Your Synopsis Should Not Be These 3 Things...
The synopsis can vary wildly from writer to writer.
Because I’ve seen such a variance as far as length and philosophy in synopses, I must state that the important thing to remember is that the synopsis is not written for the writer but for the reader.
Yet many synopses I’ve read seem to ignore the reality of a typical script reader’s workload.
Some readers dive into 2-3 scripts and a dozen synopses per day. With a system like InkTip, where many producers view a logline and synopsis before deciding to read a script, the significance of the synopsis becomes clear: the synopsis should efficiently lay down the main story from beginning to end to compel the reader to read the script.
We've made articles available to writers that describe how to write an effective synopsis. Yet while scanning InkTip listings, I do see synopses that still fall into the category of “not a synopsis but something else.”
So here’s a quick rundown of what the synopsis is NOT:
1) The back of a book cover.
Read the inside of a book jacket's flap or the back cover and you'll come across excerpts from the book. Or, maybe you'll see a summary of the book's key thematic questions or high praise quotes from reviews. These are promotional tools intended to wow the potential customer into buying it. This is not a good strategy in writing a synopsis for a screenplay. Script readers don't want random exerpts of your prose or the plot to end at the inciting incident.
When writing a synopsis for a script, the most important element to bring out is the story. Prose, atmosphere, mood, theme…these elements are less important in pitching through a synopsis than expressing what happens to whom – intertwining plot and character.
So instead of focusing on flowery language and the interior thoughts of your characters, get to the plot quickly. The goal is to get the script reader intereted in how the story you summarized in your synopsis can be excecuted in your script.
2) A three-sentence “TV guide” description.
What is TV Guide? For those who are not familiar (i.e. old enough), TV Guide was both a magazine and a channel that displayed TV listings. Each listing was accompanied by a short description of the program. Most were 1-2 lines. In TV Guide’s case, the TV channel surfer only wanted to spend a few seconds to get the gist of what the program was. The script reader has a different investment: he/she wants to know if the screenwriter has a story worth spending the next hour to two reading. So a synopsis barely longer than a logline really won’t do.
Speaking of which...
3) A tease.
Do not overestimate the uniqueness of your story idea. A reader is not going to jump into a script based on a cliffhanger after your inciting incident. If your synopsis doesn’t extend past the inciting incident, the reader will not be sufficiently interested.
Assume that the script readers you want to attract have read many, many scripts. Because they've read many scripts with similar plots, they aren't going to be baited by a few lines of text describing the premise. Therefore, do not skimp on the synopsis. Walk the reader through the story instead of leaving them at the starting line.
Personally, I prefer synopses that take the reader through every act. Yes, that means spoil the ending in your synopsis. The reader wants to know if you can weave a whole story before jumping into the execution.
I've read far too many synopses that ended after the hero finds out his wife has been kidnapped, which turns out was only page ten of the script. I can think of more than a dozen films that begin with a kidnapping. This opening is not unique. How the synopsis can help spice up this familiar plot is by taking us into what happens next. What choices does this hero make? Who is behind the kidnapping? How does he resolve conflicts? Readers want to see how this story unfolds. Do not tease.
You can set up your first act in one short paragraph. How you illustrate your script's second act is what will most likely pique the reader's interest and compel them to read your script. And again, I prefer spoiling the entire story by including the third act in the synopsis.
Finally, what is the ideal length of a synopsis? This varies from reader to reader.
For InkTip listings, we've found producers tend to prefer synopses between 250-400 words. That should work out to a good 3 paragraphs: 1 for each act break.
A quick method of writing one:
Begin with Act 1. Quickly establish your story’s main conflict and characters and inciting incident.
Work on Act 2. Make the meat of your story clear by unfolding what the main character(s) must do, who the antagonists are, and all the main plot twists. Focus on the central storyline, not scene descriptions.
Spend the last paragraph(s) on how the character(s) changed or did not change through their actions and how the story was resolved.
This should all be done in less than a page. Ideally, anywhere from half a page to a page (250-400 words).
Now that you know what a synopsis is not, here is an article on how to write an effective one.
Questions? Comments? Write me at InkTipStoryPower (at) gmail dot com
Michael Kim has worked in every department at InkTip. He is now the VP of Product Development & Media. Besides working on music, he enjoys fantasy football and watching gritty crime dramas with an old-fashioned.