Before agents, producers and studio executives agree to read a complete screenplay, they will often first ask to see a synopsis. What is a synopsis? How can a solid synopsis help you sell your project? And how do you write a synopsis that will produce the kind of response you want?
A synopsis is a brief telling of your screen story in written form. It contains all the important elements — characters, storyline, actions, reactions and major incidents — from beginning to end in chronological order. (That being defined as the order in which events occur in the story.) Above all else, a synopsis is a sales tool designed to get the reader eager to read your complete script or view your short film or web series. To accomplish this, your synopsis should be as compelling, detailed and cinematic as you can make it in the limited amount of space you have available.
Many fledgling writers confuse the terms synopsis with treatment. They’re different tools designed for different purposes. As noted above, a synopsis is a brief retelling of your story designed to generate interest. It’s your verbal pitch in written form. A treatment, on the other hand, is a scene-by-scene breakdown that contains just about everything to be found in an actual screenplay or short film, except dialogue. (Although some extended treatments do include dialogue sequences to better illustrate the content of key scenes.) Writers and producers usually write treatments as an intermediary step to help flesh out story elements before committing time and energy to a full-blown screenplay or short film. As helpful as they are to the writing process, treatments aren’t usually as good as synopses for marketing your projects to would-be buyers.
Here, then, are some guidelines on writing an effective synopsis:
Length A synopsis should be long enough to pack in everything that’s good about your story, but short enough to be read in less than five minutes. This usually translates to two to three single-spaced typewritten pages. Some writers try to tell their story in a single page, but the results are usually so truncated as to be dry and lifeless. And if you go beyond three pages, you risk losing your reader’s interest. So aim for two/three pages. That’s ideal.
Style Like your screenplay, your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense. Tell your story, don’t explain it. Start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. Relate the narrative in terms of time, place, character and action as a series of (hopefully) connected scenes and sequences. Unlike a full screenplay, a synopsis does not contain scene slugs or cinematic transitions.
Characters Introduce your characters with short, vital and memorable descriptions. More important than physical descriptions are those that describe personality and temperament. Make your characters the focus of your story and take time to describe their motivations and emotional responses to incidents. Why characters do things is as vital to good storytelling as what they do and how they do it.
Dialogue You may want to include small bits of important dialogue to give your synopsis life and personality. (e.g., “Michael Corleone explains to Kay, deadpan: “He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”) Like everything else in your synopsis, keep dialogue short and sweet.
Action Include as much detail as is necessary to capture the essence of an action sequence, but be stingy with the detail. Focus on the elements that make a particular action sequence or set-piece unique and exciting, writing in rhythms that capture the pacing and punctuation you intend to achieve on screen.
Subtext Subtext — the meaning behind overt statements and actions — is usually verbotten in screenplays, but they have their place in synopses. A good synopsis captures the emotional dynamics of the screenplay or short film it’s describing, and employing subtext is often effective in achieving this end.
Act Demarcations Where your three acts begin and end are theoretical points that help, you, the writer pace your action, but such demarcations don’t actually appear in finished screeenplays. Hence they don’t belong in synopses, either. However, the proportional structure of your synopsis should reflect the structure present in the screenplay it represents. In other words, if your script follows the classic 25-50-25 format of traditional Hollywood screenplays (Act I is 25 percent of your page count, Act II is 50 percent and Act III is 25 percent), your synopsis should be structured accordingly. If your synopsis is three pages long, about one-half of Page one should be devoted to Act I, about a full page should describe Act II, and your last half-page should deliver a rip-roaring Act III.
Should you reveal your ending? Absolutely. It’s often been said that people remember the first lines of novels and the last lines of movies. You should have a strong last line or memorable image to close out your story; use it to seal the deal on your synopsis as well.
As with any work you submit to potential buyers, make sure it is expertly proofed. Bad grammar, typos and misspellings immediately throw the reader out of the story and brand you an amateur. God forbid your excellent story is rejected simply because you didn’t bother to use Spellcheck.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to the key question: Using these guidelines, how can you write a synopsis that actually gets results? How can you increase the chances that the person reading your synopsis will then actually want to read your screenplay?
Here are some proven strategies:
1. Begin your synopsis with a log line. Before you actually tell your story, state your premise. This will set your readers’ expectations and allow them to better visualize the tale you’re about to tell. A logline should be one or two sentences long and contain irony if at all possible. Basically describing where the screenplay is at the end of Act I, a logline should include the protagonist(s), the protagonist’s central problem and a sense of what’s at stake. (Example: “A put-upon teenage boy accidentally travels 30 years into the past where he inadvertently interferes with his mother and father’s first meeting. While trying to find a way back to the future, he must try to make his mis-matched parents fall in love or he will never be born.”)
2. Start with Your Lead Character in Motion. Immediately establish what your hero is trying to achieve when the story opens. Get the reader quickly invested in your protagonist’s success.
3. Establish Clear Cause-and-Effect Connections. Synopses aren’t just chronologies, a set of events related in chronological order. Write as to clearly connect your story’s events in terms of character expectations, actions taken, effects experienced and new plans formulated. As much as what happens, we need to know why they happen.
4. Focus on Emotions. And write them BIG. Readers don’t just want love, they want PASSION. They don’t just want fear, they want TERROR. They don’t just want sadness, they want EMOTIONAL DEVASTATION. As your page count contracts, what remains must be concentrated and deliver a strong visceral impact.
5. Include Your Major Set-Pieces. Set-pieces are large, unified scenes of action, humor or drama. They are the big sequences that make your screenplay unique and memorable. Although your synopsis is necessarily abbreviated, take time in your telling to describe three or four big set-pieces, as these are ultimately your script’s biggest selling points.
6. Think Cinematically. Use nouns, verbs and adjectives that have strong visual elements. Painting word pictures helps the reader see not just your story, but your movie.
7. Go Out with a Bang. As noted earlier, good endings help sell a screenplay. Even more so, a synopsis. Leave your reader with the feelings you want paying audiences to experience at your final fade out. Ultimately, your synopsis is your movie in miniature, so it must necessarily suggest the intellectual/emotional/spiritual impact of the full, final product.
Any professional screenwriter will tell you that half this job is selling. When you master the art of the synopsis, you will find that sales become much easier to come by. And will leave you with more time to do what you really want to do: write. – Allen B. Ury