If you’re like most people, you find plotting a novel difficult, even with such helps as those I have identified and explained in many previous posts. There can never be enough tips or techniques, it seems, when it comes to making (or trying to make) plotting E-Z. So, here’s another tip: write your synopsis as if it’s the blurb inside the dust jacket of the finished book. Doing so is apt to help you to envision your novel as a finished product. It may also help you to emphasize the promotional aspects of your story, those features which are likely to sell your story to the reader (and, indeed, an editor).
In preparation for doing so, you might read a couple of existing blurbs. These will get you into the spirit of things and indicate how to ignite your prospective readers’ interest in your story. Here are a couple, to get you started, followed by one concerning one of my own novels. The first sample is from the book jacket of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991); the second is from the just jacket of Dean Koontz’s Breathless (2009). Each is superbly written.
With a demonic blend of malice and affection, Stephen King says goodbye to the town he put on the map--Castle Rock, Maine. . . where Polly Chalmers runs You Sew and Sew and Sheriff Alan Pangborn is in charge of keeping the peace. It’s a small town, and Stephen King fans might think they know its secrets pretty well: they’ve been here before.
Leland Grant is a stranger--and he calls his shop Needful Things. Eleven-year-old Brian Rusk is his first customer, and Brian finds just what he wants most in all the world: a ‘56 Sandy Koufax baseball card. By the end of the week, Mr. Gaunt’s business is fairly booming, and why not? At Needful Things, there’s something for everyone.
And, of course, there is always a price. For Leland Gaunt, the pleasure of doing business lies chiefly in seeing how much people will pay for their most secret dreams and desires. And as Leland Gaunt always points out, at Needful Things, the prices
are high in deed. Does that stop people from buying? Has it ever?
For Allan and Polly, this one week in autumn will be an awful test--a test of will, desire, and pain. Above all, it will be a test of their ability to grasp the true nature of their enemy. They may have a chance. . . But maybe not, because, as Mr. Gaunt knows, almost everything is for sale: love, hope, even the human soul.
With the potent storytelling authority that millions of readers have come to prize, Stephen King delivers an Our Town with a vengeance, an inimitable farewell to a place his fiction has often and long called home.
The blurb suggests the elements that appeal most to prospective readers: intriguing characters involved in an intriguing situation in a familiar location that involves an important theme and is told with flair. Adjectives further indicate what readers will encounter in the novel’s pages: “malice,” “affection,” humor (Chalmer’s shop is named “You Sew and Sew”), the “secrets” of a small town, a mysterious “stranger,” the question of “how much people will pay for their most secret dreams and desires,” and a severe testing of characters.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz delivers a thrilling novel of suspense and adventure, as the lives of strangers converge around a mystery unfolding high in the Colorado mountains--and the balance of the world begins to
tilt. . . .
In the stillness of a golden September afternoon, deep in the wilderness of the Rockies, a solitary craftsman, Grady Adams, and his magnificent Irish wolfhound, Merlin, step from shadow into light. . . and into an encounter with enchantment. That night, through the trees, under the moon, a pair of singular animals will watch Grady’s isolated home, waiting to make their approach. A few miles away, Camilla Rivers, a local veterinarian, begins to unravel the threads of a puzzle that will bring to her door all the forces of a government in peril.
At a nearby farm, long-estranged identical twins come together to begin a descent into darkness. . . . In Las Vegas, a specialist in chaos theory probes the boundaries of the unknowable. . .. On a Seattle golf course, two men make matter-of-fact arrangements for murder. . . . Along a highway by the sea, a vagrant scarred by the past begins a trek toward his destiny.
In a novel that is at once wholly of our time and timeless, fearless and funny, Dean Koontz takes readers into the moment between one turn of the world and the next, across the border between knowing and mystery. It is a journey that will leave all who take it Breathless.
What does the Koontz book blurb accomplish? It identifies the setting, introduces the protagonist and other major characters, suggests a situation of national importance that involves “the forces of a government in peril,” mentions a conspiracy to commit murder, alludes to a movement of mysterious forces, and indicates the narrative’s tone (“fearless and funny”). A bit vague about the details of the novel’s plot, the blurb’s elusiveness underscores the mystery of the forces at work, suggesting that fate may be operating behind the scenes, as it were. As with the King book blurb, the Koontz book blurb also uses adjectives to pinpoint the elements to which readers are known to respond: “mysterious,” “singular,” “isolated,” “unknowable,” “scarred,” “timeless,” “fearless,” and “funny.”
These blurbs are not the full-fledged synopses that editors will want to see when they are deciding whether to green light publication, of course. Their objective isn’t to summarize the entire plot of the novels they represent, but to pitch the basic storylines to prospective readers who are willing to read two or three hundred words to get an idea of what the book they hold in their hands may offer. A full-fledged synopsis will run 15 pages or more. Nevertheless, these blurbs are good starting places for writers faced with the task of plotting the basic idea for their latest (or, for that matter, first) novel. They supply such prerequisites of plotting as protagonist, antagonist, setting, conflict, tone, and theme. They seek an appealing means of orienting the writer’s storyline to readers’ interests.
Here is a blurb for my own first novel Saturday's Child:
Although Crystal Fall, her not-so-secret admirer David Lewis, and their friends Fran Newell and Dee Dee Dawkins crack jokes and behave in the silly manner characteristic of teens across America, what’s happening at their alma mater, Edgar Allan Poe High School, in southern California is no laughing matter.My blurb numbers 295 words: 48 (paragraph one), 87 (paragraph two), 64 (paragraph three), and 96 (paragraph 4), so the lengths are a bit uneven. Perhaps the text can be shortened a bit without losing the hoped-for appeal of the blurb to prospective readers. The relative lengths, in words, indicate where chopping may best take place: the second and last paragraphs are rather longwinded in comparison to the other two.
Their new principal, Dr. Snyder, has introduced changes, both to the school’s curriculum and to the way things are done at Poe, none of them good. For example, he not only lengthens the school days to twelve hours, but he also institutes Saturday school. Once open, the campus is now closed. In fact, it has become more like a prison than a school, with the patrol officers, or “trolls,” as the students call them, guarding the campus and surveillance cameras everywhere--even in the locker rooms and restrooms.
An odd dress code is imposed, governing even students’ choice of underwear. Strange, whispered messages are repeated all day in the music piped through the school’s public address system. Students are compelled to eat in the school cafeteria,
and a secret ingredient has been added to their food. A student health clinic is planned, wherein hypnotized students will receive mental health evaluations--and brain implants.
If the new administration wins, personal freedom will be lost forever, and Crystal and her friends will become the first of an army of brain-dead public servants in a new world order. And the odds seem stacked against the teens, for Principal Snyder is backed by top government officials with unlimited resources, including an endless supply of funds and military forces. But the teens are willing, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice, or even death, to take back their school, and Crystal and her friends have a secret ally: God is on their side!
As a rough draft, though, my novel’s blurb accomplishes the same sorts of things as those for King’s and Koontz’s books. Like their books’ blurbs, mine sets the tone; introduces the major players, including both the protagonist and the antagonist; identifies the basic conflict, implying that it is significant; establishes the setting; and suggests the story’s theme.
As a means of getting the novel’s basic outline down on paper in a compelling fashion, it’s a pretty good way to kick-start one’s imagination and get the creative juices flowing. Such a synopsis, although far from the level of detail that a publisher would require, also allows one to expand upon the basic storyline, adding details to fill out the plot, develop the characters, describe the setting, maintain the tone, expand the conflict, and convey the theme.
Not bad for fewer than 300 words.
Note: Saturday’s Child is available, in print or on CD, from Amazon.com.