant.] Same here. I like the ideas behind them, but the sentence construction feels forced to get in certain details

Twenty years later, [after a recent divorce, Vanessa moves to San Francisco.] Here as well. Try flipping these two bits, or moving the divorce part to another sentence Now settled into her family home, [she slips back into the role of an offspring from a famous aviation family.] I don’t know what this means. It also feels disconnected to the opening

At the airport one afternoon, while waiting for a cab, Vanessa [meets Quinn.] Does she know who he is or recognize the name? Their paths cross again at a retirement dinner for her brother. Quinn chases Vanessa, asking her to marry him [after a few dates.] This implies she dated him, so I feel like I’m missing an important aspect of this story

Vanessa is leery. She questions whether this man is sincere with his love, or if his attempt to marry her is part of a long-ago scheme to use her family [for unlawful purposes.] What purpose? [She accepts his proposal, giving her the opportunity to explore his intentions.] Why not just keep dating him until she figures it out?

Quinn's grandfather sends a messenger to Vanessa, warning her [to step away from her proposed marriage to Quinn.] This feels a bit overwritten just to say “break off the engagement” [Plans to merge families did not include her, other arrangements were made. Another woman was chosen.] I don’t understand this. The marriage was part of a blackmail scheme, wasn’t it? And what does “merge families?” mean? How is her family connected to mobsters?

[After Quinn rescues Vanessa from a kidnapping,] We missed what led up to this, so it comes out of the blue [she becomes determined to stay in their relationship.] I’m not getting a sense that it’s from love, though When Quinn leaves on a trip to Paris, Vanessa seeks to end [her dispute] I don’t understand what the dispute is with his grandfather without getting killed in the process.

[While on a horseback riding adventure, Vanessa lures Quinn’s grandfather into a meeting.] It feels like there’s more to this we’re not seeing She convinces [Richard] he’s been “Quinn’s grandfather” all along, so this is a bit jarring that [she's the only one who can produce a Grant offspring.] This comes out of the blue. It’s also odd, since any fertile woman can do this [Without her, their line will be lost.] How? [But, it takes a gunshot to his foot before Richard agrees not interfere with their marriage.] So she shoots him? This also comes out of the blue.

Quinn returns in time for a sunset ceremony on the beach. This seems to wrap up awfully quickly

The questions:

1. Does this synopsis work?


No. I can’t tell what this book is about besides a weird arranged marriage gone awry. There’s no clear goal stated, no strong sense of conflict, and while the stakes do escalate, I have no idea how anything connects or how the events go from one to the other. There seems to be a romance here between Vanessa and Quinn, but it never actually says they fall and in love or show their relationship blossoming. She goes from being suspicious of Quinn to shooting his grandfather and getting married.

(Here’s more on writing a synopsis)

2. Is it confusing and hard to follow?

Yes. I suspect this is due to trying to keep it short, though. It jumps from plot point to plot point without any explanation of how the characters get there. I’ve no doubt this makes sense once you’ve read the story, but to a new reader, it’s hard to follow the events.

The typical synopsis is one to three pages, around 500-1200 words give or take. This is trying to sum up an entire novel in under 300. The only way to do that, it to be very general and capture the conflict of the novel conceptually, such as “Quinn’s mobster family threatens Vanessa’s life and the safety of her family unless she agrees to break off her engagement with Quinn” or the like.

What I get from this synopsis as is:

Vanessa’s grandmother got caught in an affair and was blackmailed into trying to marry off her granddaughter (but I have no idea why, or what happened when she said no. If she refused, doesn’t that mean she was blackmailed?)

Vanessa is from a famous aviation family (but that means nothing to me and I don’t know why it matters to the story or the arranged marriage aspect, or what “her role” in it is)

Vanessa and Quinn meet again and he falls for her—maybe (but I never understood if this romance was real or part of the nebulous plot of the families)

Vanessa is unsure of his true motives, but eventually decides to marry Quinn, and the grandfather says she can’t and tries to scare her off (but I don’t understand why he’d do this, or if she really does love Quinn, or exactly what’s going on in this relationship)

Vanessa is the only one capable of giving them a Grant baby (but I don’t know what this means, and it makes no sense since any woman Quinn had a baby with would be a Grant baby, unless Vanessa is really a Grant and Quinn isn’t and there’s a switched at birth thing going on that’s not clear. Maybe this is connected to the affair that Granny was being blackmailed over?)

Vanessa shoots the grandfather and marries Quinn anyway (which seems like a complication to the problem, not the solution to it)

I get the sense that this is a romance between two people with a complicated family history, but it’s hard to know what else is really going on here. Expanding on the events would help clear things up, especially showing the motivations and transition on how the story gets from plot point to plot point.

(Here’s another article on writing a synopsis)

3. Do you get a sense of characters?

No, because there’s no motivation or personality here. They’re just names connected to certain events and plot points. For example, it never actually says Vanessa falls in love with Quinn, or that their romance is real, it just goes from her being suspicious to deciding to marry him.

(Here’s more on deciding what to put into your query letter)

Overall, I think if this was 1000 words it would make more sense and fill in a lot of the gaps. It’s just trying to put too much into a short piece and the necessary information is being left out. A good synopsis is just as much about the why as the what, and there’s no why here to show how one event triggers the next.

I’d suggest rewriting this with all the information and details to explain the story without worrying about the length. Then see how long it is and cut as needed to fit whatever size you need. You’ll likely have several versions, since some agents/editors want a one-page synopsis and others are fine with longer. If you have a solid one-page and three-page synopsis, you’ll have what you need for most submissions.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer


Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urbanfantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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2 comments:

  1. Of all the things Janice said here, one seems most important of all: it doesn't feel like she loves him. In fact, it's not clear what she feels at all.

    This is focused on capturing the steps of the plot-- and it's a good, twisty one. But I'm not getting a sense of how Vanessa views it, why she reacts one way instead of another. We tend to be playing catch-up here; you say they're dating so she must be attracted to Quinn; you say she fights for the marriage, but we didn't feel it becoming so important to her.

    Behind that, this doesn't say what kind of person Vanessa is, and how that affects her story. If she's in an aviation family, are you implying she's a daredevil type who jumps at challenges but is too proud to forgive betrayal? Or is she someone else, and that makes this a different personal challenge for her? We're missing the first half of the "*this* person has to face *that*??" synergy.

    If a synopsis needed to be this short, a single central mention of what type Vanessa is and that it's about fighting for a Great Love would keep us on track for it all. If it's longer, we'd want more signs of how she's reacting and how that changes-- still only a few, though, a synopsis is still mostly about letting the plot imply who she is by what she does. But mostly, not completely.

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  2. This sounds more like a query than a synopsis. But even at that, as Janice says, it's missing some important ingredients. This from Query Shark:

    A query letter MUST tell an agent what the book is about
    1. Who is the main character?
    2. What does he want?
    3. What is keeping him from getting what he wants?
    4. What must he sacrifice to get what she wants?
    How to convey what the book is about:
    1. The main character must decide whether to: do THIS or do THAT
    2. If s/he decides to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are:
    3. If s/he decides NOT to do this: the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are:
    THE QUERY LETTER IS ALL ABOUT THE DILEMMA, NOT THE PAYOFF.
    o Dilemma: Yes! Your query letter should explain the MC’s dilemma. Get right to the crux of the problem.
    o Details: Yes and No! Definitely give enough details to entice. Don’t put so many details in that you muddy the central storyline. And don’t give away the ending.
    o Synopsis: Include the ending! Query letter: Don’t include the ending!

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