Thursday, February 9, 2017

Synopsis Critique #1 - Women's Fiction

We're getting started with our first synopsis critique this week! The author of UNREASONABLE DOUBTS, a 91,000-word Women's Fiction, submitted this synopsis. My in-line comments are [blue and in brackets], and I'll include a summary at the end. Feel free to comment below!

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LIANA COHEN is an idealistic young attorney in the appeals bureau of the NYC Public Defender’s office with a problem: after representing dozens of guilty people, she’s lost hope that the clients actually deserve her help. [I'd break up this sentence for easier reading. I suggest (1) '...NYC Public Defender's Office. She has a problem: after representing..." Or (2) leave out 'with a problem' and just use "After representing..." as its own sentence. The reader will understand it's a problem.] Accused of letting her cynicism infect the more junior attorneys, her boss threatens to fire her if she can’t get back on mission. Her uncertainties have spilled over into her personal life. Liana is seriously involved with JAKOB WEISS, a mid-level associate at a white-shoe law firm. They love each other, but Liana is tired of playing second fiddle to Jakob’s outsized career ambitions – nearing 30, she wants to get married. [This is a great first paragraph. Introduces us to the main character, her world, and her 'normal.']
In this state of emotional upheaval [what you described above about Liana's personal and professional lives is problematic for sure, but I'm not sure it amounts to emotional upheaval. Upheaval connotes a sudden change for the character, and in the first paragraph, you're giving us the status quo, not the change. 'Emotional turmoil' could work.] , Liana is assigned to represent 24-year-old DANNY SHEA, who has been convicted of raping an 18-year-old girl on July 4th on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Shea testifies that he and the girl, whom he knew casually, got a little high, slow danced while watching the fireworks, and then made love. According to Shea, the girl freaked out when her younger brother interrupted their consensual encounter. The victim’s story matched Shea’s in all regards, except that she claimed Shea had forced himself on her. Liana finds Shea intelligent and magnetic, a young Brad Pitt look-alike. Most importantly, she believes he may be innocent of the crime. [I would reverse these first two sentences. If she believes he's innocent, I'd be on board with her finding him attractive. But if we're told first she finds him attractive, I'd worry that's why she's trying to believe he's innocent. From what we know so far of Liana (she's idealistic but jaded, believing her clients are mostly guilty), her belief in his innocence seems paramount here] Liana discovers reversible error in his case when the jury is exposed to inadmissible DNA evidence suggesting that Shea has raped a second woman in the past. [On the same token, why does Liana suspect he's innocent? If there's evidence he's done the same thing in the past, it's worth dropping another sentence here to explain why she doesn't think he did it this time.] Liana visits Danny in prison, out of curiosity and less honorable motives. When she finds the physical attraction overwhelming – just the touch of his hand on hers -- she cuts the visit short. Liana‘s close friend at work, Deb, complains of stomach problems and a loss of appetite; a number of weeks later, she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Their friendship becomes both more demanding and closer as Deb’s health fails, culminating in Deb’s request that Liana to [delete 'to'] help her overwhelmed parents arrange her funeral when the time comes. Deb warns Liana not to let herself get bamboozled by Danny and lose sight of her love for Jakob. [I think you can delete this paragraph. Deb doesn't show up much in the rest of the synopsis, and the friendship (and Deb's subsequent death) doesn't seem to have much impact on the main plot. Of course, if you're also writing a longer synopsis, you should flesh out Deb's subplot and tie it into the main plot as much as possible.] On a trip over Thanksgiving weekend to Newport with Jakob, meant to rekindle [rekindle what? Their relationship? Their love? Need an object here] after a strained summer, he explains to Liana the work stress that he has been under. Liana floats the idea of getting married, and he tells her he doesn’t feel either of them is ready. On New Year’s Day, Liana announces to her two closest girlfriends that if Jakob doesn’t propose by her 30th birthday in May, she will move on, an ultimatum that she never shares with Jakob. [All of this is good detail for the subplot (which I think you do need here) about Liana's relationship. But we haven't heard anything about the main plot - her representation of an accused rapist - for a few paragraphs. Add a sentence or two here tying Liana's romantic subplot into the main plot - what's been going on with Shea and his case over these several months?] Valentine’s Day, and Liana prepares a romantic meal. [Make this a complete sentence: On Valentine's Day, Liana prepares a romantic meal.] When Jakob forgets their date, she brings the repast to the office, and finds Jakob holed up in a conference room drinking wine with a pretty paralegal. She forgives him, but they are both thrown. [Did he do anything requiring her forgiveness? Is he having an affair with the paralegal? Did Liana catch them kissing? Maybe they talk it through and decide to forget about the incident?] Liana wins Danny Shea’s case on appeal. In a weird procedural twist, the prosecutor declines to re-prosecute [wouldn't it be double jeopardy if he did re-prosecute? If not, disregard this comment], and Danny [sometimes above, you refer to him as 'Shea.' Either is fine, but keep consistent (first name or last name) throughout] is set free. Over coffee, they discuss his past, and Danny tells Liana that he wants her to be part of his life. [How does Liana respond?] Liana is a fanatic Mets fan. When Jakob doesn’t clear his calendar for Mets Opening Day, and Liana’s widowed mom is going to the Yankees opener with a man she’s met, Liana, devastated, invites the next person she encounters, who happens to be Danny. [How did they encounter each other? Have they been seeing each other?] At the game, she is enjoying his company, when they are featured on the kiss cam, and she succumbs to his passionate kiss, captured on the Jumbotron before Liana breaks free. She leaves in a huff. [Why is she angry about this? Because he kissed her or because it went public and she's still technically with Jakob?] Liana has developed a friendship with a local rabbi, JORDAN NACHT. When Rabbi Nacht, also a Mets fan, sees Liana on the kiss cam, he invites her in for a chat. They discuss marriage, fate, and the need for couples to bring out the best in each other. Liana asks him to tell her how to pray for Deb. [This paragraph also seems unnecessary, especially if you delete the subplot about Deb from the rest of the synopsis. Again, for a longer synopsis, you can add more detail about this subplot. Either way, no need to name the rabbi, since he doesn't appear at any point in the synopsis other than this paragraph. You can just refer to him as 'the rabbi.'] On Liana’s 30th birthday, she suggests to Jakob they take a break from the relationship. Instead of objecting, he tells her that he loves her, but he won’t be strong-armed into getting married. A couple of days later, Deb dies. [If deleting the Deb subplot, you can delete this sentence. But I would add a little more here about what's been going on with Shea between the baseball game and Liana's birthday. Are they still communicating? Seeing each other? Did winning his case have any impact on Liana's feelings about her job?] After the funeral, Liana gets drunk. Danny arrives unbidden at her apartment and she confides her troubles in him. They begin to be intimate, until, in a lucid moment, she tells him she wants to stop. He pulls himself together and leaves, warning her to lock the door behind him. It is unclear whether he has given her a date rape drug, but she collapses. [So was he planning to rape her? Is that why he told her to lock the door - so if he came back, he wouldn't be able to get to her? How does Liana feel about this? Add a little more detail here - this is a really important turn of events, so it should be emphasized.] The next day, Liana finds out Danny has been arrested on a new sexual assault case after leaving her apartment. [Then Liana was (presumably) wrong about his innocence. Emphasize this, and add a little more about how she feels and copes with it. She's lost a potential romantic interest and her judgment about him was wrong. Either of these things alone would be disheartening, but both of them together would be crushing. Show us how this turn of events impacts Liana.] Liana has crossed too many lines at work, and quits. [What lines has she crossed? Above, we're told she's a bad influence on the more junior attorneys, but it's not clear she's done anything else questionable.] Danny is convicted of a lesser charge and gets the maximum of 90 days; Liana knows he is still out there, waiting. [Waiting for her? Waiting to sexually assault someone else? How does Liana know?] Liana is depressed – unemployed and unattached. She desperately wants to win back Jakob’s trust but doesn’t know how. Her mother’s boyfriend unwittingly gives her the idea of introducing Jakob to a potential client that he could bring into the firm. Liana secretly prepares materials for Jakob, and sets up a meeting for him and the CEO. With this effort Liana proves to Jakob that she is committed to him. He gives her an “eternity” necklace and proclaims his love, but stops short of proposing, saying they both need to recover from this experience. [You wrap up the subplot of Liana/Jakob nicely (though I am curious whether Jakob ever found out about the kiss-cam), but is there any more that needs to be said about the main plot (Danny)? If Danny is out there, waiting, there should be some resolution to how Liana deals with that. And is there any resolution to Liana's career problems? Or did she want to solve her problems with Jakob before figuring out her next career move?] EPILOGUE: Two years later, after they have moved in together, Jakob has made partner and Liana has embarked on a new do-gooder job. At [a] Mets game, Jakob proposes on the Jumbotron. [Nice ending. Though if you don't have resolution to Danny's plot in the preceding paragraph, it would be good to include a detail or two about where he's ended up and whether he's tried to approach Liana again.]

Overall, this is a well-written synopsis that follows the rules. Most of my comments have to do with the need to emphasize the main plot throughout (including relating subplots to the main plot whenever possible), making sure to include character motivations and reactions where they're needed, and ensuring all the character arcs are followed through to the end. It reads well, and with some fairly minor adjustments, you'll be good to go. Great job, and best of luck with this manuscript!


  1. Nice job! I think Jaime's comments are right on about needing to include Liana's feelings about what happens with Danny. I also think the Deb subplot could be cut from the synopsis because it doesn't seem like it propels the plot, except for Liana getting drunk after the funeral. But even then, you could trim it down to, "After the funeral of a close friend, Liana deals with her feelings by getting drunk. etc etc"


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