Who are the gatekeepers? Well, it’s not the hunchback who locks the cemetery at night. At least not in this situation. The gatekeepers I refer to are agents and editors, and following are the components you need in a synopsis to show the gatekeepers: 1) you know how to plot a story and 2) you know how to make a story unique. Here are the four steps to make that happen…we’ll be using Pretty Woman as our example:
Steps 1 & 2: Utilize the 12 Steps of The Hero’s Journey as well as screenwriting’s 3-Act Structure.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
VIVIAN, a newly minted prostitute in West Hollywood, is struggling to pay rent and living with a drug-addicted girl who got her started in prostitution.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE (TURNING POINT 1). Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
EDWARD, a man who eats, lives, and breathes hostile takeovers, screeches into Vivian’s life and, somewhat smitten by her, invites her to his hotel room.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
Edward is going to throw Vivian out when he thinks she’s doing drugs in his bathroom.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR (incorporate where appropriate). The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
The concierge at the hotel where Vivian and Edward are staying helps Vivian navigate the different world she finds herself in.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD (TURNING POINT 2–UP). At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
Vivian agrees to stay the week with Edward, as his companion, for $3,000.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES (incorporate where appropriate). The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
While there are those who love Vivian, like the concierge and her fellow prostitute Kit, there are those who don’t want Vivian in their world, like Edward’s slimy friend Stucky.
7. APPROACH TO THE IN-MOST CAVE. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
Allies help Vivian get ready for her special dinner date with Edward: they teach her how to dress and to eat and, through their actions, even how to behave.
8. THE ORDEAL (TURNING POINT 3–DOWN). Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
Vivian, feeling warm and accepted by Edward’s world at a polo match, is approached by Edward’s slimy friend Stucky and is propositioned.
9. THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
Vivian is livid with Edward and back at the hotel, leaves him and all the money he’s given her on the bed; Edward apologizes and asks her to stay, showing the deeper feelings he’s starting to have for her.
10. THE ROAD BACK (TURNING POINT 4–DOWN). About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
On the last day that Vivian’s with Edward, Stucky attacks Vivian when she’s alone, telling her he wants to understand why Edward thinks she’s so special; Edward saves her, but she still leaves him.
11. THE RESURRECTION (TURNING POINT 5—UP). At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
Edward conquers his fear of heights and what people will think of him by going to Vivian’s home.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
Edward kisses Vivian and offers red roses—the universal symbol of love—which she accepts.
Step 3: 5 Things that Makes Your Story Unique & Cool (taken from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!)
a) The Opening Image
Sets the tone for the book
Dressed in her hooker clothes, she ditches her landlord after finding out that her roommate has stolen the rent money and she heads to the local bar, where she eats a dinner of martini onions and maraschino cherries.
b) Within Beginning of Act I: Theme stated
It tells the audience what the movie was about. It poses an argument or a conflict, usually by the main character.
Vivian tells Edward after agreeing to be his companion, “Baby, I’m going to treat you so nice, you’re never gonna want to let me go.”
c) Start of Act II: B Story
The reason Edward wants Vivian around is because he wants company as he attends social functions to succeed in his latest hostile takeover.
d) Act II: Fun and Games (If your book was a movie, these are the shots that most of the movie trailer would be showing)
-Vivian getting shunned at a fancy dress shop.
-Edward taking her shopping.
-Vivian watching a fancy polo match and woo-wooing like Arsenio Hall
-Vivian getting her fingers snapped in a necklace case.
e) Act III: Final Image
A scene that juxtaposes the difference between new and old worlds. Often it’s the same scene flipped by 180 degrees.
Edward, offering unconditional love, stands below Vivian on the same fire escape she once ran down to escape from her landlord, only now she’s dressed in designer clothes and about to start college.
Step 4: How to Make Your Characters Stand Out
1) Who is your protagonist AND what makes her sympathetic AND what does she want AND what stands in her way?
VIVIAN, a naive prostitute working in West Hollywood, is forced to continue to turn tricks in order to make the rent payment after her druggie roommate steals their rent money. (*Note: This is Vivian at the start of the story. Her wants change later, but right now, these are her immediate wants.)
2) Who is your antagonist AND what makes him sympathetic AND what does he want AND what stands in his way?
EDWARD, a heartless corporate raider, has known little love in his life and is laser-focused on taking over a new company that the owner doesn’t want to sell.
3) What dialogue showcases these characters? (Take a few lines from your completed manuscript to insert into the synopsis. The guidelines? One, your critique partners and beta readers all LOVED these lines. Two, the dialogue must underscore what you’re trying to get across
“You make a $100 a night and you’ve got a safety pin holding your boot up?” –Dialog that shows that Vivian isn’t a successful prostitute
“Now that you have me here, what are you going to do with me?” –Dialog to show Vivian’s playful side
“I appreciate this whole seduction thing you’ve got going, but let me give you a tip. I’m a sure thing.” –Dialog that shows her playful side or maybe Edward’s manners despite his coldness
Note: When you’re done, you have everything you need to not only write the bare bones of your synopsis, but also to go back and see if the story itself has all these components.