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Synopsis: A Lesson with Dr. Connagher

Originally published at Joely Sue Burkhart. You can comment here or there.

No matter how much you dread it and put it off, chances are, eventually, you’ll have to write the dreaded synopsis. I’m far from an expert. I hate them as much as anyone else. However, these are a few things that helped me spank a synopsis for Letters (giggles, get it?) into shape. Is it a good one? I have no idea. I’ll share a few pieces of it, but not the whole thing. If you do want to read the whole thing, e-mail me privately at joelysueburkhart AT I could use the input!

1. Provide visual stimulation and inspiration. Conn was always played by Clive Owen. Here’s a nice happy Conn. 


2. Brainstorm, cluster, or make a list of a few key words and phrases that mean something very specific for your story. This may be the key theme, a recurring metaphor, or simply some words you associate with the characters. For Letters, I had:

  • run, running away, leaving
  • Making it Right – Rae’s slogan
  • saying “no”, unable to say “no”
  • The Fix-It Lady
  • Restoration project
  • Letters
  • Professor, which gave me
  • test, finals week, make-up exam, pop quizzes, pass/fail, grades, extra credit… all things I played on through the story, and of course
  • poetry, since Conn’s an English professor who gives Rae very…interesting…pop quizzes. *winks*

3. Write a 1-3 sentence “hook”. Mine came from the opening paragraph of Letters and I used a version of it in the query as well as the synopsis.

Five years ago, RAE JACKSON fell hard for her English professor, and on the last day of class, Dr. Connagher gave her a test she’ll never forget.

He bent her over his desk, spanked her, and gave her the best orgasm of her life.

4. Write a paragraph or three about your protagonist. Think about the key struggle your character has to overcome, or the key set up for the story. This could be the Ordinary World, or simply the main conflict of the story. Since Letters is so strongly character driven, I spent a few paragraphs setting up the key internal conflicts Rae faces as the story opens:

Even more frightening, she realized she would likely let him do any damned thing he wanted. What if she couldn’t tell him no? Terrified of the stark, overwhelming need she felt for him, she used the excuse of a family emergency to leave college. Afraid the sound of his sexy Texas drawl alone could convince her to return, she wrote him a letter and e-mailed it, although she knew the most computer-illiterate professor on campus would never read it.

She tried to move on with her life, even married someone else, but she couldn’t forget Dr. Connagher. She couldn’t forget what happened in his office.

Weeks, months, even years flew by, and she continued to write him letters that she never mailed. Those letters helped her through her father’s debilitating accident, a rocky marriage, and ultimately, divorce. Now, Dr. Connagher has become so deeply embedded in her heart and soul that she’s afraid she built him up to impossible heights in her mind.

Surely she hadn’t really come so hard on his desk. Surely she hadn’t needed him so badly. Surely she couldn’t still love him after all these years.

Surely she’d never see him again.

I’ll admit the verb tense switch above is a bit awkward, but I had to transition from “five years ago” to the “now” as the story opens. Hopefully it works okay. Other than introductory paragraphs for each character, the rest of the synopsis is written in current tense.

I also highlighted the key phrases so you can see how I start sticking them in. Remember the synopsis isn’t about your voice so much as getting the core story components down in black and white. Do aliens show up in chapter twenty? Do you kill the hero and call this a romance? These are the sort of concerns an agent or editor may have as they read your synopsis. Does it all MAKE SENSE? Did you carry the story from start to end or fumble in the last quarter?

You don’t want descriptions, flowery phrases, etc. but you *can* and *should* showcase the special little elements that make your story unique.

5. If you’re writing romance, write a paragraph or so to introduce the love interest. I tried to keep this briefer since Conn’s journey isn’t as significant as Rae’s.

CONN [DR. VERRILL CONNAGHER] never forgot the one student who gave him a big fat “F” on the greatest test of his life. A semester of polite and proper flirting took its toll, and on the last day of finals, he lost control. For a dominant man like him, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. He’s spent five years worrying about Rae, regretting his mistakes, and praying for one more chance.

6. Write a paragraph or so on the inciting incident. What kicks this story off to a rousing start? What sets the opposition in motion? How does everything fall apart for the protagonist?

Thanks to MISS BELLE, his eccentric grandmother who deliberately hires Rae to restore her Civil War era Missouri plantation, Beulah Land, into a Bed and Breakfast, Conn faces the make-up exam of his life. When he drags his long-lost student out from beneath Miss Belle’s porch, Rae is just as scared as she was five years ago, but she can’t deny the truth. She still wants him, more than ever.

As the “Fix-It Lady”, Rae might have signed the contract to restore Beulah Land, but she doesn’t know if it’s even possible to restore her relationship with Conn. This is her chance to make things right with the one man she could never forget.

7. Whew, take a break! Restore your visual well with another bit of inspiration.


8. Now, skip to the black moment and crisis of the story. How does everything go bad? When is the story at its lowest point? Try to capture all those emotions, all that turmoil, into a paragraph or three. I’m only going to show a bit of this part, but I think the emotion comes through loud and clear.

She tells him no, gets her safe word out, but she wants nothing to do with his comforting and leaves. She’s so afraid that he’ll ask again–as her ex-husband did–and she won’t be able to tell Conn no. She never loved her ex like she loves Conn, but she gave in to those demands and ended up hurt and betrayed. If Conn asks, she surely won’t–can’t–refuse and will end up hating herself, and eventually him, as much as she hates her ex-husband.

9. It’s important to specify the ending of the story FULLY in the synopsis. No tricks or “surprises.” If you try to be sneaky and leave out the end, this Conn may need to come spank YOU.


For Letters, the key conflict/resolution of Rae’s journey is summarized as:

She finally did it. She told him no, and he listened. She really can trust him. More, she can finally trust herself.

Conn makes a promise: Rae can run whenever she needs to, as long as she meets him right here in his bed. He’ll be Dr. Fix-It and fix whatever he screwed up.

10. Now, depending on how long you want the synopsis to be (a good length for me personally is around 4 pages), you can start adding other little details and events to round out the story and characters. I added Miss Belle, showed the developing romance, hinted at smoldering poetry lessons, and hopefully intrigued with little bits of humor and character quirks. Polish, smooth, add transitions as needed, but you’ve got the most important elements down.

A hundred pages could be condensed with:

What ensues is the most agonizingly arousing “finals week” of Conn’s entire life. He’s determined to prove to Rae once and for all that she can trust him, and most of all, she can trust herself. By day, Rae works on Miss Belle’s house, and by night, she spends time with Conn, survives his smoldering poetry quizzes, and falls more in love with him.

Extra Credit (hehe, that’s a key element in Letters too): write a one-page synopsis. I know you can do it. Instead of writing paragraphs for each of the parts above, write ONE SENTENCE. Then smooth with words or phrases, instead of transition summaries or paragraphs. It’s tough, but it can be done.

Dr. Connagher is very, very pleased with you.


Do you have any useful links or suggestions for writing the dreaded synopsis?

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