WRITING A SYNOPSIS
As I put the final touches on "WHITE OF LIES", I've also started drafting a synopsis to submit to publishers, which got me thinking - I haven't covered this topic yet!
A synopsis is a short document, (typically one-sheet), that breaks down the who/how/why of your story or series. Every publisher's submission guidelines are different, so read carefully and follow them appropriately, but essentially, in one form or another, they need to know what your story is about.
I'm throwing in a sample of my own for a series I wrote a couple of years ago, "WELCOME TO DAHMERVILLE". (You didn't think I was going to cough up the secrets of my new series, did you?!) That way you have some working examples to reference. Now, having said that, this series was never picked up, so maybe it's a bad example of a synopsis or maybe the world just wasn't ready for a horror comedy series about serial killers returning from the beyond the grave.
Either way - I'll be covering some general formatting, terminology and discussing some points you'll need to know to pull your synopsis together.
Below is the original cover, with artwork by the amazing Jorge Corona and logo by Tim Fuller, to give you a visual queue before we jump in.
NOW - let's get started!
I borrowed this format from a colleague and I like the layout, but there's no right or wrong in terms of how to dish out this information. However, the more organized and easy it is to read, the better your chances of someone reading it. If you hand over a wall of text, I can assure you, eyes will glaze over, paper will be wadded up, and the only question about your project will be whether its worth 2 points in the trash can.
#1 - Right out of the gate, hit them with the important stuff. Title of the book/series, length, genre and who you are.
WELCOME TO DAHMERVILLE
Five-issue miniseries (Horror / Comedy)
Christopher Charlton - firstname.lastname@example.org
I don't find it necessary to add a physical address, but a phone number is optional here. Again, some submissions forms will ask for exactly what the publisher needs and if you're emailing this synopsis as a document, you can always include additional contact info in the email rather than muddying up your synopsis. That's valuable real estate!
#2 - Get your Logline in there. This is a short description of the actual story, which allows the reader to get an idea of what your story is about without reading your full summary.
LOGLINE: When an inquisitive twelve-year-old, Dodd, his dog and his mother move to Dahmerville, he’s the only one who seems to notice that the sleepy suburb is overrun with deceased serial killers from throughout history. As they compete to serve him up to an evil cult leader, Dodd faces the reality that he may not be able to survive on his own in a town where EVERYONE is the local butcher.
Again, try to keep it to a couple of sentences. We have the basic premise - a young boy moves to a new town overrun with famous serial killers who want him dead.
Protagonist - Dodd, twelve years old.
Antagonist - Evil Cult Leader
Supporting cast - Dodd's dog and his mother.
Setting - Dahmerville (suburbs)
For fun here, I threw in what could be a good tagline at the end. If you can make something like that work, (something that the publisher could see being used in advertising or on a poster), I think that's to your advantage. For example - cover art with the title "WELCOME TO DAHMERVILLE" and below it, "Where everyone is the local butcher".
This is all meant to entice them to keep reading! Their immediate question may be:
#3 - Who is working on this amazing project?
CREATIVE TEAM: Christopher Charlton (WRITER)
Ideally, you want to have more names here if it's a comic book. Publishers generally do NOT put creative teams together, so listing out your artist, letterer, colorist, etc., is a good idea if you have that information. You will most likely need to submit completed artwork as well, but I'll cover that in a future blog post.
To be fair, this information can be sandwiched in anywhere, but I like the break between the Logline and the next section, which is:
#4 - Who will be reading this new series and who can you market it to?
AUDIENCE: The combination of of historical characters and comedy make Welcome to Dahmerville a one-of-a-kind horror tale as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Fans of action and mystery akin to The Adventures of Tin Tin combined with the dark tone of Hot Fuzz and “power of friendship” theme of Stranger Things will find plenty to love here. Tie this serial killer smorgasbord together with some spirited 90’s nostalgia and you have an appeal that transcends age, race and gender.
I'm the first to admit that I'm not good at this. It's all sort of "pitchy" and formulaic, but it gets the point across. I mean, let's be honest, you'd rather talk with an editor about this and pitch in person so that your passion comes through. That, (for me anyway), is much more successful and allows you to really connect with the person you're speaking with. Unfortunately, it was difficult before and it's even harder now, in a post-COVID world.
Let's break this down a bit. History. Comedy. Horror. Action. Mystery. All of these are present in the story and are mentioned to give the publisher an idea of what type of story this is. If your story was strictly Romance or Western, you could back off of this a bit, but since this is a bit of a genre-bender, I went in depth (maybe too deep?) trying to hit every marker.
What else is present? The story has a dark tone. We probably could have guessed that based on the subject matter, but I think it's important to call it out just so it's stated. And obviously you want to discuss things that will draw your intended audience in. Serial killers and nineties nostalgia, for example.
One of the themes is mentioned here as well. (I tend to include this in the final section - we'll get to that shortly.) I've attached it to something popular that I can use to compare my story with - in this case "Stranger Things". I've also used "Hot Fuzz" and "The Adventures of Tin Tin" as comparisions. I try not to use more than three and three may be pushing it, honestly. Does it make more sense to use comparable comic books rather than TV/Film? Possibly, but I tend to go with properties that I feel will land with a larger group and, hopefully, whoever is reading the synopsis.
Next up - the meat of your synopsis:
#5 - Summarize your story!
MINI-SERIES SUMMARY: Summer, 1994. Twelve-year-old Dodd, his mother and their dog leave New York City behind for the suburban charm of Dahmerville, USA. As Dodd comes to grips with his parents’ divorce and the anxiety of making new friends as a bi-racial boy, his love of conspiracies and the urge to follow in his detective-father’s footsteps help him break out of his shell. Trekking around on his bike with his dog, “Fox”, by his side, he quickly realizes that the playgrounds are eerily empty and the only booming business in town is the funeral industry, marked by Dahmerville’s massive cemetery.
After a few narrow escapes, Dodd discovers that he may not be able to trust anyone, including his own mother, whose new job is unwittingly working on an ad campaign for the Department of Tourism, meant to lure fresh victims to Dahmerville. With the help of Fox and his new misfit friends, Jodi (an adorably clumsy eight-year-old girl), and Pavlov (an old Hungarian gravedigger with a mystical past), Dodd uncovers the truth about the strange burg – it’s crawling with serial killers that have long since met their fate.
To put an end to Dodd’s snooping, the notorious murderers lure him into a trap by kidnapping Jodi and holding her in an evil mansion that overlooks the town. With Pavlov refusing to help, Dodd and Fox attempt to save her on their own, only to be taken prisoner by Jessica Dahmer (Jeffrey’s evil twin sister). When they see Jodi again, she’s been possessed by the spirit of Lizzie Borden and it’s clear that this same type of occult magic is what has allowed Dahmer to overrun the town with killers.
First things first - keep it short and to the point. Hit the main story beats and move on. We've got the setting, (Dahmerville in the Summer of '94), the protagonist, (Dodd) and the setup for his journey. He wants solve mysteries like his father, he's dealing with his parents divorce and he has anxiety about making friends.
Touch briefly on the other characters when it applies to the overall plot. His mother works for the department of tourism, which sets up its own fun little side plot and a gray area to play with. Dodd's new friends. I tried to keep it general, but ultimately you have to use your gut. I left out his mom's boss being Ted Bundy and how the mayor is the Zodiac killer because it didn't enhance the main plot points - but if you know an editor would eat up those details, you can always include them. Some of these decisions are personal and completely up to you.
We wrap up the story, revealing the big twist, that the primary antagonist is the (fictional) twin sister of Jeffrey Dahmer, and her scheme to, not only take over the town, but lure Dodd in by capturing one of his friends. (AKA - he made friends and realizes he has to rely on someone outside of himself to reach his goal, but now that's being used against him.)
Now - on the off chance that this story ever gets picked up, I've excluded the ending, but you ALWAYS want to be sure you include the ending. The editor/publisher will want to know that YOU know how the story ends, how to write an ending, etc. If, in my summary, I said the story ended with the government dropping a nuke on the town - something which does nothing to resolve the hero's journey and comes completely out of left field, then the editor would know that I have no clue how to write an ending and pass on this - and rightfully so.
Aside from this, all other general writing tips apply here - grammar, spelling, punctuation. Make it professional if you want to be taken seriously. Even if you're pitching something ridiculous like this. 😉
And last but not least:
#6 - Why are you submitting this story?
WHY: Beneath the veil of killers and comedy, Welcome to Dahmerville is a story about living in the shadow of our fathers, figuring out who we are and understanding that we can’t always go it alone. In the same breath, this is a love letter to the 90’s, X-Files and hi-top fades, designed to keep readers impatiently turning pages to see which serial killer is lurking around the next corner.
What does the story mean to you? Why did you write it? What are the themes? Why is THIS publisher the right place to publish it?
This is a great place to say something along the lines of, "My story is right for your company because you've published 'This Book' and 'That Book' and the themes and genres, (or whatever you prefer), are in alignment with my series." Not unlike the AUDIENCE section above, but specific to the publisher you're hoping to work with.
It's not an exact science, but you get the point. Tell them where they intersect with you and why it's a good fit! It's a combination of selling yourself and telling them why they're awesome for previously publishing such amazing work.
One Last Thing
Something you may want to consider is the fact that you're essentially sending a complete story idea with a bow on top to a publisher, and if they reject your story only to come out with something similar the following year, ("Welcome to Bundyville" for example), you're going to be pretty pissed. This is why most publishers make you sign a waiver stating that you agree to send them this info and it's not their fault if they have something similar already in the works. Basically, if you want to play with them, you have to play by their rules, or take your ball and go home. I've seen some pretty suspicious things in my time, so be aware of who you're dealing with and do the research before you send off something you've invested your heart and soul into. Just my two cents.
Please don't discount the fact that this is HARD WORK and you're brave for doing it. If you're like me, then you take your characters and stories seriously and you want to put your best foot forward. Give yourself that credit now. If you've put a synopsis together and edited it, had friends read it, rewritten it and you're ready to submit, take a moment to smile and give yourself a pat on the back. Most people don't make it this far.
Do yourself another favor and LET IT GO (emotionally). Hovering over your email waiting for a reply is a terrible idea. In most cases, I have never even received a reply bothering to tell me that my story wasn't right for this publisher or that one. Don't chase that ghost and don't be unprofessional by constantly reaching out to the publisher to find out if your submission was lost in the void - it probably wasn't. In fact, the best thing you can do after submitting is get back to work on something that energizes you and use that momentum to get creative.
Speaking of which, it's time for me to get back to my script! I hope this has been helpful. Please feel free to reach out here or via email or social media if you have any questions. I'm not a pro - just sharing my experiences, many of which can and will certainly be improved upon as time marches on. Don't ever assume you know it all - everthing is constantly evolving!
BE SURE AND CHECK THESE LINKS TO READ MY WORK!
Source Point Press (The Final Chapter of "Black of Heart" is now available for Pre-order!)
Amazon (Eight Gunshots - short prose!)
CharltonWrites Store (Save 25% site-wide with code: BUNDLEUP)
I hope everyone had a happy holiday and you're ready to kick off a great New Year!
Stay safe, stay tuned and keep reading!