How to Write The Elusive Synopsis, by Raymond Bolton

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The Elusive Synopsis


You’ve labored on your novel for months, maybe years, until finally it’s ready. Your query letter is polished, or you’ve had a conference face-to-face, and then… your potential agent requests a synopsis. “What?” you say. Sixty, eighty, one hundred thousand words reduced to two pages or worse, one double-spaced page? How is that possible? For days or weeks you struggle with it. You toss page after page and still, at the end of it all, it’s crap, a real yawner. You have crafted a tight, gripping, compelling book and your synopsis reads, “He did this, Then, he said that. The other guy did something bad, so he … ” It’s what happened, alright, but you can’t deny this reads like death on paper. It’s happened to me, time and again. And though with each iteration the crafting improved, the excitement was still missing. What was wrong with this picture?

Online instructions didn’t help. Some have been undeniable garbage. One blogger suggested reducing each chapter to a single sentence. For my epic fantasy, two pages would permit seven words per chapter. My thriller wouldn’t fare much better.

My first clue to what I was doing wrong stemmed from the 2010 PNWA literary contest which stipulated that the synopsis focus on the arc of the story: the protagonist’s journey. With that caveat in mind, I began anew, crafting incredible dullness. Then, this morning, an epiphany: I realized I did not understand my story. I knew every twist and turn, every confrontation, but I did not understand what was at the heart of it. I did not understand what excited me and, hence, could not understand what would excite the reader… or the agent.

It began when I could not find a way to include the woman who was the protagonist’s love interest—no way to discuss her without descending into bland exposition. All at once, it came to me: as prominent as she was in the narrative, in reality she was nothing more than a device I created to evoke an emotional response from the reader. She had nothing to do with the protagonist’s mission: to deliver a story on television that could draw the world back from an impending nuclear war. And while much of the other action supplied suspense or excitement, these scenes, too, were devices—not the story.

The story, I realized, begins with the protagonist’s problem and concludes with the riveting, hopefully unexpected solution to that problem. In between, it consists of only those elements that specifically propel him from one to the other or offer setbacks. It also consists of what he learns and how he changes in the process. Everything else is device. Even to include subplots, except as they contribute to this journey, is to deviate.

The story is a journey of the mind, of the heart, of the soul—not one of action. If action were what compels the reader to turn the page, we would all regularly tune in to TV wrestling. There is action aplenty in the ring. It was certainly not action that brought millions to A Room With A View. Presumed Innocent was about something deeper than murder and violence. Great fantasies like Lord of the Rings or science fiction classics like Dune were really about the essence of humanity. When I arrived at that simple truth, the synopsis became easy. Now that I understand, I can describe this journey in one double-spaced page.

The synopsis:

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Recently returned from interviewing the mujahidin in Afghanistan, NATHAN HOLLISTER, who has been promised he can air a politically balanced story about the conflict in Kunar Province, sees that possibility vanish when the network reneges, caving to sponsors’ demands.

Meanwhile, Hollister’s videographer is approached by a young terrorist whose cell is working to poison Manhattan’s water supply with ricin. Unwilling to let his own family die, the young man provides details of the plan that the videographer delivers to the F.B.I.

While the cell’s efforts approach completion, world events escalate. When the U.S. President condemns Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb, Baghdad kidnaps his children as security before attempting to annihilate Tel Aviv. Israel responds to the attack with a tactical nuclear strike. These incidents relegate Hollister’s story to mere context for the brewing global crisis. Determined to air something relevant, he appears to accede to network demands, working instead on two versions: one to show his producer, who is insisting on a less inflammatory story, and a potentially career-ending one he intends to substitute on the night of the broadcast.

When the authorities prevent the ricin attack, the cell leader attacks Hollister, whom he holds responsible. As Hollister recuperates, torn between his career and the truth, one reporter’s Langley, Virginia contact leaks the unreported U.S. abduction of the Iranian leader’s offspring.

Journalistic honesty becomes imperative when the President responds to Iran’s bellicosity by indicating readiness to go to war. Hollister’s story airs and begins along network guidelines until he goes off script, informing the world of the heretofore secret tit-for-tat kidnappings, backing his assertions with leaked footage of the hostages. The network cuts short the broadcast, fires him and a political firestorm ensues. Nations, outraged over being drawn to the brink by what amounts to personal vendetta, force a weapons draw-down and Hollister is vindicated.

Another example:

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In this epic fantasy set on another world, REGILIUS, the Prince of Ydron, awakens, his head filled with visions of murder and an uncanny awareness certain creatures are trying to kill him. He learns these would-be killers belong to a predatory species, the DALTHIN, who enslave worlds telepathically and that he and a yet-unnamed-other have been engineered to perceive these invaders in order to direct the world against them. When DUILE, his mother, murders his father, the land descends into chaos and the prince may not be able to unite his people. Struggling to accept what he has learned, Regilius flees Ydron, hoping to devise a strategy.

Meanwhile, MARM, the royal nanny, carries princess LITH-AN away from the palace carnage in search of the telepathic outlaw, PITHIEN DUR. Dur, she believes, might be the one to incite the people to rise up. She offers her knowledge of the palace as an enticement.

Reluctant to slay the one who gave him life in order to assume the throne, but convinced his mother must fall, Regilius struggles to find a way around his dilemma while enlisting allies against her. Although armies collide and his own eventually triumph, he realizes only a fundamental change can remedy the troubles plaguing the land—ills his family has caused. When he returns home with Lith-An, the unnamed other, to confront their mother, she jails them and orders her children killed. With plans of her own, Dur enters the fortress as Duile’s assassin.

As Dur stalks the queen, something unexpected unfolds. The proximity of these three psychic anomalies, the siblings and the outlaw, catalyzes an unforeseen linking of minds—first their own, then those nearby, potentially the entire world. Sensing the growing network can prevent the planned conquest, one Dalthin hastens to destroy the trio. Events take on a life of their own until, amid a flurry of violence and the intertwining of minds, the world awakens to a unifying consciousness obviating the Dalthin threat. Although Duile is slain, Regilius renounces the throne, thereby paving the path to his people’s self-governance.


Raymond Bolton is an aspiring author living in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Toni, and their cats, Georgie and Sophia. He has written poetry, for which he has received some recognition, and three novels. Two are explorations in other world fantasy: Renunciation, an epic, and Thought Gazer, an adventure, part of a planned trilogy and prequel to the epic. His most recent one, The Message, is a political thriller.

Until it was disbanded at the end of 2012, he was an invited, featured contributor to  a writers’ blog showcasing, aside from himself, eleven authors, most of whom are multi-published with several awards among them. In 2010, having written only nineteen poems ever, he garnered third place for poetry in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual literary contest. In 2013, Renunciation was a finalist in that same competition and won’s June First Chapter competition.

Both Renunciation and The Message are scheduled for publication in early 2014. Thought Gazer will be released later that year, as will Fallout, a novel still in development, and sequel to The Message. The first three chapters of Mr. Bolton’s three completed novels are available for download as PDFs from his website: . Should you choose sign the site’s guestbook, you will receive early notification of each work’s release date.

To follow Raymond on Twitter: @RaymondBolton



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  1. Thank you for this post. I can see that capturing the essence of the story as a “journey of the mind, of the heart, of the soul” of the protagonist will make writing a synopsis so much easier. Thank you also for including the two novel synopses — great examples that I’ll come back to.

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