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How to write a great synopsis

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Demian Malcher's picture
authenticated user
Joined: Aug 2021
How to write a great synopsis

Hello I hope you're having a great day but anyway as you can see by the title I'm having trouble with something. I watched

this great video on why producers skip out on reading so many scripts and in the video he said that producers will be more interested in reading a script if they have a great synopsis. Now I've never thought about the synopsis once in my whole life I thought it was something that didn't matter but now that I know it's something of importance I want to ask. How do you make a synopsis that's well-written, eye-catching and excites the viewer? 

Steve Garry's picture
Rockstar
Joined: Sep 2016

Ah, time for a Sunday morning epic!

As usual, you're going to get a dozen different responses, some of which seem totally contradictory. One-page or 250-word.  Max two pages, or detailed 3-4 pages.  A separate PDF attachment or within the body of an email.  I've had demands for all.

But here's my story, and how and why I do 'em the way I do.

First, below is a direct link, off my website, to a one-page synopsis.  Nice and short... But wait, this is for a SHORT, 9-page script!  However, its format is exactly the same as for all of my synopses - explanation to follow:

http://www.catconsulting.ca/stevegarry/files/synopsis_sample.pdf

Back in my early days, 2008-2010, I had several scripts and was dutifully shopping them around by email, entering contests, and even paying big bucks for  notes and pretend coverage.  Then, by a fluke, I came across a website and email address for the development person for the company that just won the best picture Oscar!  Wowwww!  So I pitched him a log line query for one, and said that I had more. 

Here's how he responded:  "We don't make movies from log lines; we make them from stories.  Please send me DETAILED 3-5 page synopses."  (I realize that nowadays some people call such things treatments, or 'selling synopses'.)

So that's what I did:  I took the next month (be patient, I'm getting to the 'how', below) writing such animals for all of my existing scripts, and have made it mandatory to do one for everything I've written since.  And some of these early ones were long, too, like he said, up to 5 pages, and he accepted them.  I think he eventually asked to read one or two scripts.  They never went any further, but hey, what an opportunity - to be read by an Oscar-winning company! 

To the point, how do I write 'em?

I have to back-track and explain that I'm a severe outline writer.  I have a complex outline of my entire story before I write the script.  That means you'd have to adjust my method, if you're one of those types - I don't know how you do it - who start on a blank page 1 and write your entire story. 

So, I have a detailed outline  (eg. here's a clip I posted here recently, of my outline doc for one of my scripts):

http://www.catconsulting.ca/stevegarry/files/misterbuttle_outline.jpg

Once I have that detailed outline - 40 to 60 pages - the entire story is basically in my head and I do a speed-write of a synopsis.  You can imagine that this may be easier than doing it from a 100+ page script!  Anyway, in fact I usually paste the outline into a blank doc (synopsis template) and it becomes as much a reductive, editing job.  Do it fast, and retain (or put in) only the story-line.  You'll find the document ends up 5-6 pages.  Do another pass.  Four pages.  Another.  Three pages.  Make sure it flows, like nice prose. 

Of course, if they ask for a 250-word, or 1-pager, as has happened to me, then it's probably best to start from a blank synopsis page and recreate the story beats (main sequences) that way, and edit it to shrink it from there.

By the way, my synopses tend to be 3 pages now, max. 4.  Just like your scripts, as you write more and more, you should polish the synopsis once in a while and you can expect to find ways to abbreviate them somewhat.  Also, when I've been asked for a 'maximum 2 page synopsis', I just send them what I have (3-4 pages).  Nobody's ever scolded me.  I mean, they're going to know halfway through the first page whether the thing's what they want anyway, right, and skip from there.

In summary, before anybody accuses me of trying to propagate my methods, for personal aggrandizement, in spite of the fact that I myself have had virtually no success (so far), I'm only bringing this message of 'how to write a synopsis' as a writer who:  Has a lot of persistence, has encountered virtually every formatting question and so has learned the answers, has the productivity and time to have written a lot of material, and has had some positive feedback (but so far no commitment) from people who actually make movies (ie. producers). 

I'm definitely not saying that my stuff is super great fabulous, so you should do it just like me... and here's my address so you can send me the $19.99.    :)

Lily Blaze's picture
Rockstar
Joined: Aug 2019

Heh, this is amusing. Steve's a good guy. As a writer, I'm the opposite. But, that's because I come from a background of publishing, marketing, and advertising. I have to consciously tell myself, sometimes out loud, stop writing ad lines!

So I offer my own experience and what I've learned about synopsis writing, for comparison.

First things first, to get this out of the way, synopses is not a summary. Two different animals. Summaries are good for non-fiction essays, for the most part. A synopsis is about condensing the most important beats in your script. It reads like a movie as much as a script.

Second, yet equally important, write a good story. And by good I mean a story you believe in, 100%. Heart, mind, and soul. If you believe in your story that much, chances are high that will show in your synopsis writing. It will take confidence. It's going to be hard. But worth it.

Third, as the finishing touch, don't write third act. There should be a conclusion, but leave it open. Decide where you want to end the synopsis that's the most interesting moment. Summarizing every detail is called bad synopsis writing. It's a paradox you see. Less is always more. I find I get more read requests that way.

Since you're new to synopsis writing, to get started, I highly recommend reading the synopsis for successful produced movies. Read as many as you can. There's no substitute for literacy. I'm not a fan of romance, but even I can freely admit the synopsis for Titanic is really good. Read them all. For further reading, check out the Eduction tab at the top of the screen,

One caveat. Keep in mind that your synopsis is not going to appear next to a movie title. Your synopsis might not be pretty or eye-catching, and that's okay. It doesn't matter. It's only for the purpose of piquing someone's interest so they send you a read request. So let go of the pressure, and just write.

Vic Burns's picture
Rockstar
Joined: Feb 2017

Why is 'abbreviation' such a long word?

Craig Griffiths's picture
Rockstar
Joined: Sep 2017

I am not great at a synopsis. I don't write them till I am asked for one. Then I tend to collaborate with the person requesting it. 

But a resource I found amazing is the "Draft-Zero" podcast. They did an entire series on documents that support the writing process with their own University lecturer Steven Cleary.  It is very insightful.

CJ Walley's picture
Script Revolution Founder
Joined: Jul 2016

I wrote a whole bunch of synopses last year and even got an offer of funding for one I'd written that very morning. It helps if you understand story structure, key plot points, and character development as, on a two page synopsis using a regular size font, those main beats are going to account for a large portion of it.

They don't have to be written in an exciting way. The story itself is the meat and, the better the story, the better the synopsis.

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