What is a synopsis?
A screenplay synopsis is a 'one-pager' that describes the plot and world of your story (not to be confused with a "treatment" which is 10-15 pages).
There are two versions of the synopsis. I like to refer to them as the "artistic" synopsis and the "business" synopsis.
The artistic synopsis (story tool)
This is written at the pre-script stage and is a tool to use during the writing process. Preparing a rough artistic synopsis is the first thing I do after writing my logline. This allows me to play around with the story and spot potential plot holes early.
Format is not important at this stage as the only people who will read this document are those who you ask for feedback. But if you want to use the correct formatting (see below), it is good practice for when you write the business synopsis.
The business synopsis (selling tool)
This is written at the post-script stage and is an essential tool for getting the script sold. It will invariably be the first thing producers, execs, & agents ask for after reading your query letter. This makes learning to write a tight synopsis a crucial skill all screenwriters must acquire.
Most writers generally aren't thrilled at the thought of writing this type of synopsis, as they must shift away from storytelling and move towards summarization. But there is an art to creating a one-pager that is not only efficient but captivating and intriguing.
What to cover
Start with a logline - a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of the screenplay's plot. This needs to be brief but captivating. For examples of loglines, check out my post—a beginner's guide to writing a feature-length screenplay.
(Act 1) Limit this part to one paragraph. Start by setting the scene, introduce the characters and the world, quickly followed by the inciting incident (what sparks the central conflict of your story?). Be sure to include/emphasize the character motivations here as justification for the inciting incident (and what follows).
EXAMPLE: Take the movie JOHN WICK for instance, (spoiler alert) no matter the circumstances, it would no doubt still be entertaining watching the retired assassin kill his way up the Russian mob to get revenge on the man that killed his puppy (inciting incident). However, the fact the puppy was a gift from his late wife as a tool to cope with her death, makes the revenge all the more sweet. This puppy was a physical embodiment of his wife's love and John's only chance at healing after his loss, and that is what pushes him forward through the entire movie.
(Act 2) This is the meat of your story. Cover the rising action by showing the obstacles the characters face, the gains, and the setbacks.
(Act 3) Lastly, you need to cover the climax and resolution. Show how the characters overcome the obstacles (or don't) and clearly state the emotional and story arcs.
NOTE: Do not keep any secrets regarding twists and/or the ending. This will annoy the reader who wants to know what happens!
Your synopsis should be written in the present tense, third person, in the same tone as the script. Do your best to tell your story, rather than explain it.
Follow the below guidelines for formatting:
· Single spaced line
· Font = Arial or Times New Roman
· Font size = 12
You must include:
· Written by
· Contact info
To help make this easy, I have included a link to my free synopsis template here
Typos and grammatical errors are a big no, so make sure to take your time editing this document. This is also the stage where you ensure it flows well and follows a natural progression. Readability is key!
Practice makes perfect
Nailing the synopsis can be very tricky, so make sure you take the time to get it right. A good way to practice is to write a synopsis for your favorite films (preferably in the same genre as yours).
Here is a great example from the movie Ransom provided by Writer's Digest
"TOM MULLEN is a rich businessman who made his fortune creating a successful airline company from scratch. While he and his family are in Central Park, his son, SEAN, is kidnapped. Tom and his wife KATE's worst nightmares are confirmed when a kidnapper contacts them and demands a $2 million ransom. The Mullens call the FBI for help.
After being kidnapped, Sean is held in a basement. There are not one but five kidnappers, all working together—led by violent police detective JIMMY SHAKER, who resents rich men like Tom who can buy their way out of trouble and are oblivious to the hardships of those around them. Shaker tells his conspirators that the boy will be killed once the ransom is given. Shaker anonymously calls Tom and arranges a dropoff. Tom follows all directions and hands the $2 million to one of Shaker's henchmen. When Tom demands his son in return, the henchman is confused. The henchman flees, but police swarm the area. Gunshots are traded, and the henchman is killed.
News of the shooting/ransom appears all over the NYC media, adding to Tom's problems. Shaker sets up another drop, but Tom surprises everyone by appearing on live TV and saying he will pay no ransom. Instead, he offers the $2 million as a bounty on the kidnapper's head. He says if Sean is released, he will press no charges. The bold move is met by disapproval by the media, the FBI, and most especially Kate, who screams at her husband to take back the bounty and pay the ransom. Tom explains that he would pay any amount of money if he really thought Sean would truly be returned, but he believes the kidnappers have no intention of giving Sean back; therefore, a bounty is his best option. Kate is unconvinced.
Learning to craft a great synopsis (whether it be artistic or business) is not easy, but it an essential tool for all screenwriters. I hope this post has helped you on your way to mastering the synopsis!
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