YAWB: Evolution Of A Synopsis in Four Stages

The SFF Publisher Angry Robot has opened up its 2020 open submissions window, and I’ll be submitting The Hole In The Sky. As part of the submission package they have requested a one-page synopsis of the plot.

Synopses are nasty, brutish things to write, because they force you to kill your darlings; unless your story is quite simplistic and linear it’s almost impossible to include chunks of exposition, plot and/or character development. The other thing about synopses is that you are required to reveal the ending of the story – spoilers are necessary!

The synopsis is supposed to show an agent or publisher that you have the ability to create a cogent story that has beginning, middle and end, and that there is a certain amount of logical cause-and-effect that enables the whole thing to make sense. It means you’ve got to leave out all the stuff that gives your work flavour, and nuance, and depth.

But hey, them’s the apples you’ve gotta chow down on when you’re making these submissions. At least everyone’s in the same boat. The synopsis for The Hole In the Sky has undergone a few different changes as I’ve tried to conform to the submission format.

A couple of points of order – in synopses it’s usual practice to use bold and/or caps formatting when mentioning POV characters for the first time. After that you can use regular text when referring to these characters. Non-POV characters do not need to be highlighted in bold etc at any time. Also, note how the synopsis is written in omni 3rd person present tense, which is rather unusual – it’s slightly more journalistic in style, and takes you out of any close POVs in order to afford the reader a “bird’s eye view” of proceedings. Again this is standard practice and is worth honing to get right.

This was what it looked like in the beginning. [Alert – spoilers ahead!]

VERSION 1

Norstoengraz, Earth. GRUB TENG is a psychitect, a unique being who creates designs for new living flora and fauna known as OSR (Organica, Synthetica, Robotica). His skills are invaluable as the vast majority of non-human life was erased from Earth after an event known as The Crash. But after suffering a crippling accident at work which destroys his powers, Grub is unceremoniously sacked by his employer, the Nunes-Elessia Psychitecture Europa (NEP-E) corporation. Embittered, he joins an amateurish anti-capitalist movement, and suppresses his psychosis with drugs.

During a protest march that turns violent, Grub attacks a policeman and winds up in chokey. He is bailed by GRETCHEN, a member of a professional cyber-terrorist group called T-127. She convinces Grub to join them and help achieve their aim – destroy the NEP-E corporation.

SAND, a slave who lives inside a giant bowl known as the Crucible in Grub’s unconscious mind, designs living offerings for the Hole In The Sky, a vortex in the clouds that leads to the “Upper World”, Grub’s conscious mind. When the Hole closes, his masters, led by The High One, panic and initiate the genocide of the slaves. Sand escapes only to meet The High One in the desert beyond the Crucible. There, The High One teaches Sand that he is the most important being in the history of this world; he is the slave who decided to be free.

At NEP-E, URA DE MASQUEVILLE works harvesting memories from elderly care home residents, whose early lives preceded the Crash. She seeks more satisfying work against the wishes of her father URON DE MASQUEVILLE, also her senior director. Meanwhile, Uron and his chief engineer FREDDIK secretly decode the data packet from Grub’s mind from the night of his Accident. The data reveals a violent, shapeshifting organism that defies categorization. Uron vows never to build it, and files it away.

Grub and T-127, bankrolled by the mysterious “Sponsor”, launch audacious hacks into NEP-E servers. They persuade Grub to drop his meds to access his unconscious mind, but what lies there no longer has the capacity to create, only destroy. Thus, T-127 hack many OSR constructs – dogs, tigers, elephants etc, used for entertainment purposes – and cause them to run amok. Uron is killed by his own synthetic pet in the chaos. In the aftermath Freddik is promoted to Uron’s post and tasked with restoring public faith in NEP-E, which plummets following the carnage. Under pressure from Board member Theo Minghella, Freddik suggests building the shapeshifter, which he names the Corpus.

Grub and Gretchen wrestle with their consciences. Neither wanted to cause death. They hatch a plot to escape T-127 but are stopped and coerced into another hack. This time NEP-E’s digital security catches them, forcing them to abandon the hack, leaving Grub unconscious and alone in the middle of a psychic dive in the slums of Norstoengraz.

Grub awakes, met by a man called Iler Duopteryx, the only other psychitect known to exist, and assumed to be long dead after leaving NEP-E many years ago. Iler teaches Grub – by jumping through The Hole In The Sky to converse with Sand – to use his mind in more powerful ways, to control it and not let it be exploited by others. He says he faked his death, even to his own wife and daughter, to protect them. Seeing Iler, destitute but free, Grub ponders the path his life might have taken, and learns how to use his gift more freely.

Meanwhile, Freddik meets with the grieving Ura and convinces her to hand over Uron’s digital estate, which contains the raw data for the Corpus and was passed to her after his death. With Minghella, they test the monster at a remote testbed. On the way Minghella reveals to Ura that the Crash was man-made by the founders of NEP-E, who manufactured it after capturing the genomes of all living things to gain a monopoly on the creation of lifeforms. They bioengineered these genomes into the mind of a drug addict called Iler Duopteryx, to act as a sort of “human hard drive” to feed these genomes back for commercial exploitation. 

When Freddik gets cold feet he is killed by the Corpus – on the instructions of Minghella – during a test. Minghella turns the Corpus loose in Norstoengraz to kill T-127. Gretchen, homeless since the doomed dive, makes contact with Grub in fear for her life. The Corpus finds them, and Iler sacrifices himself to help them escape.

Grub contacts ex-colleague ANNALISE, now working for Ura, to figure out NEP-E’s role in the carnage. They discover NEP-E has been suppressing (not harvesting) the elderly’s memories as part of a cover up. They visit one of the care homes and see Ura’s old test subjects, Katherine Kessler. Kessler, a deaf, mute, blind woman around 125 years old, is revealed to be not only Iler Duopteryx’s daughter, but also the Sponsor bankrolling T-127. After inheriting Iler’s gifts, Kessler harboured a deep grudge against NEP-E for the way they treated her father, and vowed to destroy them. She did this by formulating the blueprints for a highly complex organism containing psychic blueprints for all flora and fauna of the world, which had hitherto existed only in the mind of her father. This complex organism was Grub Teng, built in secret by Kessler and set free to be employed by NEP-E as a beacon of hope for new life, on which they would have the monopoly. But Grub was created by Kessler as a Trojan Horse, and the Accident that crippled him was nothing of the sort; it was an elaborate hack by Kessler with the intention of completely destroying NEP-E.

As this is revealed, the Corpus finds Gretchen and Grub and wreaks havoc. In the melee the creature kills Kessler and armed Polizei arrive. Under fire, the creature flees. Distraught, Grub disappears to Iler’s hideaway. As he retreats into his own mind he is approached by EARS AND EYES, two OSR children created by Iler. They persuade Sand to leave Grub’s mind and set himself free. The children manufacture Sand using Iler’s own equipment, telling him the monster must be stopped.

Gretchen uses herself as bait to lure the Corpus to NEP-E’s headquarters so the world can see what they’ve done. Duly, the Corpus follows her to the busiest district of Norstoengraz and unleashes hell.

Sand, now unfettered by limitations of imagination, is now able to manipulate his body at his whim. He breaks through the Hole In The Sky and enters the real world, pursues the creature, and fights it at NEP-E’s headquarters. Sand realizes that both he and the Corpus are opposing, complementary parts of Grub Teng’s mind: id and ego/superego; amygdalic fury and human conscientiousness. To stop the monster he must fuse himself to it, casting out the crippling shadow of Kessler and making him whole again. The resultant physical fusion creates another physical form of Grub Teng, complete and uninjured. He proceeds to confront Ura about her role in the corruption, and reveals the truth about what had happened to him.

After the revelations, Ura and Minghella are apprehended and NEP-E’s OSR operations are mothballed. Annalise assists with the rollback of NEP-E activities. Gretchen decides to leave the city, taking Ears and Eyes with her. Grub is left, alone, comatose, in Iler’s hideaway. 

And, at the last, he wakes up.

If you gave up reading that halfway through, then fair enough. That’s 1221 words! Far too long. What’s making the synopsis drag is the detailing of every single major character, plus quite a lot of descriptive material. It also includes significant subplots. As such, it seems bloated and very convoluted. Complex ideas are squeezed in there without the room to be properly explained, leaving them confusing and unwieldy.

Here is the second draft of the synopsis. Here, around 300 words have been excised.

VERSION 2

Norstoengraz, Earth. GRUB TENG is a psychitect, a unique being who designs lifeforms known as OSR (Organica, Synthetica, Robotica). His skill is invaluable; most non-human life died a viral outbreak called The Crash. After a crippling accident destroys his power, he is sacked by Nunes-Elessia Psychitecture Europa (NEP-E). Embittered, he joins dangerous anti-capitalist protests, and suppresses his resultant psychosis with drugs. During a violent protest Grub is arrested but bailed by GRETCHEN, a member of cyber-terror group T-127. She convinces Grub to join T-127 and destroy NEP-E.

The slave SAND lives inside the Crucible, a place in Grub’s unconscious mind. Sand designs living offerings for The Hole In The Sky, a vortex in the clouds that leads to the “Upper World”. When the Hole closes, his masters, led by The High One, panic and slaughter the slaves. Sand escapes and meets The High One in the desert beyond the Crucible. The High One teaches Sand that he is the most important being in history; the slave who decided to be free.

At NEP-E, URA DE MASQUEVILLE harvests memories from elderly care home residents. She seeks more satisfying work against the wishes of her father and boss, URON DE MASQUEVILLE, who secretly decodes data from Grub’s mind with the help of the engineer FREDDIK. They find a violent, shapeshifting organism. Shocked, Uron vows never to build it.

T-127, led by the mysterious “Sponsor”, persuades Grub to access his subconscious, but it can no longer create, only destroy. T-127 hack NEP-E constructs – OSR dogs, tigers, elephants etc – and make them run amok. Uron is killed in the chaos. In the aftermath Freddik is promoted to Uron’s post and tasked with restoring public faith in NEP-E. Pressured by board member Theo Minghella, Freddik suggests building the shapeshifter, which he names the Corpus.

Grub and Gretchen wrestle with their consciences. Neither wanted to cause death. They plot to escape T-127 but are caught and coerced into another hack. This time NEP-E security catches them, forcing them to abandon the hack, leaving Grub unconscious and alone in the middle of the slums of Norstoengraz.

Grub wakes, met by Iler Duopteryx, the only other psychitect known to exist, assumed to be long dead. Iler jumps through The Hole In The Sky to teach Grub how to control his mind and not be exploited by others. Seeing Iler, destitute but free, Grub ponders the life he might have had, and learns to hone his gift.

Freddik convinces the grieving Ura to hand over Uron’s digital estate, containing the Corpus data. With Minghella, they test the monster at a remote location. Minghella reveals to Ura that the Crash was man-made by NEP-E’s founders; they captured the genomes of all living things and bioengineered them into the mind of a drug addict called Iler Duopteryx, who served as a sort of “human hard drive” to feed these genomes back for commercial exploitation. When Freddik gets cold feet he is killed by the Corpus on the orders of Minghella. Minghella turns the Corpus loose in Norstoengraz to kill T-127. Gretchen, homeless since the doomed dive, contacts Grub in fear for her life. The Corpus finds them, and Iler sacrifices himself to help them escape.

Grub contacts ex-colleague ANNALISE, who now works for Ura, to fathom NEP-E’s role in events. They discover NEP-E has been secretly suppressing – not harvesting – the elderly’s memories. They visit a care home and see Ura’s old test subject, Katherine Kessler, a 125-year-old deaf, mute, blind woman. She is revealed to be Iler Duopteryx’s daughter, and the Sponsor. After inheriting Iler’s gifts, Kessler harboured a deep grudge against NEP-E for “killing” her father, and vowed to destroy them. She did this by formulating the blueprints for a highly complex organism containing psychic blueprints for all flora and fauna of the world, which had hitherto existed only in the mind of her father. This complex organism was Grub Teng, built in secret by Kessler and set free to be employed by NEP-E. But Grub was created by Kessler as a Trojan Horse, and his Accident was nothing of the sort; it was an elaborate hack by Kessler with the intention of completely destroying the company.

As this is revealed, the Corpus finds Gretchen and Grub. In the ensuing chaos the creature kills Kessler and armed Polizei arrive. Under fire, the creature flees. Distraught, Grub disappears to Iler’s hideaway. As he retreats into his own mind he is approached by EARS AND EYES, two OSR children created by Iler. They persuade Sand to leave Grub’s mind and set himself free. The children manufacture Sand using Iler’s own equipment, telling him the monster must be stopped.

Gretchen uses herself as bait to lure the Corpus to NEP-E’s headquarters so the world can see what they’ve done. Duly, the Corpus follows her to the busiest district of Norstoengraz and unleashes hell.

Sand, unfettered by the limits of imagination, can now manipulate his body at will. He penetrates The Hole In The Sky, enters the real world, pursues and fights the Corpus at NEP-E’s HQ. Sand realizes he and the Corpus are opposing, complementary parts of Grub Teng’s mind: id and ego; amygdalic fury and human conscientiousness. To stop it he must fuse himself to it, casting out the crippling shadow of Kessler and making him whole again. The fusion creates another physical incarnation of Grub Teng, complete and uninjured. This Grub confronts Ura about her corruption, and reveals the truth about what happened to him.

After the revelations, Ura and Minghella are apprehended and NEP-E’s OSR operations are mothballed. Annalise assists with the rollback of NEP-E activities. Gretchen decides to leave the city, taking Ears and Eyes with her. Grub is left, alone, comatose, in Iler’s hideaway. 

And, at the last, he wakes up.

Ok, this second iteration is slightly less wordy. The second paragraph in the original has been reduced significantly and combined with the first to save space. Details about Grub’s accident are removed from the fourth paragraph. It makes for a slightly cleaner read. But it’s still long at 967 words, and you’ll be hard pressed to squeeze that onto one page. And it still contains references to most of the major characters and subplots. To really clean up a synopsis, one has to tear away some of the characters (perhaps even major ones) and subplots.

This next version removes all references to Ears and Eyes, Sand, and Annalise, three of the POV characters (Ears and Eyes are effectively one character). It kind of hurt to do this, because Sand is arguably the most important character in the whole novel, but with respect to his impact on events “above ground” this does not manifest until the novel’s end. How much influence does he have upon the plot at ground level? Not much – he is more of a subconscious mirror to Grub’s physical self. The other two characters, Ears and Eyes and Annalise, upon closer inspection, are not really adding much in the overview. For all their importance in the full book, they can go. Now we’re left with this.

VERSION 3

Norstoengraz, Earth. GRUB TENG is a psychitect, a unique being who subconsciously designs lifeforms known as OSR (Organica, Synthetica, Robotica). His skill is invaluable; most non-human life died during a viral outbreak known as The Crash. After a crippling accident destroys his skill, Grub is sacked by the Nunes-Elessia Psychitecture Europa (NEP-E) corporation. Embittered, he joins anti-capitalist protests. During a violent protest Grub is arrested, but bailed by GRETCHEN, a member of cyber-terror group T-127. She convinces Grub to join T-127 and destroy NEP-E.

At NEP-E, URA harvests memories from elderly care home residents. She seeks more satisfying work against the wishes of her father and boss, URON, who secretly decodes data from Grub’s mind with the help of the engineer FREDDIK. They find a violent, shapeshifting organism. Shocked, Uron vows never to build it.

T-127, led by the mysterious “Sponsor”, persuades Grub to access his subconscious, but it can no longer create, only destroy. T-127 hack NEP-E constructs – OSR dogs, tigers, etc – and make them run amok, killing Uron. Freddik is promoted to replace Uron and restore public faith in NEP-E. Pressured by board member Theo Minghella, Freddik suggests building the shapeshifter, which he names the Corpus.

Grub and Gretchen wrestle with their consciences. Neither wanted to cause deaths. They plot to escape T-127 but are caught and coerced into another hack. This time NEP-E security catches them, forcing them to abandon the hack, leaving Grub unconscious and alone in the middle of the slums of Norstoengraz.

Grub wakes, saved by Iler Duopteryx, the only other psychitect known to exist, and who is assumed to be long dead. Iler teaches Grub how to control his mind and not be exploited by others. Seeing Iler, destitute but free, Grub ponders the life he might have had, and hones his gift.

Freddik convinces the grieving Ura to hand over Uron’s digital estate, containing the Corpus data. With Minghella, they test the monster at a remote location. Minghella reveals to Ura that the Crash was man-made by NEP-E’s founders to corner the market in commercial OSR lifeforms. When Freddik gets cold feet he is killed by the Corpus on the orders of Minghella, who then turns the creature loose in Norstoengraz to kill T-127. Gretchen, homeless since the doomed dive, contacts Grub in fear for her life. The Corpus finds them, and Iler sacrifices himself to help them escape.

Grub and Gretchen try to fathom NEP-E’s role in events. They visit a care home and see Ura’s old test subject, Katherine Kessler, a 125-year-old deaf, mute, blind woman. Kessler reveals herself to be Iler Duopteryx’s daughter, and T-127’s Sponsor. After inheriting Iler’s gifts, Kessler harboured a grudge against NEP-E for “killing” her father, and vowed to destroy them. She engineered a highly complex organism containing psychic blueprints for all the world’s flora and fauna, which had hitherto existed only in the mind of her father. This complex organism was Grub Teng, built in secret by Kessler and set free to be employed by NEP-E. But Kessler created Grub to be a Trojan Horse; his ‘accident’ was nothing of the sort; it was an elaborate hack by Kessler with the intention of completely destroying the company.

As this is revealed, the Corpus finds Gretchen and Grub. In the ensuing chaos the creature kills Kessler and armed police arrive. Under fire, the creature flees. Distraught, Grub disappears to Iler’s hideaway. As he retreats into his own mind he is persuaded by that the monster must be stopped. Remembering Iler’s teaching’s, and unfettered by the limits of imagination, Grub manipulates his body at will. He pursues and fights the Corpus at NEP-E’s HQ. Grub realizes he and the Corpus are opposing, complementary parts of one mind: id and ego; amygdalic fury and human conscientiousness. To stop it he must fuse himself to it, casting out the crippling shadow of Kessler, making him whole again. The fusion creates a new body for Grub, complete and uninjured. Grub confronts Ura about her corruption, and reveals the truth about what happened to him.

After the revelations, Ura and Minghella are apprehended and NEP-E’s OSR operations are mothballed. After Grub disappears, Gretchen decides to leave the city to start a new life.

This version has lost another 300 words, so we’ve halved the length of the original synopsis. We’ve lost a few characters but, crucially, the arc of the overall plot is kept intact. Any extraneous detail is left out. The subplot about memory harvesting has been removed. Sand is no longer present, and neither are Annalise nor Ears and Eyes. Some of the background into NEP-E has gone.

Despite losing some characters, the synopsis still contains character motivations and plot logic. It explains why Grub joins T127, for example, and then why he and Gretchen decide to try to escape. It also tells us how characters are feeling (embittered, harbouring grudges, getting cold feet etc) – to show us that the characters are being led by emotions and are not acting blindly or without apparent cause.

At this point I gave the synopsis to my writing group, and they told me to bring out Ura’s presence more, and try to connect the events so that there is a more logical sense of cause-and-effect. I was reminded that the synopsis is there to tell a story, not the story in its entirety. So, back I went with my trusty axe, and arrived at this fourth version.

VERSION 4

Norstoengraz, Earth. Grub Teng is a psychitect, a unique being who designs OSR lifeforms (Organica, Synthetica, Robotica) from his subconscious. It’s a valuable skill; most animal life died during a viral outbreak called The Crash. After an accident destroys his skill, the Nunes-Elessia Psychitecture Europa (NEP-E) company sacks Grub. Embittered, he joins violent anti-capitalist protests and is arrested but bailed by Gretchen, a member of cyber-terror group T-127. She convinces Grub to join them and destroy NEP-E.

Idealistic NEP-E memory harvester Ura seeks more satisfying work elsewhere; her father and boss, Uron, argues she should build a career at NEP-E. Meanwhile, Uron secretly decodes data from Grub’s mind. He finds a violent, shapeshifting organism. Shocked, he vows not to build it, and secretly files it.

T-127 persuade Grub to use his subconscious to hack into the animals he used to create, and make them run amok. The carnage has terrible consequences for NEP-E’s business and, even worse, in the chaos Uron is killed. Ura thus inherits her father’s digital estate, containing the shapeshifter organism data. Ura grieves, regretting that she parted from her father on such bad terms, and decides to honour his memory by working on the project he filed away – the shapeshifter, which is named the Corpus.

Grub and Gretchen wrestle with their consciences. Neither wanted to cause deaths. They plot to escape T-127 but are caught and coerced into another hack. This time NEP-E security catches them, forcing them to abandon the hack, leaving Grub unconscious and alone in the middle of the slums of Norstoengraz. Grub wakes, saved by Iler Duopteryx, the only other psychitect known to exist, assumed to be long dead. Iler teaches Grub to control his mind, manipulate reality, and not be exploited by others.

Meanwhile, Ura hands over the plans for the Corpus to NEP-E, who want it for military applications. They test the monster at a remote location, where Ura learns that the Crash was man-made by NEP-E to create a monopoly market in OSR. They free the creature in Norstoengraz to kill T-127. Gretchen has a narrow escape from it and contacts Grub in fear for her life. The creature finds them, and Iler sacrifices himself to let them escape.

Turning detective, Grub and Gretchen uncover NEP-E’s role in events when they find a woman called Katherine Kessler, a 125-year-old deaf, mute, blind woman. Kessler converses with Grub through his “Hole In The Sky” – the gateway to his subconscious mind. She says she is  Iler Duopteryx’s daughter. She harboured a grudge against NEP-E for “killing” her father, so for revenge she engineered a highly complex Trojan Horse designed to destroy the company; an organism containing psychic data for all the world’s flora and fauna, data which had hitherto existed only in the mind of her father. This complex organism was Grub Teng, and his ‘accident’ was nothing of the sort; it was an elaborate hack by Kessler with the intention of completely destroying the company. In effect, Kessler is Grub’s mother.

As this is revealed, the Corpus finds Gretchen and Grub. In the ensuing chaos it kills Kessler and armed police arrive. Under fire, the creature flees. Despite being distraught at Kessler’s revelations, Grub realises that the monster must be stopped and that he is the only one to do it. Remembering Iler’s teachings, Grub manipulates his body to pursue the creature. Meanwhile, Ura is falling deeper into the corruption of her company, and prepares to carry out further assassinations when Grub arrives at NEP-E’s offices and fights the creature in the open. 

Grub realizes he and the Corpus are opposing, complementary parts of one mind: id and ego; amygdalic fury and human conscientiousness. To defeat it he fuses himself to it, dispelling the shadow of Kessler. Grub then confronts Ura about her corruption and crimes, and reveals the truth about what happened to him. Ura, distraught at her fall from grace, tries to persuade Grub to rejoin NEP-E and be a psychitect again. But Grub realises that even since before he was born he has been simply used for the purposes of others. At the last, he decides to be free. Grub’s revelations cause Ura to be arrested and NEP-E’s OSR operations mothballed. After Grub disappears, Gretchen leaves the city to start a new life.

This is the version I’m going with. It’s actually seventeen words longer than Version 3, but should read more clearly. Ura’s arc is emphasised, while Minghella has disappeared. If I’ve done my job correctly it should feel like little has actually been left out in each iteration, because the most important events and movements remain.

A final word on formatting. This third version of the synopsis is around 600 words. That’s still a lot to get onto a regular page, but I do believe that you are allowed a little leeway when it comes to formatting your synopsis. By slightly reducing the margins, and using 1.5 spacing instead of double, and 10.5 or 11 size font instead of 12, it is possible to get it onto one page and still have it look comfortable to read.

Writing a synopsis is a bit of a grind, and even if you’re really thinking about it, it’s a job that can take days or weeks to complete. Getting this synopsis right took weeks, as I had to take a break in between drafts to stop myself becoming wearied by it. Get your friends and trusted fellow writers to look over it. Coming at it with fresh eyes – be they your own or others’ – definitely makes it easier to spot any unnecessary details.

Good luck!

Published by dgjones81

Away from the page, I work for the UK Space Agency on a European programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories. My first novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published hither and yon. I’m a member of the Society of Authors and a supporter of SFFChronicles. I was born in Forest Gate, east London, and now live in Essex with my wife and two daughters.

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