How to write a great synopsis
Written your screenplay? Happy with it? Great. No, wait, shit. We gotta write a synopsis.
But of course a synopsis is usually the second thing a producer will ask to read, assuming your logline rescued him or her from reader-fatigue.
Now that I head up development at Film Engine UK and am producing as well as writing and directing, I get sent quite a lot of scripts – but having only so many hours in the day I read a lot more synopses than I do scripts. And in my view a lot of writers screw up the synopsis. Me too sometimes. It’s usually down to laziness, the aforementioned drag factor. The truth is, it’s not easy writing one, especially when it’s for your own script.
While it’s true a synopsis should map out the main story beats, many writers neglect to write one with any kind of urgency. If you just finished writing a great new draft of your thriller, your synopsis should be written in the style of a thriller. I fully appreciate, you’ve just worked your ass off for a few weeks, maybe months, and now you have to crush this great work down to 500 words or so, and the job feels a bit like vandalism of one’s own most precious possession. But you can’t afford to entertain this emotion for more than a few minutes, you owe it to your script, aching shoulders and burnt eyeballs to get it right. So maybe this can help…
STRUCTURE YOUR SYNOPSIS
The first thing I’d advise you to do is to pay close attention to the structure of your synopsis.
A producer/manager is looking to see if you know where the catalyst comes, where the break into 2, the mid point, the break into 3 should appear. So try and oblige on that front.
Avoid long paragraphs – 4-5 lines should cover the key sequences in your screenplay if you’re working to a short synopsis of around 500 words.
Whether you put in subheadings to the version you send off is probably not so important, although personally I would be impressed and reassured, but at least have them there while you’re writing it. Because, by giving yourself a structure for your synopsis, you will better able to:
• Identify your theme
• Make the key moments stand out in a visual way
• Identify the internal as well as the external conflict
• Provide a breathing space from one act to the next and therefore make the synopsis altogether more readable
I would also add that writers often neglect to give the reader a sense of what the story is about. Most producers I know are much more impressed by a synopsis that can convey a sense of theme than include a series of events as if writing a list of side effects on the side of packet of pills. The events are not what the story is about. It’s less a case of saying, Hey, this is my theme, than writing the synopsis in such a way that your theme is clearly visible.
So, what is it about human nature you want to explore by way of putting your hero through the tough journey we find in your script?
The theme is what makes your audience ask themselves, ‘Would I choose that? Is that my point of view?’ And if it’s strong enough along with the concept it’s what most intrigues your seen-a-thousand-scripts-this-week-none-of-em-any-good producer.
As an example, why is Wall Street such a powerful movie? Arguably because it takes the theme of greed and goes to town on it, showing us how greed can change us. Can you retell the story to a friend? Many of us will have to admit, No, I can’t. But the theme stays with us, grabs us by the you know what and leaves a deep impression.
So, a synopsis that is clear about its theme will throw a heavier punch than a page listing events and outcomes.
Once you’ve got down the basic story points, re-write your first draft synopsis so it reads like a story – with some of the warmth a good story should possess, if not exude. Now it’s reading well, read it aloud. But before you do, print it out. Yes, don’t be lazy and read it off the screen, print it out. For one thing printing it out will help you spot typox – oops, typos – that you often overlook reading from the screen, secondly there’s something about having the damn thing in your hand that brings you closer to the words you’ve written, and enables you to consider the emotional weight of your synopsis when you read it aloud.
This last exercise doesn’t have to be as breathless as a Hollywood elevator pitch, just engaging and easily digestible, conveying urgency at the key moments and moving toward a crescendo – your climax.
HOLES IN YOUR SYNOPSIS COULD MEAN HOLES IN YOUR SCRIPT
One of the interesting things, even surprises, that can come from writing a well-structured synopsis is that often times you will discover a ‘hole’ in your story. You may discover for instance that you completely lack a midpoint and there’s nothing much that breaks up your Act II so your Break into III feels a long time coming. It could be your catalyst comes so early that your set up is undernourished – with the result we’ve hardly grasped what your protagonist is about before he or she is thrown into the main story.
So to summarize, on writing a synopsis, don’t rise to the temptation of knocking it off in a spare hour as if it were just one of those boring things the industry expects you to write. If you write one with that feeling in mind, you’ll likely write a bad one. I know I did when I first had to do them. I still do when I’m feeling lazy. If that happens to you, do a draft then come back to it, don’t rush it and persuade yourself it’s done. Use this exercise as a sort of surgery to identify how well you’ve covered those ‘holes’, got your pacing right. Can you see your picture coming alive even in those few hundred words?
NOW WRITE YOUR SYNOPSIS LIKE AN AD MAN
And finally, try this…In your final draft, treat your synopsis like ad copy. This is no longer a script you’re selling, this is the most exquisite malt whisky you’ve ever tasted. It’s the wackiest toy you’ve ever played with. The point is, this is your sales document, so make it… I’m tempted to say, sexy, but I’d rather you made it tasty, so it lingers on the tongue like a fine wine or, say, one of Don Draper’s favourite bourbons.