The Synopsis Tells the Tale

Because the synopsis is so critical to a proposal, I decided to write this spin-off of last week’s blog, “Keys to a Great Synopsis,”  in hopes of helping authors not only write more effective synopses, but to impart a bit about the fiction market, too.

When I read synopses from authors, much is revealed. For instance, I see:

Cozy mysteries that are meant to be romance.

Gothic plots presented as historical romances.

Women’s fiction that the author intended to be romance.

Mysteries masquerading as romantic suspense.

In the submissions I see, these are almost never flipped, so to my mind, this suggests the romance market in particular is one that many authors seek to understand, but don’t quite get. Hence the near-miss plots. I think this may be because the romance formula is strict and authors seek to offer readers something unique so without realizing it, they can stray into other genres. An eternal truth about romance novels is that editors and readers do want fresh plots. However, they also know that the romance story has set guidelines from which writers must not venture. Plots can hit the edges of the box but not punch holes. In my view, what the author must understand about the Christian romance reader is that she seeks to be assured that even in our coarse culture, a godly woman unwilling to compromise her faith and the accompanying physical and spiritual virtues can find a Christian man to love her forever.

As to plot misfires, let me address the cited examples:

Cozy mysteries that are meant to be romance.

Some authors use a mystery to bring the couple together. Often a dead body is involved, meaning what you have is a cozy mystery. I don’t claim that it’s impossible to find a place for a romance novel with an element of mystery, or maybe even a dead body. However, this is a tricky combination because a romance reader is not seeking out the genre because she loves to guess the answer to a problem before the author intends, thereby “beating” the author in the game. Nor does the romance reader necessarily seek a surprise by being unable to guess the solution thanks to the author’s skill at throwing red herrings. The mystery reader, however, loves to read about a familiar and comfortable character such as Nancy Drew solving different crimes, with the reward of bringing an evildoer to justice. This is a different type of reward than the reassurance sought by the romance reader. Also, because each romance novel ends the story with the promise of marriage, the romance author has to start out with a new couple with each book. I haven’t seen a romance collection where the hero and heroine date through several books and finally marry after solving the sixth mystery. I can only speak for myself, but if I am choosing between two excellent proposals, the one that does not contain a heavy mystery element will to win out over a cozy mystery.

Gothic plots presented as historical romances.

Almost all aspiring romance authors know the name Victoria Holt even if they have never read one of the books she wrote under that name or her many pen names. Romances known as “New” Gothic, (as opposed to other forms of Gothic fiction such as written by Mary Shelley,  Edgar Allen Poe and others), contain several common elements. A general idea is that they are set in the Victorian era  in a spooky mansion or castle; the heroine is forbidden to enter a certain room or there is some other type of mystery; the heroine spends a considerable amount of time pondering and trying to figure out if she should and can circumvent the forbidding instruction; an element of the supernatural is later explained by natural causes; the heroine feels helpless; and, the hero may be rarely present, preoccupied by worry, or have some other mysterious qualities. This plot is less of a puzzle (where piecing together several clues solves the mystery) than suspense because the reader and heroine know secrets will be revealed once the “forbidden room” is entered. The general tone of these books is rainy, gloomy, fearful, and suspenseful. Some readers like this brand of romance, but it is quite different from the tone and feel of a Christian romance set in the Victorian era, especially since most Christian romance novels emphasize the couple’s Christian walk and take place in America. I believe the door for Gothic romances may be cracking in the Christian market, so if you enjoy this type of story and have the skill to work in Christian elements, you might try your hand.

Women’s fiction that the author intended to be romance.

Just because a book has lots of romance, and maybe even the romance is the main plot, doesn’t mean it’s genre romance. Books with many subplots, points of view, and secondary characters taking much of the reader’s time mean that the story has ventured into the category of women’s fiction. Women’s fiction readers want a longer, deeper story. Many of them like a romance element, but many would rather the story focus on family relationships or friendships. Some readers prefer to see characters working within a marriage rather than during the courtship phase. Women’s fiction can have more points of view and subplots than the romance genre, which, except in rare cases, is restricted to the hero and heroine’s viewpoints. Women’s fiction is also generally contemporary. However, this category cuts a  wide swath. For instance, the upcoming “Class Reunion” series of poignant Southern humor from Debby Mayne , is quite different from missional fiction such as A Christmas Journey Home by Kathi Macias, yet it’s not unreasonable to consider both of these works to be Christian women’s fiction. If you want to write women’s fiction, think about the book of your heart and you may well have hit upon a story that will work in this category.

Mysteries masquerading as romantic suspense.

Sometimes authors think they want to write suspense, but discover they don’t have the interest, desire, or motivation to talk about police procedure or crime scenes. Readers of this genre want a daring adventure, so that’s what I expect when someone tells me she’s written romantic suspense. But sometimes I get low-key suspense with a ho-hum mystery. I can see that the couple will be the romantic leads, but I really don’t care when, where, or how the mystery presented is solved. I can tell that the all will be well without too much excitement or drama. If your story has no danger of anyone getting killed, wounded, or at least kidnapped, then you don’t have a romantic suspense novel. The hero and heroine usually have gritty problems with dark pasts that keep them from wanting to fall in love with anyone, yet they do — and you won’t see them in another romantic suspense novel as protagonists, because their love story is told as they solve the crime at hand. Also, these books are very, very hard to put down.

These are only a few examples of mislabeled stories, but I’ve seen them often enough that I can assure you that if this has happened to you, you are not alone. When you write your summary, make sure that you identify your novel correctly. This will show the reviewer that you know your targeted readers and can write the story to reach them.

Happy summarizing!

Your turn:

Have you tried to write one type of story, only to have it take a life of its own and turn into something else?

Has a secondary character taken over your story? How do you plan to tame the character?


36 Responses to The Synopsis Tells the Tale

  1. Avatar
    Marleen Gagnon May 31, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Thank you for your great post. I can see where my synopsis should focus on the romance instead of the mystery now.

    As for your questions, my stories usually take on a life of their own through the characters (a romance with mystery involved). But the idea never changes.

    I have had secondary characters want to run the show. When that happens I tell them that I’ll write the next book about them.

    • Avatar
      JennyM May 31, 2012 at 5:00 am #

      The 2nds get so needy, don’t they?

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      Tramaine Hannah Kimbley August 22, 2019 at 1:02 pm #

      My book really did take on a life of it’s own. I had no idea where i was going with the story in the beginning. I was just writing. During that time i became obsessed with Christian Apologetics and from there my book took the most unexpected turn. I’m getting ready to write my proposal soon and this article has been most helpful. Thank you so much.

      • Avatar
        Cassandra December 9, 2019 at 1:55 pm #

        Thank you Tamela. This was quite insightful. I do have a question though. What happens when you have the elements of two genre in a work.
        For example; “Just because a book has lots of romance and maybe even the romance is the main plot doesn’t mean it’s genre is romance.” When I read it, I concluded my work was women fiction.
        ” Sometimes author’s think they want to write suspense, but discover they don’t have the interest, desire or motivation to talk police, procedure or crime scenes…….. If your story has no danger of anyone getting killed, wounded or at least kidnapped, then you don’t have a romantic suspense novel. The hero or heroine usually gritty problems with dark past…..”
        This genre also describes my work. I set out to write about choices and how it determines how we turn out in life but I portrayed it with romance, and within the romance lies the danger in which the major character was kidnapped, beaten up and in coma while the police and some other interest tries to unravel the case. How do I then classify it.

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    Diana Harkness May 31, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    I don’t write romances. I don’t read romances. I don’t know why other people read them. My synopsis would never tend toward romance. I have trouble writing a synopsis because because I am either too concise, stating the them of the book in a sentence, or I am too verbose, unable to precisely encapsulate the story.

    I tried to write speculative fiction and Steve Laube told me to turn it into historical fiction, which I have done and a publisher is considering it now. Thank you, Steve. Midway through the story a battered woman appeared who I didn’t expect. Neither did my protagonist. I don’t know what he’s going to do with her or how she will change the story because I haven’t yet finished the 2nd book. It’s troubling to me because I have difficulty writing women and children.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Diana, feelings about romance novels have been running strong for centuries. At least one early saint confronted this issue. Here’s a link:

      In addition to that post, I have written a few others on romance that might be helpful if you want to understand Christian romance novels and their readers. You can click “romance” under “topics” on the sidebar to see them.

      Steve Laube is definitely a wonderful mentor and adviser to many writers. Best wishes on your endeavors!

      • Avatar
        Diana Harkness May 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

        I simply have never liked romance novels in the same way some people dislike rap music and some dislike classical or country. I know many people like all of those, but I prefer police procedurals, historical fiction, action/adventure, etc. I also read far more non-fiction than fiction.

      • Avatar
        Diana Harkness May 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

        I cannot write what I don’t like and don’t read. I simply have never liked romance novels in the same way some people dislike rap music and some dislike classical or country. I know many people like all of those, but I prefer police procedurals, historical fiction, action/adventure, etc. I also read far more non-fiction than fiction.

  3. Avatar
    JennyM May 31, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    Mine is a historical romance. I think. It’s set in 1864 and travels back and forth until it arrives in 1895. Lots of history, family and culture. One quick and simple romance/marriage, and one long awaited/suffered until it happens/fought hard to survive/ gets the hero in the end romance.

    Village Idiot Self Identification question of the day?
    What defines historical fiction *with* a romance and historical romance that is entirely fiction?

    I’ll go back to marveling at my box of Crayolas now…

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      Jenny, be sure to sharpen the Fire Engine Red crayon for me! Based on your description, you have a family saga. Sounds interesting!

      A genre historical romance focuses on one romance for one couple and takes place over the span of the couple’s courtship. This is not to be confused with a whirlwind romance, although of course any of us can cite Christian couples who stayed married for life after whirlwind courtships. However, to be on the safe side, for CBA, avoid depicting whirlwind courtships simply because in a novel, it’s difficult to show the reader that a couple will stay committed for life after knowing each other a couple of weeks or a month. As a side note, when I wrote romance novels, I often paired up a secondary couple for fun, but their romance never took center stage. I just love a happy ending for everyone. 🙂

      Historical fiction with a romance means that the main story centers upon characters caught up in an historical event and/or the challenges of living in a particular past era. The romance will be a secondary factor. So the reader may say, “How wonderful that Luke and Mary found happiness in addition to their families surviving the big drought and fire.” With a romance, the reader says, “How will Luke and Mary overcome the obstacles to their romance? Will the big drought and fire keep them apart?”

      If you are still unsure, let me know and I will provide more examples.

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    Julia Denton May 31, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Thanks for a very informative discussion. I am pretty ignorant about the parameters of these sub-genres. Re: secondary characters — I think we sometimes tend to make them very strong because we are afraid of creating a bunch of cardboard people to facilitate a story that isn’t primarily about them. The only way I know of to tame my secondary characters (other than making sure the primary characters are equally strong)is by giving them less “screen time” in the story. But if you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

      Julia, less screen time is a great way to tame these characters. And of course, you want all your characters to be compelling, so there is nothing wrong with strong secondary characters. In fact, these characters might keep readers coming back for sequels.

      Be sure you aren’t limiting your secondary characters too much, though. If your heroine needs a confidante, she can certainly pick an interesting one. And that character’s background and personality are reasons for your heroine to be drawn to her. So if the confidante needs more screen time, give it to her. Just limit the information you share about her to what your reader needs to know.

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    Michelle Lim May 31, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Great post, Tamela! Genre confusion is very common amount writers.

    My struggle is more of the subplot character who wants more air time than they should have, or jumping into the story too early. Now I have colored note cards, a different one for each POV character and I post their POV scenes in order on my Three Act Chart. That way at a glance I can see if they are taking over or not. Too much of that color in comparison to at least double of the hero/heroine colors spells trouble.

    Any additional tips would be great!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

      Michelle, what a great idea! I am very visual and I can literally see this working for writers.

      As for too much air time, ask yourself why this character is taking over. Are you, as a writer, becoming too interested in that character? Why? What makes that character’s story so compelling? Obviously, that’s a great idea for a sequel, but what about the story at hand?

      I suggest examining why, as an author, you are becoming distracted from your main plot. If you are, then your reader will become distracted, too. Go back and add elements to the main plot to make it so compelling that no secondary character stands a chance of upstaging your protagonists. Be brutal in cutting any excess scenes that weigh the story down and make you, as the creator, wish you were writing another part of the story. This exercise should give you a stronger plot for your current project, and save your protagonists from being upstaged.

    • Avatar
      Angela July 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

      That is actually a really good idea!

  6. Avatar
    Donna Stanley May 31, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    Loved this article.
    I did have a secondary character become everyone’s favorite by the time I finished my book. She is closely related to the two main characters, so in the sequel I suppose I need to keep her closely knit, but I wonder how much to feature her.
    I found readers infatuated by her, but not so much that she overshadowed the main characters. It was a pleasant surprise to me, in some ways. And I almost felt that the character deserved the attention she ended up with. It will be interested to see what my agent’s/publisher’s advice will be when considering her part in a sequel.

  7. Avatar
    Jeanne May 31, 2012 at 7:14 am #

    What a great post, Tamela. Thanks for sharing the differences between genres and sub-genres in fiction. I haven’t written a lot of stories yet, so I haven’t had difficulty, so far, in determining my genre.

    As for secondary characters, none have taken over the story, but one came in unexpectedly and wreaked havoc for my hero. She’s more of an antagonist, actually.

    I’m definitey a plotter before I write. I think this helps me to make sure my secondary characters don’t usurp the story. Though I don’t know every nuance of the story before I begin writing, I have a good idea of what’s happening when once I begin typing letters on the screen.

    I’m looking forward to your answers to the above questions.

  8. Avatar
    Robin Patchen May 31, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    The book I’m polishing now was intended to be romance. Alas, it is definitely not, because the heroine and the hero are rarely together. It would make a terrible romance but fits as women’s fiction or even contemporary fiction. All of my stories have a romantic element, but none so far would classify as romance.

  9. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel May 31, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    I was just talking with another author about my novel, because it has many elements in it. I’ve labeled it women’s fiction, but it’s not necessarily as literary as many of those tend to be (they seem to be much more introspective and less action-oriented…mine is somewhere in the middle, I’d say). Mine is written from two POVs…both are women, so it’s not romance, although there are romantic elements (subplot). But there’s also a small element of danger, in that one of the characters is being threatened. That’s another subplot, though.

    Overall, I’m not sure whether to stick with the women’s fiction label or label it “inspirational contemporary fiction.” Still working through that one! 🙂

    Does women’s fiction have its own section in the bookstore anyway? It seems that all the inspirational books are just lumped together.

    Thanks for this post, Tamela!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      Good question, Lindsay! I have never seen books categorized that well in general book stores, although independent Christian book stores might vary. One good way to research is to develop a good relationship with other readers and/or a book store clerk who can help guide you on categorization and the best CBA books for you to read.

  10. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert May 31, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    This was so helpful! Synopses are tricky, mysterious things. I loved the clarification of cozy mysteries–something I’d been wondering about myself.

  11. Avatar
    Jennifer Dyer May 31, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Thanks for this clear explanation. So helpful!

  12. Avatar
    sally apokedak May 31, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Great post. I never knew the romance genre was this tightly defined.

    I have never written straight romance, but I love to add romance to my fantasy stories. Aren’t there now some publishers who are looking for fantasy romance? Is that a recognized genre like supernatural romance? Or am I imagining that?

    With regards to secondary characters: I posted on them at Novel Rocket a couple of weeks ago. My answer to keeping them from taking over the story was to make the main character more interesting, which will drive us to naturally want to give him more time on stage.

  13. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Sally, I am aware of paranormal romance in ABA, but I am not aware of clear breakdowns, as you describe, in CBA. The best advice I can give you at this point is to write your best story, submit it, and see what happens.

  14. Avatar
    TC Avey May 31, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Great information Tamela, knowing genre’s is tricky. I’m still working on my synopsis and query, so all this info is very beneficial- thank you!


  15. Avatar
    Stephenia McGee May 31, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    This is all very interesting. The lines get blurred sometimes. My current work in progress has a heroine who grows up an orphan in Jersey and then inherits a plantation in MS from a long lost aunt. She finds an old diary hidden in the house written by an ancestor living there during the Civil War. The story reads from two perspectives. First person of the main character and the “first person” of the diary pages (the story of the plantation owner’s wife and her friendship with a slave woman). While in MS the woman builds a friendship and romance with the handy man helping her fix up the house, follows clues in the diary to find things hidden in the house, learns about her family and comes to God. It is character driven and deals with past abuse. I’m still playing with the story, but what genre would you place this story in? I have my suspicions, but another opinion would help!

  16. Avatar
    Stephenia McGee May 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    That’s what I was thinking, too. Thanks!

  17. Avatar
    Kristi Ann Hunter May 31, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    I had always heard that if the story fell apart when you pulled the romance portion out, it was a romance, not a women’s fiction. But if you pulled the romance out and the story could still stand, then it was women’s fiction.

    Is that not an accurate way to assess it?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      Kristi Ann: That is a good guideline, yes.

      • Avatar
        Reba Cross Seals June 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

        Tamela, you posed an interesting question. I wrote a Christian book on grief survival for widows which I thought was wry “how-to” book full of tenderness, guidance and humor. But after several years of reading the market and rewriting, I find instead I have a “memoir,” still filled with tenderness, hope, guidance and wry humor. So now I will aim for a different agent/publisher.

        Did my book change or did the market focus change? Hummmmm!

        Reba Cross Seals

        Screams on Paper: A Widow’s Guide to Survival

  18. Avatar
    Linda Rodante June 23, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    I am writing a series that I tell (myself and others) is a romantic mystery/suspense, but I’m looking over everything written here and thinking that maybe that genre does not exist. I can’t do just romance. I need something to stimulate my brain. My stories have the romance and suspense, but they also have clues to help the reader guess “whodunnit.” Can I do that today?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 6, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Yes, romantic suspense is very popular. Check out Lynette Eason’s books as examples.

  19. Avatar
    Debb Hackett August 10, 2018 at 8:14 am #

    This is fun to think about. I read more romantic suspense than anything – both contemporary and historical but am writing contemporary romance with a sub plot of family drama.

    I have a secondary character that spoke to me so hard that I’ve had to kill another character just so this man can get the girl – and his own story.


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