Last time, we looked at outlining your screenplay by essentially boiling it down into story stages. Now, we move on to discuss another important screenplay planning tool, the synopsis. This is where you start to inject some personality into your story…
What is it?
The synopsis is basically a summary of your screenplay story in one or two pages.
In addition to helping you plan your screenplay, the synopsis functions as a sales tool when approaching agents or producers. The idea is that by reading the synopsis (sometimes called a ‘one sheet’ or ‘one page pitch’), the agent/producer gets so excited by the story that they request to read the whole screenplay.
As we discussed in the last lesson, there is often considerable overlap between the different screenplay planning tools and the names they are given by the industry and screenplay ‘gurus’.
However, for our purposes, the main difference between the outline and the synopsis is colour.
By this, we mean that while the outline often reads as a dry ‘laundry-list’ description of your story, the synopsis contains a significant element of storytelling.
Imagine someone asking you..’So, what’s your film about, then?’ The answer is pretty much how you want to approach your synopsis – not just explaining what happens, but giving the reader a flavour of how you plan to tell the story.
– If it’s a comedy, you want them sniggering at the hilarious set-pieces and character interactions
– If it’s a thriller, you want them constantly thinking ‘what happens next?’ and being surprised by the answer
– If it’s a horror, you want them shuddering at every scary/gory twist
– If it’s a rom-com, you want them getting misty-eyed as the lovers find each other and head off into the sunset (or not)
In short, the synopsis provides scope to develop the tone of your screenplay through your choice of descriptive words and storytelling.
For example, is your main character?
a) a fun-loving, carefree teenager who lives only for today
b) a world-weary detective who’s seen it all
c) an emotionally scarred young woman who’s old beyond her years
d) an ageing playboy who’s convinced he’s still cap-nip to the ladies
Already, you’ll see we’ve moved beyond the outline by giving the reader an idea of who they’re rooting for and why.
This colourful description should continue throughout the synopsis as your story unfolds like a truncated piece of fiction.
Why write it?
While the synopsis is used as a marketing tool for selling your script, it’s still an important exercise for planning your screenplay.
The difference is that when putting together a synopsis for professional purposes, you are probably going to have to write it to certain specifications.
For our purposes, it’s simply an opportunity to tell your story on paper. As such it affords the chance to find out what’s working, what’s not and whether your story remains viable.
As there is more characterization, emotion and motivation included in a synopsis, you might find some elements of your story no longer make sense on a human level.
This is especially true if the film is very heavily plotted. All the work you put into getting the timeline to work and maneuvering your characters into the right place at the right time will be for nothing if their actions make no sense.
We all take action every day. Most of the action we take has a clear motivation behind it – eating because we’re hungry, putting on a sweater because we’re cold, getting angry because someone’s upset us, etc.
Make sure you can trace the motivation behind your character’s actions and that the motivation makes sense.
The synopsis is the ideal place to discover this and make any necessary changes before you get too heavily into the writing process.
It’s also an ideal place to find the answers to such questions as:
– Is my twist-ending twisty enough, or will audiences see it coming?
– Are my story and/or characters clichéd? (see our character descriptions above!)
– Are my characters properly defined and fleshed out?
If you’re unsure yourself about what’s working, give your synopsis to a trusted friend to read – ideally one who knows nothing about your story.
A word of warning…
As you might be starting to appreciate, when writing the fact-based film, there comes a point (right about now) where the conventions of screenwriting start to clearly take precedence over the ‘facts’ of the story.
During the research and – to some extent – outline stages, you can adhere to the story ‘as it happened’, but now we are faced with the task of making the story work on screen. As such, you will find the material will need to undergo a serious transformation from ‘fact’ to ‘fiction’.
Our advice? Embrace this adaptation process, while keeping the spirit of the source material intact. If you remain ‘married’ to the facts of your story, the screenwriting process is likely to be arduous, unsatisfying and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
1. Write it in the third person (John Smith, a cocky stockbroker in this late thirties…)
2. Write it in the present tense (John kisses Amy but she pushes him away in disgust…)
3. Leave out dialogue (that comes later) – but make a note of any awesome dialogue that comes to mind as you write your synopsis!
4. Tell the story as you plan for it to unfold on screen (placing flashbacks and subplots in their right place – it’ll make life easier later on)
As always, the best way to learn is by reading synopses of other films to see how the writer has approached it. As well as some examples in our resources list below,you can find synopses on sites such as IMDB and Wikipedia. We also write them for all our film analyses!
Remember, though, that synopses are written for lots of different purposes and in lots of different styles.
Keep in mind that at this stage, you want to be writing yours in the way that best serves your writing process. Worry about impressing Hollywood later!
It’s also a good exercise to write some synopses for films you watch at home or at the cinema. Get in the habit of telling screen stories as one-page prose. You’ll probably find it challenging at first, but it’s a useful skill to develop.
After all, a good synopsis will propel your story forward, allowing you to flesh it out even further during the next stage – the treatment. Speaking of which…
Next time, we look at yet another screenwriting tool – guess what? – the treatment!
Lesson 14 is out on 25 January.