Isn’t it remarkable how a simple synopsis, a seemingly innocuous 1-page text, can give a writer a world of pain. If it’s such a drag, then why bother? Plain and simple: nobody wants to be bored reading 100 pages if we can bore them with only one.
It makes sense to read 10 pages of a script, if the reader is out to find a writer. If your dream is to sell your script, there is no escaping the synopsis.
10 Pages Of Hell
Of course you hate that you have to leave out all the gripping details, but remember, every other screenwriter is in the same boat with you – except perhaps the A-listers.
The title of this piece may be misleading. Like most things in our industry, there is no clear consensus on the rules of the synopsis. So, let’s look at the different types of text you may need to deliver.
Development Synopsis v. Marketing Synopsis
Just like there are different types of logline, your synopsis may serve different purposes, each of which require their own approach.
During development, the synopsis helps to see the story clearly, and it communicates the direction of the script to your producer, manager or co-writer. Sometimes screenplay contests or funding programs also ask you to provide several types of synopsis along with the script.
Most of the time, your concern is just with the development synopsis. This version includes all important story elements, including the ending.
Once the film is complete and ready to go out, the development synopsis won’t cut it any longer. To reel in distribution gatekeepers, the producers and marketeers will need documents that resemble the synopsis, but that go by different names.
Siblings Of The Synopsis
Because different people label the types of summary differently, some confusion exists around what we call a logline, a synopsis, outline or treatment. It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you understand what to write.
Serial Summaries – The Show Bible
For serial material, the most common type of synopsis would be the series bible, summarising the episodes as part of the pitch document – sometimes also called the pitch bible or show bible.
One episode would typically fit in one or two paragraphs. In more extensive bibles, each episode synopsis could take up to a page.
Some people will call a 10-page summary still a synopsis, while others will call it a treatment or outline. I call anything over 4 pages a treatment.
A treatment may run from 10 to 50 pages, or even longer. James Cameron is known to write scriptments, running over 100 pages.
Sentence – Paragraph – Page
When you summarise a story in one sentence, people usually call it a logline, even if you don’t stick to the industry guidelines for loglines.
A logline typically holds only 20 to 30 words, although complex stories may require longer loglines. But when your logline blows out, it may end up being a paragraph synopsis, which can hold around 50 to 200 words.
For this article, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the most common type: the one-pager film synopsis that tells the entire story. You can write this type of document for a feature film, but it would work just as well for a TV episode.
The One-Pager Synopsis
When big international film markets were a thing, I often attended as a buyer. For each film, sales companies would hand out a single A4 on hard paper, with artwork on one side and a synopsis on the other.
A Single page
The synopsis would run for half a page or a full page. I’m sure they still do it this way, even if most business happens outside those big independent film markets.
500 Words – 12 point
Whether you write your synopsis in US Letter format or A4, I recommend sticking to 500 words or less, to keep it easily legible. You don’t want to be one of those writers squeezing 2,000 words on a single sheet.
To fit 500 words on a page, you need to keep your font around 10-12 point. The smaller the font, the more white space you can insert, but the harder it is to read.
It doesn’t matter which font you use, but don’t go for courier, and instead pick a proportional font like Arial, Times New Roman or Helvetica. Readability is key.
What To Include?
The rule is simple: include the most important story elements that can fit on a single page, while making sure that everything makes sense from a logical and emotional perspective.
The point of a synopsis is to give as much information as possible, while keeping it a joy to read. Don’t deliberately leave out information, and certainly don’t omit the ending.
Until your screen story is ready to be viewed, you don’t really need to tease it. So even if you have only half a page available, you still need to include the final act. Not including it may suggest that it is not all that great…
The only instance I can think of where you leave out the ending, is where your document also contains a longer synopsis that includes the ending.
Depending on how many characters feed into your plot, you may or may not mention them all. What matters most is that your main character’s story makes sense.
If you struggle to include all the story beats, start by leaving out subplots and supporting characters. If you have a dual protagonist story, and you can’t keep a logical flow for both without going over the 500 word mark … well, you’ll have to figure it out.
I don’t remember ever reading a good synopsis that explicitly states the movie’s theme. Typically, in great movies, the theme is clear from the story itself.
How To Write The Synopsis
Just like any other work you produce, your synopsis must follow the ‘3 C’s: it should be clear, concise and colourful, in that order. By colourful I mean it should be fun to read.
Format & Style of the Synopsis
Beginners’ synopses often include generic phrases such as “Jack encounters some major obstacles before he succeeds in his task.” These are a waste of space as they apply to every story. You must be specific and only share information that is unique to yours.
Leave out any act or sequence headings; you don’t have the space for those, and readers don’t care. Just tell the story. You can use paragraphs to show the act or sequence structure without explicitly referencing it.
Adjectives make prose more colourful, but in screen stories we focus on action instead. Adjectives also bulk up the word count, without adding any vital story info.
It is often said that the synopsis should evoke a tone that is not too distant from the genre of your film or series. Keep it lighthearted if this is the intended tone of your script; make it read deeply dramatic if this is the vibe you go for.
Rules and Techniques
It is tempting to get distracted by rules and guidelines around synopses. If you believe that a rule holds the reader back from enjoying greater satisfaction and becoming more invested, it is your duty to break it.
Don’t forget that there is only one goal: to get the reader excited about your story and convince them of your writing skills. A poorly written synopsis doesn’t bode well. Having said this —
The synopsis is written in the present tense, just like the logline or the action/description in your script.
To land on the perfect word count, I start from a longer version, and keep trimming down to the required word count. In this way, I can control what I cut, and keep only the most important story elements.
Allocate roughly the same proportionate space to each structural element. In other words, your first act will take up a quarter to a third of the word count, the second act will take up half, and the final act, whatever is remaining.
Similarly, if you wrote your script in sequences, you might start a new sentence for each sequence in the synopsis. Readers love it when they can follow the dramatic flow of your piece on the page.
Whatever cliffhangers you (intend to) have in the script, they need to come out here on the page as well.
Keep it in sync
Writing the one-page synopsis is essentially a crash-test for your story. You will realise what works, and what needs more work. As you do this, you may decide on fundamental changes that affect not only the script, but even your logline. Make sure you keep all those documents in sync.
Once you have the perfect synopsis, update your logline. Conversely, if the logline captures your story more lively, update the synopsis. In short, keep your development documents in sync, and once you hit final draft, update them all.
Once you have a few synopses under your belt, the pain will ease. Heck, you may even enjoy writing them! I believe that the best practice is to write synopses for screenplays that are not yours.
In the Immersion Screenwriting course, you’re encouraged to write a synopsis for each of 7 curated scripts. Students who took the course have reported that their synopsis writing skills skyrocketed by the end.
What is your favourite movie? Why not write a synopsis for it today?
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.