Note: Originally published in my “Prognosis of a Movie Unmade” series, this article specifically addresses writing synopses for screenplays. Over the years, however, I’ve been told that it has served of value to novelists faced with the daunting task of distilling their 400-page manuscripts into no more than, say, 500 words. –msg
“Tell you what… Gimme a 2-page synopsis. If I’m interested, I’ll request the script.” Sound familiar? Sound reasonable? Or does it sound like just another dimwit hustle by another narcissistic twit, amped out on espresso insulin and the prospect of a quick-fix deal that might pay off the Hummer s/he couldn’t afford to buy in the first place?
Probably all three sound about right. The request for a synopsis of your script is common fodder and with good cause. Although you’ve spent ample time and effort writing your 90 to a 120 pages worth of spec screenplay, you’re doing yourself and your career a disservice by not having a synopsis primed for the asking.
The reason is two-fold. First, for you, printing scripts to submit costs money. Even if you don’t go down to Kinko’s and use your own printer, the toner cartridges you’ll have to replace down the line cost money. Second, for the prospective buying parties, too many unfamiliar writers delude themselves into believing that their script—If only they’d just read it!—is so good that the prospective buying parties would entirely forget what kind of movies it is they’ve forged their reputations making and simply shift genres, established markets and, most important, genuinely passionate interest in producing to instead make your script. Wrong.
A synopsis serves to save you money and prevent prospective buying parties wasting their time reading screenplays that have nothing in common with the sort of material they handle. A synopsis also demonstrates the writing quality they can expect to find in the author’s script. Between you, the author, and them, the prospective buying parties, it also establishes a professional comfort zone, or what I call “CZ.”
As with cubic zirconia (CZ)—the synthetic compound fashioned to resemble diamonds—the unfamiliar writer-prospective agent/producer relationship CZ is a form of synthetic confidence that must be placed in the writer, at least initially; a CZ belief that the writer respects professional expectations; that it’s safe to request the script.
Savvy thinking. It makes sense. It saves everyone involved excess pharmaceutical. However, for the writer there is one major conundrum: How much do you put in the synopsis? It took 90-120 pages to write the script. If you could have written it in 1 or 2 pages, you would have!
Therein lies the challenge. Beyond the basic format (traditional manuscript double-spaced; no right margin “Cut Tos”) my approach to how synopses should be written rests on the opposite side of the fence of the alternative approach. Since both paths ultimately lead to the same destination, that is a legitimate request to read your completed screenplay, I will address each.
Just the Spirit Approach
I believe a synopsis should faithfully serve the spirit of the screenplay as it was written. It must not only demonstrate the author’s storytelling skills, but convey the dynamics of its characters and structure in a cadence very much in keeping with that of the actual script. If executed well, the reader will then have a better grasp of the author’s voice, style and clarity of vision with regards to the overreaching story. It will lay open the structure concisely for others so that they can actually “get it.” Most importantly, it will sufficiently excite them about the script’s potential and compel them to request it. And this without necessarily divulging the story’s punchline.
If you’ve written your script well, there will be no unfortunate surprises for the reader—only intended thrills and revelations that reinforce the promise eluded in your synopsis.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
What some believe is that a synopsis should be is a monotone scene-by-scene recitation of the script from beginning to end. The thinking is that the readers are such keen authorities on intuiting others’ skills that they’ll be able to excise from what’s not dramatically conveyed on the page of this “beat sheet” approach, the gist of how good the script will be. For agents in particular, it opens the door for them to pre-solicit feedback on the concept (as described in their own words as they interpret it) from potential markets before they make the decision as to whether or not they will request the screenplay from you.
Regardless the quality of your script, at the very least your execution skills will be new to them upon first-read because nobody was exposed to your storytelling style and ability in advance. And how many stories, scripts, novels have we all read, which ultimately do offer a valid payoff, so profoundly impeded our desire to read through to the end as a result of the writing style that we simply didn’t?
Are Both Better?
Which style of the synopsis is best is a subjective call. I could argue the favorable aspects of the “beat sheet” approach but will leave that to you. For me, such an approach requires a preponderance of faith to be placed in the reader’s intellect—and I simply have not encountered enough readers whose intellect warrant such confidence. When a “beat sheet” synopsis is requested of me my CZ red flag goes up. Admittedly, in episodic television it’s much different and I’m fully amendable. In features, however, I’m not.
What I am is confident that if Orson Welles’ ability to make Citizen Kane hinged on delivering a 2-page “beat sheet” synopsis, a synopsis in which he would have had to disclose what Rosebud actually was, he probably wouldn’t have gotten to make that movie.
You don’t know what Rosebud is? Read the script. Better yet, go watch the movie!
[ For examples of my preferred narrative approach, click either Ice Baby or ‘Long Came Charlie to view. Both synopses resulted in requests for the spec screenplays; both of which have been optioned. ]