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Need to Write a Screenplay Synopsis? Here’s a 5-Step Plan

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by Naomi Write + Co. in entertainment industry, screenwriting

If you’re applying to screenwriting fellowships or other programs right now, you may be panicking when the submission requires a synopsis of your screenplay. After all, you wrote the whole screenplay, now you have to write a synopsis of it too??

But it’s actually a good exercise, since this probably won’t be the only time you’re asked to write a summary of your story in one form or another.

One-pagers are commonly requested for projects you’re pitching. And really, everything from one-sentence loglines to twenty-page treatments are different forms of synopsis.

Distilling your story into formats of different lengths is an undeniably useful skill. So let’s talk about some tips and tricks for getting it done.

My basic method for writing any story synopsis​

I’ve described this method before, and I stand by it. This is a process you can use to write a synopsis of any length, you’ll just want to pay attention to the proportions. What will change most from one format to the next is the level of detail. A one-paragraph synopsis requires broad strokes, while a longer treatment can support much more specific description.

The steps of this method go like this:

      1. Start by identifying the A-story spine. That means getting clear on the foundation elements (protagonist, story goal, antagonist or main conflict, stakes), as well as the major plot points or turning points in the story.
      2. Identify the protagonist’s “before” and “after” pictures, i.e. who are they or how are they defined at the start of the story, and then how are they different by the end, after this transformative experience. Also have in mind how the plot events act on the protagonist to cause that change.

        (The first two steps are prep work, and now we get to the drafting…)
      3. Describe a colorful or dramatic opening image and/or character introduction. This opening scene will hook the reader’s attention and establish character, world, and/or tone.
      4. Write toward the turning points. Think of it as summarizing the action between major plot points, bridging from one turning point to the next. In a shorter synopsis, you’ll aim to concisely but vividly move us from major plot point to major plot point. You’ll focus on broad strokes, but evocative language where possible. In a longer synopsis or treatment, you have more room for specifics, or to really land pivotal moments or cinematic scenes. Keep in mind that you’re telling a story, not laundry-listing events. Control the flow of information to create a deliberate effect on your reader.
      5. What about subplots? If you’re writing a longer synopsis or if a subplot or relationship with a supporting character is vital to include, identify the key beats of that plot/relationship throughline and then weave them into the synopsis.

Bonus tips

You might find it helpful to first make a bullet point list of what to include, before you try to write it out in synopsis form. Organize your thoughts that way, and then expand your notes into the more fleshed-out synopsis.

You’ll want to write your synopsis in present tense, third person. Tell the story in the same tone and voice as the script in order to convey the entertainment and genre appeal of your project.

Try to focus more on what we can see on screen, over the internal stuff, like a character’s thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to convey the protagonist’s experience of the events and how he’s affected by what he’s going through. But if the synopsis focuses on just the character’s thoughts or what’s inside his head, it won’t give us a clear idea of what’s happening in the movie, i.e. what we’re actually watching.

And finally, remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try. Get your story on the page, and then later you can smooth over any logic bumps, fill in any gaps in the plot or character development, and polish the synopsis to make it read the way you want it to.

Do you have to write a synopsis?

Screenwriters have to be able to convey (and sell) their stories in many other formats beyond their screenplays.

And while I know a lot of writers grumble at this prospect, I encourage you to embrace it. You’ll get to know your story even more thoroughly by seeing it through different lenses, and by trying to convey its essence and appeal in different forms.

And, summarizing your story into different formats is a useful exercise throughout the life of your project. Synopses of different lengths are helpful during the development and writing phase, as you’re discovering and shaping the story. And having a fleshed out treatment or polished synopsis can be indispensable when you’re looking for buy-in or pitching your project to collaborators, buyers, and reps.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe