InkTIPS: Writing a Synopsis
You’ve crafted the perfect logline. It succinctly encapsulates the premise of your story while leaving enough intrigue for a producer to want to read more. Does that mean you’re ready to go? In the words of famed college football analyst Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” You’re neglecting one very important and often overlooked aspect of the pitching process: the synopsis.
If the logline is the bait that entices the fish to swim over, the synopsis is the hook itself. Producers very rarely jump straight from a logline to cracking open the script. Their time is valuable and perpetually dwindling so they want to make sure your 120-page script is worth a few hours of their day. That is why they utilize synopses. A synopsis provides both a deeper insight into the story itself as well as a glimpse into your ability as a writer.
As you may be aware, the rules for what should be contained within a synopsis can vary from person to person. Some sources may tell you that a synopsis is essentially a longer logline that extends to a full paragraph, while others may want a synopsis to cover a few pages. The rules and tips we will be sharing are specific to our own criteria. They pertain to what we’ve found producers value in a synopsis on our site.
So, without further ado, here are some InkTIPs to help you craft your synopsis:
Don’t leave out the ending! We start with the end, as this is one of the more disputed aspects of a synopsis. We highly recommend including the ending of the script in the synopsis. You might think that withholding the ending from the reader helps build intrigue and makes them want to check out the script to find out what happens, but we assure you it does not. Producers WANT to know the ending. Which leads us to the general note of…
Cover the entire story! Make sure your synopsis spans from beginning to end. Don’t leave the reader with a question of whether the hero will succeed in the final act. Don’t just establish the setup of the story right before your protagonist begins their journey. A synopsis isn’t the time for cliffhangers. A synopsis helps a producer determine if the story is one that they find exciting, while the script will be mostly an evaluation of your ability to tell that story effectively.
Keep it brief. Your synopsis should fall anywhere between 3-5 paragraphs, roughly the length a single page. Typically, each paragraph can highlight a different act. But make sure there is an even balance. You don’t want half of the synopsis describing the first act while the latter half rushes through the rest of the story. Producers will interpret that as a reflection of a problem with the script itself (because most of the time, it is).
Avoid getting too in depth. Elaborating on the previous point, you don’t want your synopsis to get lost in the weeds. Avoid extensive character descriptions and keep to the pertinent plot points. For example, if you were writing a synopsis for Top Gun: Maverick, you wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the subplot between Maverick and Penny since it doesn’t affect the central story all that much. Unnecessary details can distract producers from the central conflict that your logline promised. You want to make sure a clear throughline can be drawn from beginning to end with every plot point flowing into the next. This will help emphasize character development and pacing.
Keep the tone of your script in mind. I know we’ve already established that your synopsis should be brief and focused on plot, but that doesn’t mean it has to sound robotic. If you’ve written a horror script, make the reader feel scared. If you’ve written a buddy comedy, make them laugh. However, don’t resort to “fluff” sentences (i.e., “In one wild and wacky night, the world will forever change.”). Lines like these don’t reveal anything pertaining to the story itself, and waste valuable space in your synopsis.
Establish your protagonist and setting early. Producers want to know who they’re going to be following and where the story is taking place. If a synopsis is supposed to be as economical as possible, it’s crucial to establish both early on.
Make sure prominent characters are introduced in ALL CAPS. Whenever you introduce your protagonist and subsequent characters, make sure their names are all capitalized. This is a visual cue for a producer to get a sense of how many characters are important to the main plot as well as what kind of budget they can expect. Also, make sure that you include their ages next to their name when introduced (i.e., “TINA (30), a hopeless dreamer, moves to Nashville to live with her one-hit wonder country artist uncle JIMMY (55).”).
Write in present tense and from third person perspective. This is industry standard and critical for coming across in a professional manner.
Issues in your synopsis can reflect issues in your script. We slightly touched on this already, but if you find yourself struggling with your synopsis, your script may not be as ready as you previously thought. If you discover half of your synopsis is just setup, your first act might be too long. If you find yourself expanding on too many subplots, your script may be too convoluted. As a writer, you need to have a clear grasp on your story, and your synopsis should be able to reflect that. If it doesn’t, the producer will assume the script isn’t up to par.
A quality synopsis can make the difference between your script getting read or not. You already put all that time and effort into crafting the best script possible, so be sure to approach your synopsis with that same diligence.
For reference, below is an example of a synopsis for the film Whiplash that would fit the aforementioned criteria.
ANDREW NEIMAN (19) is a meek freshman at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City, aspiring to be a famous jazz drummer. One day, TERENCE FLETCHER (50s), the formidable conductor of the studio band, recognizes Andrew’s talents and invites him to be an alternate for the core drummer. Andrew’s excitement quickly transforms into apprehension during his first practice when he witnesses the extent of Fletcher’s mercilessly abusive teaching methods. When he fails to keep tempo, Fletcher berates, smacks, and hurls a chair at Andrew’s head.
Driven to prove himself, Andrew pushes his limits during his personal practice sessions. At a jazz competition, Andrew accidentally misplaces the core drummer’s sheet music. The drummer begrudgingly admits he can't continue because he doesn’t know the charts by heart, but Andrew claims he has them memorized. After an impressive performance, Andrew gets promoted to core drummer. However, it’s short-lived as Fletcher introduces a new drummer who takes Andrew’s spot.
Fueled by unwavering determination, Andrew alienates himself from his family and breaks up with his girlfriend to eliminate any potential distractions. After an arduous five-hour practice session, Andrew earns his position back. On his way to another competition, Andrew’s bus breaks down. Pressed for time, he rents a car but soon realizes he forgot his drumsticks at the rental office. Desperate, Andrew rushes back, grabs his sticks, but gets blindsided by a truck. He crawls from the wrecked car a bloody mess and races to the theater. Arriving just in time, he attempts to perform despite his battered state and struggles mightily, resulting in Fletcher dismissing him from the band. Fuming with rage, Andrew tackles Fletcher onstage.
At his father’s urging, Andrew files an ethics complaint against the conservatory, unearthing the tragic suicide of one of Fletcher’s former students, who suffered from anxiety and depression due to Fletcher’s abusive methods. Andrew agrees to testify as an anonymous witness, resulting in Fletcher’s termination. Months later, Andrew, having abandoned drumming, unexpectedly encounters Fletcher at a jazz bar. They engage in a seemingly heartfelt conversation where Fletcher rationalizes his teaching style as an attempt to push musicians beyond their perceived limits, believing that true greatness would never be discouraged. Afterward, Fletcher extends an invitation to Andrew to perform as a drummer in his new band at a jazz festival—an invitation Andrew accepts.
With his father in the audience, Andrew eagerly anticipates his return to the stage. However, as he takes his place, Fletcher vindictively reveals that he knows Andrew was the one who testified against him. In an attempt to humiliate Andrew, the music chosen turns out to be unfamiliar to him. After a disastrous performance, Andrew initially retreats from the stage, utterly defeated. Yet, discovering a newfound determination, Andrew returns and hijacks the performance, cueing the band himself. An impressed Fletcher resumes conducting, guiding Andrew through an awe-inspiring drum solo. As Andrew concludes his solo, Fletcher nods approvingly, and Andrew briefly displays a proud smile before leading the band into a triumphant finale.
Hailing from Cleveland, Torey Sinclair spent 6 years studying film and screenwriting at Ohio University and Chapman University, earning his BA and MFA respectively. After spending time in the IP Department and as Social Media Coordinator, Torey currently works as InkTip’s Marketing Manager. His free time is usually spent either writing, watching indie films, or hoping for a Cleveland Guardians World Series.