We’re so thrilled to have Pintip Dunn stop by today on her GIRL ON THE VERGE release day to talk about writing the perfect synopsis. She presented this at our Pitch Wars Roadshow at the RT Booklovers convention in Atlanta, and I begged her to do it for us before Pitch Wars 2017 submission window opened. But I wanted to talk a little bit about her book before we jump into the guest post. It’s an #ownvoices book and it is so good you guys. Grab your copy today! You will not be disappointed. And there’s more! Go to the end of this post for the release giveaway and to read an excerpt from GIRL OF THE VERGE.
So here’s something about this fabulous book …
GIRL ON THE VERGE
From the author of The Darkest Lie comes a compelling, provocative story for fans of I Was Here and Vanishing Girls, about a high school senior straddling two worlds, unsure how she fits in either—and the journey of self-discovery that leads her to surprising truths.
In her small Kansas town, at her predominantly white school, Kanchana doesn’t look like anyone else. But at home, her Thai grandmother chides her for being too westernized. Only through the clothing Kan designs in secret can she find a way to fuse both cultures into something distinctly her own.
When her mother agrees to provide a home for a teenage girl named Shelly, Kan sees a chance to prove herself useful. Making Shelly feel comfortable is easy at first—her new friend is eager to please, embraces the family’s Thai traditions, and clearly looks up to Kan. Perhaps too much. Shelly seems to want everything Kanchana has, even the blond, blue-eyed boy she has a crush on. As Kan’s growing discomfort compels her to investigate Shelly’s past, she’s shocked to find how it much intersects with her own—and just how far Shelly will go to belong…
LINK TO WEBSITE’S BOOK PAGE: http://www.pintipdunn.com/gotv/
Writing the Perfect Synopsis by Pintip Dunn
Show of (virtual) hands… Who loves writing synopses? Who hates them? Ha. Unfortunately, synopses are a necessary evil. You may need to provide one to Pitch Wars mentors, agents, and/or editors. In fact, I just had to write one last week, in order to pitch a new book to my editor. So, the sooner you become comfortable with them, the better. I hope you’ll find the following tips helpful in writing a synopsis. As always, take whatever advice resonates with you and throw out the rest. Remember, this is MY perspective on how to write a synopsis. You may not agree, and that’s totally okay! There is not one single correct approach.
First and foremost, I’d like to tell you about a strategy I use to make this arduous task go by more quickly. Set the timer to one hour. And then write, as quickly as you can, without stopping. By the time the hour is finished, you should have a draft with which to work. I’ve found that it is WAY easier to revise and improve upon a draft than to start from scratch.
Secondly, do NOT include every single event, every single scene, every single detail in your synopsis. The most common mistake I see are synopses that read like this: “…and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” Your synopsis is not a summary of events. The purpose of your synopsis is to TELL A STORY. If there’s only one thing you should remember about my post today, it should be this.
Remember, in elementary school, when our teachers taught us how to structure a paragraph? One main topic sentence per paragraph, three supporting details. I’m not saying you should necessarily have three supporting details, but if the fact or event you want to include doesn’t support your main topic sentence in some way, it shouldn’t be there.
But let’s take it one step further. The topic sentences of each paragraph need to connect to one another, and each successive one needs to show forward progression through the story. In other words, taken together, the topic sentences should form a short summary paragraph of your story.
Put another way: your synopsis should focus on the TURNING POINTS of your story, with as minimal information as possible to connect them and have the story make sense. If I had to sum up how to write a synopsis in one sentence, it would be this one.
So…what is a turning point? Clearly, the above statement would be much more helpful if you knew the answer to this question. Simply put, turning points are the key moments in a story that incites the most change. I would venture to say that the better grasp you have of story structure, the easier it will be for you to write a synopsis.
Clearly, I can’t sum up story structure in a single blog post about synopses. There are many different forms a story can take, and my books follow different structures depending on what the story needs. However, I will give a quick overview of basic turning points, and these will correspond to the paragraphs of a synopsis.
If you want to learn more about story structure, I’d recommend three sources — Michael Hague’s Story Mastery, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Laura Baker’s Story Magic.
The first paragraph: The introduction. Some people like to put in the hook or the story premise — the special something that sets it apart from other stories. Or, they like to give some background on the world. For me, unless the world-building is intense, and I need to explain the world right off the bat (which I have done on one occasion), I like to jump right into telling the story, without a summary at the beginning. This means that I usually skip this paragraph, but that’s just me. My opinion is that this kind of thing belongs in the query, not the synopsis. I know a lot of people do this differently, but I have to say, I’ve never had an agent or editor complain because I didn’t include a summary of the story.
Second paragraph: The inciting incident. This is the incident that takes everything the character thought he or she knew and turns it on its head. It is the incident that throws us into the story and gets it started. A rule of thumb is that it occurs about 10 percent into the story, but it can start earlier or later. In some YAs, which tend to move faster, you might see the inciting incident by the end of the first chapter.
A note about Ordinary Life, which is who the character is at the beginning of the story, before the inciting incident. Remember what I said about providing the minimal information necessary for the story to make sense? This is definitely necessary information for readers to understand exactly how and why the inciting incident rocks the main character’s world.
Third Paragraph — Act I. Climax: generally around 25 percent. Point of no return. Your character doesn’t have the option to go back to his or her normal life. She has no choice but to move forward. At this point, the character is still clinging desperately to his or her old ways, but he or she is coming under more and more stress.
Fourth Paragraph — Midpoint. Generally at 50 percent. For most plots, this is the part where the main character feels like he or she has a handle on the situation and that everything is going to work out. In a W plot, this is the top of the curve, right before it all goes to hell. (In an M plot, this would be the bottom of the curve). Also, if there is a romance, this is typically the first moment of intense emotional connection, whether it be a kiss (in YA) or something more (in adult genres).
Fifth paragraph: Act 2 Climax, normally at 75 percent. — This is when it all goes to hell.
Sixth paragraph: Black Moment — All Seems Lost – Lost Night of the Soul. There are many names for this moment, but this is the point when the character has retreated completely to his or her old ways and it doesn’t seem like anything can pull him or her out of this awful situation.
Seventh Paragraph: Act 3 Climax — this is the main character’s big moment. When he or she make a decision that shows how irrevocably changed he or she is as a result of the story. Often times, this action also saves the day (if you’re telling that kind of story). Most importantly, your main character should be driving the action here; the ultimate resolution should come about because of his or her action, not someone else’s.
Eighth Paragraph: Resolution
Yes, you give the ending of the story in your synopsis. Remember, the PW mentor or agent or editor does NOT want to be surprised here. You lay it all out on the table, because the mentor or editor or agent is evaluating how well you understand story structure. So don’t keep your cards hidden.
- Do add your voice.
- Your synopsis should always be written in third-person, present tense no matter the tense or POV of your novel.
- Keep your synopsis to around 500 -1000 words, unless otherwise stated. A one-page synopsis is single-spaced with breaks between paragraphs. Two-pages or more should be double-spaced and formatted like a manuscript.
Best of luck to all of you in writing your synopses!
About the author …
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Pintip Dunn is a New York Times bestselling author of YA fiction. She graduated from Harvard University, magna cum laude, with an A.B. in English Literature and Language. She received her J.D. at Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the YALE LAW JOURNAL.
Pintip is represented by literary agent Beth Miller of Writers House. Her novel, FORGET TOMORROW, won the RWA RITA® for Best First Book. In addition, it is a finalist for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, the Japanese Sakura Medal, the MASL Truman Award, and the Tome Society It List. THE DARKEST LIE was nominated for a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her other books include GIRL ON THE VERGE, REMEMBER YESTERDAY, and the forthcoming SEIZE TODAY.
She lives with her husband and children in Maryland. You can learn more about Pintip and her books at www.pintipdunn.com
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A fish swims beneath the open staircase in my Khun Yai’s house. A real live fish, with its translucent fins fluttering in the water, its belly gold-scaled and bloated from regular feedings. If I part my knees, I can catch long glimpses of its lazy swimming through the gap in the stairs.
Of course, I’m not supposed to part my knees. It’s not ladylike for a twelve-year-old girl, not here, not in Thailand. The land where my parents grew up; the place that’s supposed to be my home, too. That’s what the banner said, when my relatives came to pick us up at the airport. “Welcome home, Kanchana.”
Never mind that I only come to Thailand every couple years. Never mind that I don’t look like anyone else here, with my American build and my frizzy, out-of-control hair. Never mind that I don’t look like anyone in my hometown, either, since I’m the only Asian girl in school. Never mind that the only reason we’re here now is because my father’s dead and my mom can’t keep it together.
For a moment, pain lances through me, so sharp and severe that it might as well slice my heart in half, like in one of those video games my friends like to play. I squeeze my eyes shut, but that doesn’t keep the tears from spilling out. Neither do the glasses sliding down my nose. And so the tears drip down, down, down, past my unladylike knees, through the gap in the stairs, into the fish basin below.
The drops scare the fish, who swims away with its tail swishing in the water, no longer languid, no longer lazy. So, even this creature wants to get away from me—from my grief, from my strangeness—as quickly as possible.
“There you are, luk lak,” Khun Yai says in Thai, coming down the stairs. She is my mother’s mother, and since we arrived, she’s used the endearment—child that I love—more often than my name.
“You’re up early.” She pats her forehead with a handkerchief. It’s only seven a.m., and already sweat drenches my skin like I’ve taken a dip in the basin. No wonder they take two or three showers a day here.
“Couldn’t sleep. Jet lag.”
“I’ve been up for a couple hours myself.” She eases onto the step next to me, her knees pressed together, her legs folded demurely to one side.
Immediately, I try to rearrange my body to look like hers and then give up. My legs just don’t go that way.
“What do you want to do today?” Khun Yai asks. “More shopping?”
“Um, no thanks.” I make a face. “Didn’t you hear those salesgirls at Siam Square yesterday? They rushed up as soon as we entered and said they didn’t have anything in my size.” My cheeks still burn when I think about their haughty expressions.
She sighs. “The clothes there are just ridiculously small. We’ll go to the mall today. They should have something that will fit you.”
I stare at her diminutive frame and her chopstick legs. “One of the salesgirls asked how much I weighed. Another grabbed my arm and said I felt like a side pillow.”
“They didn’t mean any harm. It is just the Thai way to be blunt.” She catches my chin and tilts up my face. “You are so beautiful. I wish you could see that.”
I could say so many things. I could tell her that I’m ugly not only in Thailand but also in the United States. Even though I’m not big by American standards—far from it—I could confess how the boys call me Squinty. How those Thai salesgirls snickered at my poodle-fuzz hair. I could explain how I’m from two worlds but fit in neither.
But I don’t. Because my words will only make her sad, and there have been enough tears in our family.