Writing SynopsesWritten by: Jerrol LeBaron
Published: Feb 11, 2009
Tips on Synopses
According to 'The Complete Film Dictionary' by Ira Konigsberg, the definition of synopsis is, 'A brief summary of a film or potential film written in a few paragraphs and including only a general outline of events.'
Here are a few suggestions:
First, let's take our cue from people who do script coverage. Ever notice how their summary is instantly understandable, even to an eight-year-old? That is your first tip in writing a synopsis. It must be very, very simply written. Meaning, anybody should be able to very easily follow your synopsis, with just one quick read. The one tip you don't want to take on script coverage is the inspiration part of it. Most script coverage is, by its nature, very uninspiring. So your synopsis has to have a quick, easy feel
to it and yet interest the producer. You do not interest a producer by making it complicated (from their point of view, if they can't easily comprehend it, how on earth are they going to be able to pitch it to the studios?). Each paragraph should easily lead into the next. One line of thought should flow smoothly to the next line of thought. I would suggest that when you have finished your synopsis and logline, have some of your peers read it and give you pointers. You can even read it to some of your friends. If it doesn't make them want to see the movie, rewrite it.
Some scripts have a target audience. Showing your logline or synopsis for a teen script to a few senior citizens who only watch movies from the 50's and 60's is foolish.
Nowhere in Konigsberg's definition does it tell the writer to include all of the names of the main characters or every scene in the story.
Writing a good synopsis and logline for a script takes practice. These are not something you whimsically write, giving it no importance. Without a good logline and synopsis, you drastically reduce the chances of getting your script read.
Writing a Synopsis:
Here is one way to write a synopsis and feel reasonably sure it will be good:
1)Write up to a dozen different synopses for your script. Keep in mind that the synopsis MUST be a very simple read, so that anyone could easily understand with one quick read.
2) Then, with the help of your writing peers and friends (hopefully people who like to watch movies that are similar to your story), find out what parts of each synopsis they like and dislike the most.
3) Incorporate these suggestions into a few different synopses and do 1-2 above again.
4) Keep doing this until you have the best synopsis possible.
5) Get your synopsis read by some teens. If those teens aren't able to read your synopsis and instantly know what your story is about, your synopsis is in trouble. If the teens had to read a particular sentence or paragraph (in your synopsis) again to understand it, your synopsis is in trouble. When they instantly (and I do mean 'instantly, from one quick read') know what your story is about, you have a good synopsis. If those teens are confused about your story in anyway, rewrite your synopsis. You aren't asking for a critique from a teen. You want to know if they can understand it.
Scripts are where movies come from, but the industry determines their interest in a script by the logline/pitch and synopsis. Your logline and synopsis are the keys that open the gate to getting your script read. The pitch (verbal form of a logline) is THE tool that a producer uses to get a film financed. If you, the writer of the script, can't effectively communicate what your story is about, how can anyone possibly expect a producer to come up with a pitch to get the film financed?
Additional note for InkTip writers:
Though your synopsis or logline is getting results on this website, it doesn't necessarily mean that that exact logline or synopsis will get you results in your other query letters, and vice-versa. You should have several written of each and see which type of submissions work best and in what situations they work best.
Some writers hire people to write their logline and synopsis. This, in my opinion, is not in the writer's best interest if the writer wants to have a career as a writer. Once a writer has sold a few scripts and is getting some recognition, the need to write spec scripts will decline. Instead the writer pitches ideas for scripts and then gets hired to write the screenplay. The ability to pitch then becomes all-important in getting your next writing job. Start learning to do it now, so that when the time comes you will be a master at pitching and writing synopses and loglines.
This also comes into play when a producer really likes a script by a writer, but knows he/she is not interested in that type of project. In this case, the writer who knows how to write a logline, synopsis and knows how to pitch, can possibly get hired by the producer to write a script for a different story.
Knowing how to do this is part of the trade. Without this skill, a writer is limiting his/her chances. Any writer who is not an expert in this should become an expert. This is done with practice. Pick movies you have seen and write loglines and synopses for them. Have your writing peers give you their suggestions on them. Have teens read it, not for suggestions, but to see if they instantly understand the story.
A bad synopsis always has two elements: it is complicated and contains unimportant or unnecessary details.
Below we have included a synopsis. I hesitate to send any synopsis as an example, as there is no such thing as a perfect synopsis. I am sure there are many synopses that have gotten better results. However, since there are so many writers that have requested information, I have chosen to give this one as an example.
We chose to distribute this particular one, out of the many that were provided, for several reasons:
A) We have obtained full authority to distribute it broadly.
B) This writer will not take offense if other writers critique it. Of course, the writer is remaining anonymous.
C) Anyone can write a synopsis for a movie that has already been made and say 'This is how the synopsis should look'. It makes no sense to provide a synopsis that 'experts' think will get results. It is better to show writers an example of a synopsis that did get requests for the script. From a blitz of query letters (submitted in 1999), this synopsis resulted in 16 production companies requesting the script in just a few weeks. This writer was not represented at the time of the blitz.
D) The script was not sold or optioned because the script itself was poorly written.
After reading this synopsis, I have come to some conclusions as to why so many producers were interested in this writer's script. They are as follows:
1) There is always an interest in a script that can result in many more films, based upon the same premise and characters with a different situation (franchise potential - like the Bond, Mission Impossible, Die Hard, Superman movies, etc).
2) It told the basic idea of the story in a page or less. (The industry standard for a synopsis is usually one page.)
3) Even an idiot could read it and know what the story was about.
4) The development person or producer could easily pitch the story to others (such as: an American James Bond).
5) It did not contain specific details which would factually require further explanation, causing the synopsis to be longer than it should be. Nor did it leave the reader wondering what the writer meant by a particular paragraph or sentence.
6) It did not unnecessarily complicate the explanation of the story by including every important character or detail in the script.
Number 1 above does not apply to all scripts. However, in my opinion, 2-6 do. Though this synopsis is not the best one ever written and didn't really follow the 'beginning, middle and end' of the writer's script like some synopses do, it most certainly told the producer what the story was about. Regardless of how it is done, the writer needs to tell the producer what the story is about.
There is no question that anyone can look at this synopsis and find something to improve. It took restraint on Norma's, Maia's, and on my part not to improve it ourselves, before providing writers with it. Had we done so, we would be supplying you with a synopsis that we think would work, rather than one that did not work.
Here is how this writer wrote the synopsis. She wrote several synopses for the script. Then the writer had her friend who was an English tutor for small children, critique it to make it understandable and easy to read. Another concern was to, as much as possible, make it so that each paragraph naturally led into the next paragraph (or at least didn't seem disjointed).
The test to any decent synopsis is (and these are IMPORTANT):
1) Can the producer easily pitch it to others? (Don't forget this one.)
2) From the first quick read, can anyone understand it instantly?
3) Does it honestly give the producer an accurate picture of the story?
If a synopsis does not meet these three requirements, the odds are very great that the synopsis is in trouble. Writers should team up and practice writing synopses and loglines. Writers should get their synopses and loglines critiqued (by their peers) before submitting query letters.
Without further delay, here is the synopsis:
DAY OF RECKONING:
After his involvement in the Bay of Pigs and witnessing numerous other destructive deeds brought about by the KGB, CIA and other 'national security' agencies, JFK formed a secret agency known as 'Watchmen'. Its task: to ensure world peace and forward progress; to stop those agencies (Mafia, terrorists, KGB, etc.) which prevent such. They answer only to the President. It is the only US agency which has legal license to kill.
Leslie Slade, the first 'Watchman', trained his children and grandchildren well. Christian is the only family member who had no interest in being a Watchman, though amply qualified.
A cousin, by his death, involves Christian in the most serious threat to the safety of the US and world that the Watchmen have every encountered.
A weapon, funded and created by the CIA (in the name of 'national security') has been stolen. Three liters of this weapon have the power to wipe out all living things on an entire continent in little more than a minute. The weapon works on an atomic level but produces a type of radiation wave that is instantly lethal.
The movie starts with a breath taking action scene which has never before been seen on the screen. Christian Slade, in an amazing feat, after days of interrogation and torture, escapes from the bad guys. Out of necessity, Christian becomes a Watchman and proceeds to solve the clues that lead to the location of the weapon. He is involved in another never before seen action stunt (which could realistically happen) along with other hairy action scenes.
Christian is at times the pawn of the bad guys and occasionally one step ahead of them. Sometimes he doesn't know who to trust and is running from everyone. There is a double-agent and he suspects the Director, his uncle.
One of Christian's flaws is that he is a sucker when it comes to women. There are a few coined words and phrases that help this movie out. As well, flashbacks with bits of wisdom, from Christian's training as a youth, help make this action script unique to others.
In the end, the reluctant Watchman saves the day.