The Synopsis: Demystifying The Mystery

It’s one thing to talk about a synopsis, but it’s something else entirely to glue your butt to the chair and try to write one. If you’ve ever tried, then you’ll no doubt agree that telling a long story in a short space in a way that preserves the drama and tension is really, really hard.

After receiving dozens of requests for the actual synopsis that sold Nathan’s Run and in the process launched my career as a professional writer, I’ve finally decided to fork it over. Those of you who have read Nathan’s Run, or may feel compelled to do so after reading about it, might be interested in the changes that I made to the story in the months between submission and publication. First and foremost is the change to the God-awful title I had originally slapped on the book. As you’ll see, I originally called the it Nathan! (complete with the exclamation point). What did I know? It seemed like a good idea at the time. You’ll also see that some names of secondary characters changed, as did the direction of a subplot or two, and the publication name of the author.

The synopsis below is word for word what convinced agents to take a look at my manuscript, and to ultimately offer to represent me. From there, that manuscript, in its unedited form, was purchased for publication in 23 countries, and for film production by Warner Brothers. Please read and enjoy.

Before you begin, though, be aware that elsewhere in this Essays On Writing section of my website, I talk in detail about query letters and synopses. I encourage you to read those articles before you read this actual synopsis. If nothing else, you’ll have a better idea of why I’m posting this in the first place.

Now, without further ado…

John T. Gilstrap
A Synopsis

It’s the night of July 4th, and there’s been a murder at the Juvenile Detention Center. Child Care Supervisor Ricky Harris is dead, a victim of multiple stab wounds. The occupant of the cell, twelve-year-old Nathan Bailey, is missing. All evidence points to the boy as the murderer.

As police are discovering the body, Nathan Bailey is less than a mile away, hiding among bushes. Nathan killed Ricky in self defense, but he knows that people won’t believe him. Needing food, shelter and clothing, he decides to break into a home whose occupants are obviously on vacation.

Meanwhile, Nathan’s uncle, Mark Bailey, is pitying himself for having to order his nephew’s execution. With Nathan dead, Mark’s debt to the Schillaci family will be paid, and he’ll finally be able to thumb his nose at everyone who ever said he was a loser. When the news reports that Nathan is still alive, Mark realizes that he may be a loser, afterall.

Morning brings a lengthy list of things gone wrong in the effort to locate Nathan. Warren Michaels, the detective in charge of the Bailey case, is furious when he discovers that Commonwealth’s Attorney and Senate hopeful J. Daniel Petrelli has saturated the morning news programs with promises to prosecute and punish Nathan as an adult.

Nathan is shocked to hear Petrelli speak of the death penalty. When he tunes in a controversial radio talk show hosted by The Bitch, and he hears what her listeners are saying about him there, he gets angry. Most of the callers agree that he should be tried and punished as an adult. No one is more surprised than The Bitch when Nathan calls in and tells the nation his side of the story. In only twenty minutes, he becomes a celebrity, with most of America on his side.

For Petrelli, Nathan’s appearance on radio is a disaster. No one ever won a Senate seat by trying to execute America’s newest hero. Warren Michaels believes Nathan’s story, putting him in direct conflict with his job of returning the boy to custody. When he views a security video and he sees a resemblance to his own recently-killed son, Warren realizes just how great the conflict will be.

Lyle Pointer, a brutal thumb-breaker who works for the Schillaci crime family, tells Mark that Mr. Schillaci has ordered Mark killed for screwing up the hit on Nathan, but that Pointer negotiated a reprieve, on the condition that Pointer would whack the kid personally. With the family’s reputation at stake, along with a huge sum of money, there will be no additional reprieves for either of them.

Nathan settles on an escape plan. He’ll travel at night toward Canada, in a car borrowed from his unwitting hosts. He makes it as far as central Pennsylvania before he has to stop and find a new place to hide.

Before noon on the second day, the Nicholsons—Nathan’s “hosts” from the night before—return from their vacation to find their car missing. Within a half-hour, police know they’ve been handed their first big break in the case. The Nicholsons hold a press conference, during which they describe how Nathan did their laundry for them, and how he left a note apologizing for any inconvenience. CNN names Nathan “America’s Most Popular Criminal”.

By four, the Nicholsons’ car is found in Pennsylvania. When a neighbor who spotted Nathan recognizes his picture on a police flyer, he calls the authorities.

Nathan makes it as far as Pitcairn County, New York before he is spotted and taken into custody, after a brief but violent chase.

Alerted by news reports of Nathan’s movements and capture, Pointer heads to New York, disguised as a police officer from Virginia. He arrives at the jail where Nathan is housed at 4:30 a.m., telling deputies that he’ll be escorting the boy back to Virginia following extradition. Once he is allowed to enter, Pointer kills the two officers on duty and proceeds to the cell block to finish the job with Nathan, who escapes after a struggle.

For the second time in three days, evidence points to Nathan as a murderer. Petrelli feels vindicated. Warren still wants to believe in Nathan’s innocence, but the additional murders have destroyed the boy’s credibility. Warren travels to Pitcairn County. When he arrives, he finds that television satellite trucks have taken over Main Street.

Inside the courthouse, Petrelli and the local sheriff are whipping the assembled deputies into a frenzy. For Petrelli, it’s a chance to regain the favorable spotlight; for the cops, it’s a chance to avenge the deaths of their friends and fellow officers.

Schillaci is furious about the second failed hit on Nathan. With three police officers dead, the old man can no longer afford the humiliation. To keep the right people happy, Pointer must be sacrificed. Another of Schillaci’s men will take care of the boy’s Uncle Mark.

On the run again, Nathan gratefully accepts another boy’s offer of refuge in his apartment. When the proper hour arrives, Nathan calls The Bitch. He doesn’t know why people are trying to kill him, he explains, but whatever the reason, the police want him dead, and they’re desperate enough to kill other cops to make it happen!

When Mark Bailey hears the news from Pitcairn County, he tries to piece together what went wrong. His reverie is broken by the arrival of a man bringing Mr. Schillaci’s regards.

At last, Warren can prove that Nathan is innocent, that he is the target of a mob hit; but both Petrelli and the sheriff have invested too much political capital in the boy’s pursuit to listen to alternative theories.

Pointer knows that Schillaci is going to have him popped, but he has a job to finish. He intimidates a phone company employee into tracing Nathan’s on-going call to The Bitch. When the employee calls the authorities to complain about their tactics, Warren realizes that the killer is a step ahead, and he breaks into Nathan’s call. While broadcasting live across the nation, Warren tells Nathan to run; that a killer is on the way to get him.

Nathan encounters Pointer in the hallway of the apartment building, and the chase is on. As the boy dashes through the town, 9-1-1 lines explode with Nathan sightings. Police and reporters alike are updated on the boy’s whereabouts, and finally, the action is captured by a news helicopter and is broadcast live. In the final confrontation, Pointer is killed by a SWAT team sniper.

To Nathan, the police are still the enemy, just as to the police, Nathan is still a killer. After Pointer is shot, officers swarm toward the boy, who picks up Pointer’s pistol and brandishes it at the crowd. As fifteen cops drop to shooting positions, Warren Michaels steps forward and tells the boy that it’s over; that they can be friends. Nathan slumps to the ground sobbing, and he sits there alone on the sidewalk. Warren goes to the boy, and, self consciously at first, but then with the warmth and tenderness of a grieving father, he draws Nathan close, and together they cry like babies on national television.