Synopsis Built from Romance Beats

I found my castoff notes for the lost synopsis post! 🥳 The task is behind me now, so I can be less whiny about the process of reducing a doorstopper of a story to no more than 700 words.

Brief backstory for those who missed the lost post: I needed a 2-page, double-spaced synopsis of a fantasy romance full of politics, economics, history, lore, magic, backstory, fight scenes, environmental danger, helper characters, villains, characters of ambiguous alignment, and a slow-burn romance—all of which are crucial to the plot but not all of which will fit on 2 pages. Focus was required, and fortunately, someone else provided it for me.

The purpose of this particular synopsis was to prove to a reader who has only the first few pages of the story for reference that the whole story is indeed a romance. How do you prove a story is a romance rather than some other type of story with a little romance in it? You use the genre’s characteristic progression, which plays out in a series of relationship beats.

There are whole books and workshops dedicated to the minutiae of romance beats for novel-writing purposes, but here’s a quick-and-dirty primer for synopsis-writing purposes:

  1. Meet. Even if the stars of the romance have known each other all their lives, they have to have an initial encounter in the story that sets the baseline value by which relationship development will be measured.
  2. Refusal to get involved. One or more parties are aware of romantic possibility and say “hell no” (because it would be a really short story if everyone agreed to live happily ever after on page 5).
  3. Consider the possibility of getting involved. They’ve spent enough time together to think maybe they misjudged the other person and should rethink that premature “hell no.”
  4. Get involved. Oops, they spent too much time together and stumbled into exactly what they wanted to avoid at the start. Nothing serious, though! They haven’t discussed the future or anything, lol, as if.
  5. Think they might have a future together. Involvement has gone surprisingly well, so maybe making it “serious” and “permanent” wouldn’t be so awful.
  6. Bad Thing makes it clear they can never have a future together. Something devastating occurs, such as a Big Misunderstanding that’s an apparent dealbreaker or Martyr Complex demanding one character sacrifice their own happiness for someone else’s (or, more likely, what they think will make someone else happy).
  7. Withdrawal. In the aftermath of the Bad Thing, one or more parties becomes at least emotionally distant and may even leave entirely.
  8. Misery and woe. If splitting up was the right thing to do, why does every moment of it suck so much? Even the worst moments of the relationship were better than being apart. (PSA: They may be capable of functioning and moving on with their lives, but if anybody’s happier apart than together, forcing them back together is abusive and not a romance.)
  9. Reconciliation. Self-explanatory. If warranted, insert grovel here.
  10. Proof HEA is possible. The writer can force anybody to kiss and make up, but unless the problem that drove them apart gets fixed in the process, history will repeat itself. Show what’s changed so the reader knows the Bad Thing won’t happen again next week. (This is easier if the Bad Thing wasn’t something like “jealousy rooted in toxic insecurity” that can’t be hand-waved out of existence with any hint of credibility.)

Obviously, in a novel, most of those things will take many scenes to set up and execute, but I had to fit as many of them as possible on 2 double-spaced pages, in a way that tells a coherent story despite most of the fantasy elements being jettisoned for lack of space. The plot premise is about breaking a curse and the Bad Thing is tied to one element of the worldbuilding, so references to those were unavoidable and influenced which parts of the romance I chose to illustrate the beats when there was more than one option.

I skipped the chunks of the story where “Consider the possibility of getting involved” and “Think they might have a future together” take place because those were much more about the curse while the relationship simmered quietly in the background, so there was no good way to get those beats into the synopsis. Such is the price I pay for wanting my romance plot inextricably embedded in my fantasy plot. If you have to drop two beats, this navel-gazing pair is the most expendable (in a summary—the story needs the contemplation). I know it’s all in the book. Synopsis readers will have to take it on faith the omissions are a function of the medium.

I’m going to include the synopsis this time for educational purposes. For the benefit of anyone who would like to read the whole story one day and prefers to be surprised at that time, I’ve placed it behind a spoiler tag because a synopsis does tell the events from start to finish.

NOTE: I make no claims this is a great synopsis, but (a) I haven’t had to write one in 8 years and (b) they are high on the list of miserable writing chores, so “done” = “good enough.”

Last chance to avert thine eyes

Umbra Torsedi, former imperial assassin, has been lying low after betrayal by her mentor left her with a smoking, never-healing dragon bite and a bounty on her head. (Meet) Her retirement is spoiled by a visit from Ruen Amakir, who claims to have found the mythical kingdom of Escela, hidden for centuries by a curse. She tells him he needs a curse breaker, not a killer. He says the curse breaker told him only Umbra can help him. He’ll wait as long as it takes for her to change her mind.

Her enemies close in as if Ruen led them to her to force her hand. Given a choice between fighting an army or stabbing a curse into submission, Umbra chooses to live a bit longer. She follows Ruen to Escela, where every living thing has been preserved in slumber and the mountains contain an untouched supply of tulecanite, an ore becoming scarce and increasingly valuable.

(Refusal to get involved) Inconsistencies in Ruen’s story make Umbra suspect he’s an agent of her traitorous mentor, but his halfhearted fireside seduction attempt convinces her he has no experience being a villain. When advised whatever threat someone may be holding over him would be much easier for her to resolve than the curse, he insists she wouldn’t believe the truth, but he trusts her to see through his lies.

Someone exploits the loophole that no living thing can enter Escela by sending a pack of undead war hounds across the border. Umbra and Ruen slay the monsters, but many helpless citizens are ravaged. Ruen is traumatized because he failed to protect his people. He reveals his own smoking, never-healing wound, inflicted by a dragon-fang sword centuries earlier, when he was the prince of Escela. Though that is the most far-fetched claim he’s made, it explains his care for a kingdom an outsider would view as easy plunder. (Get involved) They bury the dead and seek comfort in each other’s arms.

The dragon who cast the curse is willing to end it, for a price: a dragon-scale shield stashed in the kingdom of Ilioras. In the capital city, Umbra and Ruen are again attacked. He reluctantly leaves her to fight alone while he keeps their appointment at the palace. Once he’s safe, Umbra surrenders. She confronts her mentor, who wants to command the dragon and claim Escela’s riches. (Bad Thing 1) If Umbra delivers the shield to her, her handsome prince will be safe from the assassins stalking him. It’s a lie, but Umbra can’t save anyone if she doesn’t leave the encounter alive, so she agrees to betray Ruen.

Umbra and Ruen meet with a historian who believes Escela is real. The historian uses her influence with the queen to urge handing over the shield. The queen demands a guarantee breaking the curse will be more advantageous to her own kingdom than maintaining the status quo. (Bad Thing 2) Ruen puts forth the time-honored tradition of marrying a member of her family to the throne of Escela to make its wealth hers, sacrificing his future with Umbra in order to free his people.

Umbra returns the shield to the dragon, who offers her heart’s desire. She’s seen enough of the dragon’s bargains to know striking one would destroy Ruen’s hard-won victory, so she declines. The curse is lifted. She stays to witness the revived king’s public address with Ruen at his side, (Withdrawal) and then she leaves to make sure the Ilioran queen fulfills her obligations to the fragile kingdom.

When Umbra returns with the bride-to-be, the king agrees she deserves a reward for her service but delays that discussion. (Misery and woe) She decides to steal the dragon-fang sword and disappear before she’s made a bridal attendant. (Reconciliation/Proof HEA is possible) Ruen interrupts the theft and explains he bartered Escelan lives for the throne, which is currently occupied by a widowed king. Every cold-blooded manipulator taking part in the negotiation understood those terms, and he teases her about warmth interfering with her typically penetrating insight. He implores her to stay. The kingdom needs a savvy, unsentimental advisor to bring it into the modern era. He needs a new mission to devote his life to, such as keeping her warm. That’s the best partnership he could ever offer, and she accepts.

I’m dying to elaborate on nearly every sentence. (“They didn’t just get the thing. The villain posed a better counterargument and so there was a theft and a battle and a ghost dragon and IT’S ALL VERY DRAMATIC, I PROMISE!”) Having to leave out the cool stuff you put so much effort into developing is why writing a synopsis is high on the list of miserable writing chores. It’s the tissue-thin fifth-grade book report version of your story.

If I were submitting a synopsis of this story to agents or editors, I would honestly be inclined to lean more heavily on the fantasy elements, simply because I’m more excited about what I’ve done there than about the familiar romance progression and enthusiasm can occasionally sell a project. However, the ability to tailor your pitch to the interest of any given audience is a valuable skill to work on, so I’m glad I was forced to do it this way, even if I wasn’t enthused.

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