Note: While this article specifically addresses writing synopses for screenplays, over the years I've been told that it has been of great help to novelists faced with the daunting task of distilling their 400-page manuscripts into no more than, say, 500 words. It is recommended that all authors read this piece in its entirety in order to understand my approach to writing the samples provided at the bottom. –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 brief 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 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 own reputations in making and simply shift genres, established markets and, most important, genuine passionate interest in producing to instead make your script! Wrong.
A synopsis serves to save you money and save prospective buying parties from wasting their time in reading screenplays that have absolutely nothing in common with the sort of material they handle, make or could care less about. 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 and civility that exists long enough to conclude at the onset you're not some retread wannabe who doesn't have a clue about what being a professional is all about, and that it's safe to request your script.
This is 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 own approach to how a synopsis should be written rests firmly on the opposite side of the fence of the alternative approach. Since both paths ultimately lead to the same destination, that is a bona fide request to see your completed screenplay, I will address both.
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 skill, 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, my feeling is the reader will then have a better idea of the author's voice and style, and his/her clarity of vision with regards to the story. It will lay open the structure concisely for others so that they can actually "get it." Most importantly it will excite them about the potential of the script and compel them to request it without divulging the punchline, or "McGuffin" as Hitchcock called it, on which the story hinges. (If applicable, and most often it is.)
If you've written your script well, there will be no unfortunate surprises for the reader—only intended thrills and enlightenments that reinforce and embolden every element eluded to in your original synopsis.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
Some believe what a synopsis should be is essentially a monotone scene-by-scene recitation of the script from beginning to end. The thinking is that the readers themselves are imaginative enough to fill in the blanks of actual execution. The thinking is that the readers themselves are such keen and insightful authorities on others' skills that they'll be able to intuitively excise from what is not on the pages of this "beat sheet" 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 view it) by potential markets before they make the decision as to whether or not they will request the completed screenplay from you.
Regardless of how your script is written, at the very least your execution skills will be new to them 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 reach the end as a result of the writing style that we simply didn't?
Are Both Better?
Which style of synopsis is best for you 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 that type of synopsis is requested of me my "CZ" red flag goes up and business between us is over. Admittedly, in episodic television it's much different and I'm fully amendable. In features, however, I am not.
What I am is confident that if Orson Welles' ability to make Citizen Kane hinged on his delivering a 2-page "beat sheet" synopsis, a synopsis in which at the end 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!
Copyright © 1999 Michael Steven Gregory