Guess the Plot
At the Edge of Dark Water
1. Tommy always looked into the dark water of the pool at the edge of his family's farm. He tested it before and was curious why such a shallow pool was so dark. One midsummer's day, he stared into the dark abyss, until it started staring back.
2. Inadvertently cursed by a girl with a crush on school's top swimmer, Jimmy learns only a kiss will return him to human. Unfortunately, he doesn't know whose kiss and each turns him into a different creature: penguin, seagull, walrus....
3. Dark Water is one of those boring little towns where nothing ever happens, until of course it does and everybody gets upset, leaving a plucky teenage girl and a detective to sort things out. Also, zombies.
4. When her mother dies, Maggie moves in with her grandmother, who lives on the edge of a swamp. As the new kid in town, Maggie gets harassed and bullied. She's unhappy, and it seems the only boy who can ever reach her, is the son of a preacher man. Also, a disturbing freak show.
5. On the cusp of earning his parent’s love through heroism, Maxwell realizes he is afraid of the dark, and sharks. He helplessly watches from the dock as his parent’s sink with their trawler into the bottomless sea. If only he had run away to the big city like his sister.
6. Vivienne lives in a houseboat at the edge of the continental shelf. After her boyfriend dumps her, her dog dies of cancer, and she loses her job, she thinks about ending it all. Then, she hears sirens of the Oedipus kind.
Dear Evil Editor,
I humbly beseech you to critique the synopsis for my YA novel, AT THE EDGE OF DARK WATER, in which a grieving teen girl and the tormented son of a street preacher take on a monster that feeds on human sin. The creature lives in the Great Dismal Swamp (specifically in the depths of Lake Drummond) - hence the title. BTW 400 words is brutal!
After her mom's death, seventeen-year-old MAGGIE hopes to forge a new life with her grandma, JESSIE-BELLE, in the small, southern town of Leviathan, but things go wrong the minute she steps off the bus. Classmates vandalize her new car, [The minute she steps off the bus? If she has a new car, why didn't she drive it to Leviathan?] swamp water turns to blood when she touches it, and DANNY, the tormented son of a street preacher, tells her to go back to California before it's too late. [Apparently you thought Evil Editor would just gloss over the swamp water turning to blood if you hid it in the middle of the list. Let's see if that works on you: I was having one of those days. First there was no milk for my cereal in the morning, then a Klingon warbird blew up my town, and finally a guy in a clown suit made fun of my socks.]
Things seem to be looking up when local hottie MITCH invites Maggie to the Peanut Festival. [Only an invitation to the junior prom or the swamp buggy races is more coveted than one to the peanut festival.] But during the date, Maggie is harassed by ELIAS, manager of a disturbing freak show and museum of oddities. [Why? Does he even know who she is?] And when Mitch takes Maggie into the swamp, he is attacked by a shadowy entity. Panicked, Maggie leaps into Mitch's SUV and drives away. [Shouldn't he have taken her into the swamp in an airboat instead of his car? I take it he left the keys to his SUV in the vehicle?]
When school starts, Mitch's ex-girlfriend, ROSALIE, bullies Maggie. [Was she his ex-girlfriend or his girlfriend when he was taking Maggie into the swamp?] [If school hadn't started yet, I'm not sure the people who vandalized Maggie's new car could be called her classmates.] On a class trip, Maggie runs away and gets lost in the swamp. [They should have used the buddy system. What was she running away from?] She finds a girl impaled on the branches of a bizarre tree. [What's bizarre about it, besides the fact that there's a girl impaled on its branches?] She shouts for help and Danny appears. They free the girl and take her to the hospital, but she dies and Danny is arrested for her murder. [Why?]
Maggie returns home to find her grandma disappearing into the swamp. Maggie follows and sees Jessie-Belle conversing with the monster. Maggie learns the monster is her father. She also learns its cells are in her body and if she doesn't become its servant, she will suffer the same excruciating death as her mom. [We're starting to ratchet up the wacko factor here.]
Maggie races to the jail, hoping Danny can help her defeat the monster. She convinces the deputy in charge to release him, [Whoa. Who's this deputy, Barney Fife? He releases a murder suspect because the seventeen-year-old new kid in town says to?] and the two resolve to face the beast together. They force Jessie-Belle to lead them to the monster, but their plan to ambush the beast is derailed when Elias arrives with a kidnapped Rosalie. He intends to offer her to the monster in exchange for immortality. [What makes him think Maggie's monster/father can grant immortality in exchange for human sacrifices? Has anyone else been granted immortality?]
The monster awakens. Elias is killed, [By the monster?] Rosalie escapes, Danny loses an arm, and Jessie-Belle is knocked unconscious. Maggie drags Danny and Jessie-Belle into Danny's pick-up truck, but Jessie-Belle regains consciousness and crashes the vehicle. Jessie-Belle runs to the monster declaring her love, but it kills her.
Maggie must face the monster alone. [With Elias and Jessie-Belle dead, why can't the police be brought in?] She sets herself and the creature on fire. [Better would have been setting just the creature on fire. Hindsight is 20/20.]
Several weeks later, Maggie awakens in the hospital where she is reunited with Danny. Danny reassures her the monster is dead. The two embrace, exhilarated to begin a new life together.
The last four paragraphs are mostly a list of things that happen. Which you blame on me for limiting synopses to 400 words. But the key, when given a word limit, is not to squeeze all the information into half as many words, but to get rid of the less important information. For instance, I've reduced it to well under 300 words by getting rid of the vandalism and Elias and Rosalie and most of what made me ask questions:
After her mom's death, seventeen-year-old MAGGIE hopes to forge a new life with her grandma, JESSIE-BELLE, in the small, southern town of Leviathan. But not long after Maggie steps off the bus, DANNY, the tormented son of a street preacher, tells her to go back to California before it's too late.
When school starts, Maggie gets lost during a class trip to the Great Dismal Swamp. She finds a girl impaled on the branches of a tree and shouts for help. Danny appears, seemingly from nowhere. They free the girl and take her to the hospital, but she dies.
Maggie returns home to find her grandma disappearing into the swamp. Maggie follows and sees Jessie-Belle conversing with a shadowy monster. Maggie learns the monster is her father, and is responsible for the death of one of her classmates. It feeds on human sin.
Maggie and Danny resolve to face the beast together. They force Jessie-Belle to lead them to the monster, but their plan to ambush the beast is derailed when they realize they forgot to bring any weapons. The monster awakens and pulls off one of Danny's arms. Jessie-Belle tries to calm the monster, but it kills her.
Forced to face the monster alone, Maggie sets the creature on fire with a Molotov cocktail she finds in a bush, but is burned herself when the creature falls on her in its death throes.
Several weeks later, Maggie awakens in the hospital where she is reunited with Danny. Danny assures her the monster is dead, and cannot return to life unless this book sells big and the publisher demands a sequel. The two embrace, ready to begin a new life together.
Now if you need a 400-word synopsis, you can add 100+ words to this version. If you need 800 words, you can add 500. What you add should elaborate on this with specific details, not just list more things that happen. Tell a story.
Ideally, your synopsis should read like a short story version of your plot, not like just a list of what happens. I know it's tough but you can do it. Working off EE's version might help. Try to show more connection between events.
It might also help to shorten it even further and then start adding details to explain. Something like:
A girl moves to a town near a swamp. She learns her grandmother is helping a monster in the swamp that's killing her classmates. She forces her grandmother to lead her to the beast and sets it on fire, but is knocked unconscious during the fight. Later, she wakes up in a hospital to find out it's dead.
Change so the details match what actually happens.
(check word count)
Add details about the monster
(check word count)
Add details about the preacher's boy and what he does, how/why it connects
(check word count)
Continue adding bits in order of importance to the story. Leave off names of secondary/tertiary characters at first and only add them if it helps keep characters straight
The events of your story aren't connecting to one another well. I'm not getting a sense that because of A, B happened, which in turn caused C to happen. It took me a while to figure out a lot of the connections, like that Maggie probably turns swamp water to blood when she touches it because of her biological connection to the monster. I had thought that the same biological connection might be why Maggie sets herself on fire along with the monster, but Maggie survives and that seems to be okay, so I really don't know. I'm not sure whether Mitch is dead or not or if Rosalie is bullying Maggie because Maggie was getting close to her boyfriend or ex-boyfriend or because Maggie got him killed. You want your synopsis to demonstrate that you have a story that works, not leave readers trying to guess how it all fits together.
Take EE and Anon's advice and pare down. Tell the most bare bones version of the story you possibly can while still having it make sense (which is pretty much what Anon's version does, though the details may not entirely work for you.) Then figure out what you absolutely need to include to add in each new element and have it make sense. Reintroducing Danny means explaining how he helps Maggie beyond showing up at the right time and how he knows more than the average person about what's going on. It does not necessarily mean noting that he is tormented in some way or that his father is a street preacher, since these details don't have any obvious bearing on the story or Danny's role in it. Fleshing out the monster may be tricky. The nature of the biological connection between Maggie and the monster is confusing. I get that the monster is her dad, but was Dad always a swamp monster, or did he used to be human? Does Maggie have the monster's cells because she's its daughter? If not, why does she have its cells? If so, why would she expect to suffer the same unknown fate as her mother - who is presumably not biologically related to her dad - if she doesn't become the monster's servant? Is Grandma serving the monster to avoid this horrible fate?
By the way, if you hadn't mentioned it in your introduction, I would not have known that Maggie was grieving or that the monster feeds on human sin. While I could guess that Maggie might be grieving for her dead mom, the synopsis never mentions her grieving. And I see no evidence that the monster is doing anything but killing people. This is not necessarily a problem, but if these are major parts of your story that you really want a potential agent or editor to understand, they need to be in the synopsis.
I am so glad I put off going to rehab, again. I am totally going to read this book when you're finished. It has all the elements of a great horror story. Dead mom. Grandma with suspicious name who has a swamp monster for a son. A love interest who tries to save the main character, and he has a street preacher for a dad! Once you get all the cause and effect straightened out this will be fun. I'll be waiting. You have great advice from EE and the others. Not to tell you what to do but I would be even more excited if the climax could be that the street preacher goes to the swamp to save his son and in turn the main character. He confronts the swamp monster screaming eat me! Eat me! Once the swamp monster eats the preacher the power of the preacher's position comes into play and the swamp monster explodes into a ball of fire and guts. That would be cool. Looking forward to it!
As the others said, focus on not just what happens, but why it happens and what the consequences that must be dealt with are.
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