Writing the Selling Romance Synopsis

Lately, I've found myself referring to a post I wrote on one of the toughest tasks in fiction back in June for the Mid-Williamette Valley Chapter of RWA. Synopsis writing may be a daunting challenge, but it's critical enough that I thought the article worth reposting here today. Hope you'll find this rerun-worthy.

I thought I’d take time to chat a bit today about what began for me (and still sometimes feels like) a hideous torment and ended up an effective tool for selling and shaping more than fifteen books: the writing of the romance synopsis. Like a lot of writers, I started out my writing life as a pantser, meandering my way through hundreds of pages while my characters and stories developed. Since I didn’t have an instinctive feel for story structure, I often wrote myself down blind alleys, had to cut massively, couldn’t predict the length of the completed manuscript, and took approximately forever to finish.

But I’m a pantser, I thought. I can’t do it any differently. And besides, I hate writing the synopsis and would rather put it off until I finish a manuscript.

Flash forward mumble-mumble years, to when I sold my first book, a historical romance. (Before I wrote romantic suspense under my own name, I did seven U.S.-set historical romances as Gwyneth Atlee and Colleen Easton.) At the time of the sale, I was about a hundred pages into a second historical, which my agent told me she believed she could sell if I’d give her the first three chapters and a synopsis.

The thought was paralyzing. Would I steal the story’s magic by putting it down on paper before the manuscript unfolded? But the lure of selling a second book quickly was strong, so I sucked it up and pretended I was writing a short story (though in present tense), tossing in little snippets of clever dialogue to help illustrate the characters, and lots of exciting, harrowing events. I was surprised to find it was easier to summarize scenes I hadn’t yet written, and easier to see the big picture.

Except I forgot the biggest. Yes, I initially left out the romance. (Duh!) Since then, I’ve discovered beginning/early career writers do this all the time, focusing on the external plot because to their minds, the romantic journey goes without saying.

No, actually, it doesn’t. Because every couple’s story is fresh and unique, for one thing (or you’d better make it seem so!) and the editor needs some assurance that you realize this book is shelved in romance and that you’re consciously aware of and can articulate the stages readers have come to suspect. Woven through the external story elements, I’ve found you need to put your own unique spin on the following steps in the romantic journey.

1. Attraction/awareness
2. “Forced” proximity despite obstacles
3. Development of emotional and/or physical relationship overcoming characters’ reservations
4. Dark moment/separation, often involving real/perceived betrayal or recognition of insurmountable obstacles
5. Sacrifice leading to a romantic resolution with a – here’s the clincher - strong emotional payoff.

Critics may feel this sort of thing reduces genre romance to a formula. But nobody bashes mystery writers (since my romantic suspense novels all involve a murder mystery, I have to be aware of this as well for my external plot) for adhering to reader expectations involving the presence of viable clues, multiple suspects, convincing distractions (red herrings, if you don’t handle them well) and a credible, satisfying solution. You’re simply showing the editor or agent that you understand the rules of the game, that you’re not trying to play tennis on a basketball court.

Do you love synopses? Hate them? Do any of you have questions or tips on the process that you’d enjoy sharing? I’d love to hear from you.

P.S.- Artwork from Romance without Tears, available on Amazon. 'Cause retro romance is a hoot.


Pamala Knight said…
Oh my goodness! Add fairy godmother to your list of titles, please. I'm taking a query/synopsis class and am worried that I won't have any hair left at all, I'm so terrified. When I try to get the gist of my sprawling story down, I do exactly what you said--leave the romance out. I've included all of the criteria in the story, I just have some genetic predisposition to not being able to express it in a synopsis or query.

Your post is very helpful and I think that with the encouragement, I can make good use of your advice.

Thanks! Love this blog, by the way.
Thank you so much, Pamala. I'm glad to share the fruit of my many misadventures. :)
TJ Bennett said…
Timely reminders, Colleen. I haven't written a synopsis in a couple of years, and now find it even more daunting than before (and I was pretty daunted then). The dang book was easier to write.

I'll make sure to check your list twice before I finish with my current one. Thanks!

Great summary (synopsis, LOL) of the romance synopsis. I am linking this from my writing blog (because I've had NO time to come up with writing tips of my own lately).
Thanks, TJ. And good luck with that synopsis. :)

And you're too busy to write about the writing life because you're living it, Jenn. In spades. I appreciate the link.
Wonderful post! Like you, I fear writing synopses because it feels like I will lose the spark and first burst of excitement that came with the brainstorming session. And I also leave out the romance! I'm saving this post to print out as it is especially handy now that I'm entering the Golden Heart.
Thanks, Evangeline! I wish you all the best as you put together your synopsis.

Good luck with the Golden Heart, too.
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