How to Write a Synopsis That Stands Out
You might think writing a movie synopsis is a chore when you’re slumped at your desk. Your eyes straining against the harsh LED light of your computer screen as you read the words; ‘The End.’
You’ve finally finished the screenplay that has taken over a large part of your life for who knows how long. You can relax, enjoy the sweet respite while it….
The movie synopsis.
However, writing a synopsis isn’t something to be overlooked. It’s an important cog in the process of marketing your screenplay to prospective agents, producers, competitions. Moreover, it can be an important part of clarifying your story to yourself.
For this reason we’re going to look at the ins and outs of writing a great synopsis.
What Is The Movie Synopsis, and Why Is It Important?
A synopsis is a largely misunderstood and widely varied piece of writing.
Through a quick google search you’ll find a myriad of articles telling you just exactly how many pages it comprises, what the tone of it should be, how embellished or straight-forward the language used ought to be.
However, all of those inconsistencies aside, one thing is certain. It is crucial to taking your project forward.
A synopsis is a piece of writing designed to summarise the key elements of your script into a short, succinct read. It’s short enough to keep the reader interested, and detailed enough to give them all the information they need.
So, it’s a short break down of the plot points, characters and story world.
The first thing readers will see is the log-line. This will pique their interest but it’s the synopsis that’ll sell the script.
- It’s here that they’ll see whether or not they like the story.
- If the synopsis doesn’t captivate them there’s no chance they’ll be reading something as long as the treatment.
- It’s the movie synopsis that really has to stand out, really has to capture their interest and excite their imagination.
So let’s start to take a look at how to write the most compelling and coherent movie synopsis possible.
So What Makes It A Movie Synopsis?
A movie synopsis is generally around half a page to a full page in length.
It’d be best not to go over that much as you risk the chance of losing the reader’s interest. Anything below that length starts to dip into the territory of a logline. Moreover, it will feel too slight.
Now, let’s talk a bit about how we define a synopsis for a moment. If you do a quick search for examples of synopsis on the internet you’ll find numerous different formats. Some are three pages in length some are a couple of lines.
This stems from a common misunderstanding as to just what a synopsis is. We’ve seen loglines labelled as synopsis’, treatments as well.
To clear up this confusion we’ll define each of them for you.
Loglines, Treatments and Movie Synopsis
- A logline is a very short summary of a film, written in one to two sentences. It will be a brief hook-line to capture an audiences’ interest in the fastest way possible.
- A treatment is a much longer document, spanning over numerous pages, detailing character, plot points and even tone and visuals.
When you read that definition you can understand why someone might think the treatment and the synopsis are one and the same.
- A synopsis is a piece of writing which details the main character’s role within the story world, while also giving the reader an idea of the visual and narrative style.
- It outlines the most important scenes and aspects of the film.
- This informs the reader of all they need to know about the piece before deciding whether or not to look more deeply into the project.
Sounds kind of like a treatment right? The difference between the two firstly lies in the length of each.
- As we’ve previously discussed the movie synopsis will rarely extend past a page in length.
- Whereas a treatment will be page upon page of writing.
- A treatment will likely contain the movie synopsis within it. But it will be a much more detailed and comprehensive dive to the movie idea overall.
This means that unlike the treatment the synopsis must get to the point of the story quickly and efficiently.
- It must also communicate every piece of information needed to enable the reader to understand the most important aspects of the piece.
- All the while also representing the narrative style of the piece through the style of writing.
Now that we’ve established just what defines the synopsis, we need to understand what is actually included in it.
What Elements Will Make Up The Movie Synopsis?
1. Establish Main Character
Firstly, you must establish who your protagonist is. Who are they? What do they do? Do these things define how they react to the events of your story?
When you have the answers to these questions you have part of the information you need to begin writing your synopsis.
- For example ‘Jack, a hardy fishmonger’ will very believably sail his boat into a storm to save a couple of teens stranded on a rock.
- So including his job title in the synopsis makes sense to the reader and gives them a basis for how the character will react to the events that’ll unfold in the rest of the synopsis.
However, ‘Mimi, a young flower shop worker sets sail to save the lives of a group of teens stranded on stormy waters’ doesn’t make sense to anyone unless you include why she’s the best person for it.
- ‘Mimi, a young flower shop worker and reluctant psychic’ could very well explain why Mimi is the most qualified for the job if you later you make the addition of;
- ‘ Mimi sees a vision that shocks her to the core, but when she tries to find help she is disregarded as a kook as she tells the town of the young teens stranded out at sea in a coming storm. Thus she must take to the seas alone to save them, before it’s too late.’
Including this additional information is necessary to ensure the reader isn’t taken out of the believability of the story before they have a chance to read the rest of it.
2. Character’s Goal
Now that you’ve given us the main character you have to give us their goal.
An example of this was used in the previous example; a sudden vision came to Mimi and now she must save those in trouble.
You have to tell the audience what the goal of the main character will be throughout the movie, otherwise there’d be nothing to make the reader want to keep reading.
This goal will be a driving force for the narrative. It will push the protagonist forward and it will therefore push the story forward.
Having a sense of what this goal is from early on is important for the reader to get a sense of where the story might be going, its tone and the stakes.
3. Antagonist or Obstacle
Next up is the antagonist or obstacle that stands in the way of our main character and their goal.
In the example above, the obstacles could be the disbelieving villagers and the fast approaching storm.
- Both of these things stand in the way of our protagonist,
- and each of them will make the story far more interesting than it would be if the teens were simply chilling on a nice sunny rock amidst calm waters that they could simply swim back to shore through.
Omitting these details from your synopsis gives the reader no choice but to assume that there was no danger. No force working to thwart our main character. Thus we might well lose any interest we might have had in the story.
So you must define these elements. Ensure your reader can visualise the conflict, tension and suspense they can expect from these antagonising elements.
4. The Stakes
This brings us to our next element within the synopsis; the stakes.
What are the consequences if our main character fails in their goal?
- In our example, if Mimi fails to find access to a boat in time then the teens are abandoned to their fate and must weather the storm without aid.
- If Mimi’s boat crashes during the storm, then once again the teens will likely die in the storm without help coming.
All of these things are implied when you introduce the antagonist/obstacle, along with suggestive words like ‘before it’s too late. Therefore defining the stakes within your synopsis.
Establishing the stakes is important in creating an impression of what will keep the audience hooked and invested in the protagonist’s journey.
5. Turning Points
A synopsis must also include a vague outline of the turning points within the story.
In our example these might be;
- Mimi receives a vision >
- she is turned away by the village and must go at it alone >
- a kind fishmonger longing for adventure offers the use of his boat >
- they begin their journey but are caught up in the storm and must fight to survive >
- the storm subsides as we reach the eye of the storm, but we’ve lost our kind fishmonger, now Mimi must learn to sail before she finds herself in more danger >
- we see the stranded teens but the second wave of the storm nears >
- Mimi and the teens battle the storm as they try to make their way home >
- they arrive home to find the villagers waiting for them with cheers of praise and delight, the young fishmonger stands amongst them shivering and proud >
- they celebrate overcoming their difficult journey and return to their loved ones.
You will outline the turning points in a written manner that flows seamlessly from one event to the other.
- It must be concise; getting to the point of each event without waffling about elements of your story that don’t provide essential context necessary to understand the main plot line.
For example, we as the reader don’t really need to hear about how Jerry the fishmonger’s second cousin wished them a safe journey over a spot of tea before they set out. Unless it’s vital to the progression of the story, it’s not needed in the synopsis.
6. Conclusion of the Movie Synopsis
Finally we end the movie synopsis with the conclusion. This rounds off the synopsis nicely and gives the reader a sense of how you intend to finish the story.
In the case of our example, the synopsis would outline how all of the teens were reunited with their families and how Mimi was praised for their rescue.
Whilst it might seem obvious to you what would happen afterwards if you stopped at ‘the teens climbed aboard and they set sail for home’, that doesn’t tell the reader whether a bunch of inexperienced teens managed to arrive home safely.
- Perhaps they couldn’t in fact sail through the storm and the movie ends as a tragedy?
- Or perhaps the teens made it out but Mimi was lost out at sea; a valiant sacrifice for the lives of the teens, and a stark reminder for the villagers and also the audience that you shouldn’t dismiss everyone based on your own beliefs.
So the synopsis needs to have a conclusion in order to convey to the reader the tone of the film, and allow them to understand the overall narrative you wish to convey.
What impression are you leaving your audience with? Is this a feel good story with a feel good ending? Or a dark tragedy with a hopeless and bleak ending?
The Technical Aspects of Writing a Movie Synopsis
What are some of the technicalities essential to writing a synopsis?
1. Present Tense
The movie synopsis must be written in the present tense and in the third person.
You might be tempted to try something outside the box, trying a new, edgy style of writing wherein you write in first person, or even second person. You might hope this’ll make your synopsis stand out amongst the pile. It’s unlikely this will have the desired effect.
Producers and Screenplay Readers aren’t desperate to be wowed by the synopsis. They don’t need to get a sense of how your writing pushes the boundaries here. If you’re confident your writing can do this, then leave it for a treatment or for the screenplay itself.
Readers weary of reading hundreds of scripts just want a concise and easy to read break down of the story. Your script might be one of many read that day.
Ingenuity in the synopsis isn’t likely to be the thing that wows the reader. They want the story itself to do that. And the synopsis is how to get this across.
2. Build Interest
Second, you must build interest throughout the movie synopsis; start big and end bigger. You can’t start your synopsis with the climax of the movie and then hope to supplement it with the other elements that now pale in comparison.
A reader wants things to escalate.
- You need to hook them in the beginning with high stakes. Then build and build upon those stakes with additional twists and turns.
- Keep the reader on the edge of their seat, before relieving them of their anxiety and built up emotions in one colourful burst of excitement at the climax of the story.
- Then bring them down nice and gently with the conclusion.
This speaks to the technicality of how to build a story in general. You’re hooking your audience in, keeping them engaged and leaving them satisfied.
A good way to think of the structure of the synopsis is if you think of writing the synopsis in terms of acts:
You set the scene and provide any additional key information necessary to understand the following events and you end with the inciting incident. This section should come up around 2 – 3 paragraphs.
This is where the bulk of the story will be. You’ll introduce the obstacles/antagonists, you’ll provide details of the plot twists, the turning points etc. This section can come up to around 4 – 8 paragraphs.
This is the final act. This will portray the culmination of the protagonist’s efforts, the overcoming of their obstacles, their character arc and their growth. Most importantly it will be the climax of their story. The moment we’ve all been waiting for, followed shortly thereafter by the conclusion of the story.
Getting Started On Your Movie Synopsis:
It can be hard to jumpstart this process of writing a synopsis.
To get going, look at examples of synopsis from films you’ve enjoyed and make note of the key information within them:
- Main character
- What they do/who they are
- Inciting incident
- Protagonist goal
- Each key turning point
- Climax of the story
- Character growth
- Conclusion of events.
Find patterns within the examples you study; where do the elements you’ve highlighted fall more often than not?
Are there patterns to where the elements of the synopsis fall? For example, perhaps most movie synopsis have revealed the character’s goal by the second paragraph?
When you’ve studied and identified the structure of successful synopsis you can start to practice writing your own.
Do this with films you like. Don’t look at their synopsis. Write your own first and then read the official synopsis of the film and see how yours compares.
Perhaps you could have a friend look at it and see what they think.
When you have practised writing synopsis enough that you feel your writing is to a standard you’re happy with, then you can start writing your own synopsis using the skills you’ve learned.
Movie Synopsis Writing Tips:
Here are some tips to consider when writing your synopsis.
1. Be Concise.
If you waffle on about your main character’s irrelevant neighbour you’re going to lose your audience’s interest.
Everything you write into your synopsis must have a purpose. You have to get to the point as soon as you can while maintaining a sense of your narrative style within your writing.
2. Don’t Hide Things.
Don’t try to hide anything from the reader. While you might do that in a logline to maintain mystery and intrigue, you won’t do this in a synopsis.
The synopsis is there to help the reader understand your story before they decide to read your treatment. Leaving out key details will lead the reader to think the story isn’t finished. They may feel it is missing aspects that you know are in there, but they don’t.
Don’t leave out key details, give the reader all the information they need to understand how the story will play out.
3. Be Decisive.
You can’t waste the reader’s time with aspects of the film that aren’t necessary to understanding the main plot.
Don’t include details of every scene in your movie. This will only slow things down and the reader might lose interest.
Therefore, when writing the synopsis we have to be decisive. Which scenes, and plot lines are the most essential? What aspects of the story arc and growth of your characters is pivotal?
The scenes that speak to these elements will be the ones included in your synopsis.
4. Maintain Visual Sense.
Write in a way that the visual sense of your script comes through in your writing. This’ll give reader a better sense of what your film is going to look like.
You might express the visual sense of the story in a number of different ways.
- Immerse the reader in the story’s set pieces. For example, if there is a car chase, try and give an acute sense of the perspective of this car chase.
- Include detail about the setting.
- Try and give a small picture of the story’s potential dynamism. If a director read this synopsis, where would they see they could express their vision?
There is a fine line between including some of this detail and including too much. But as long as the elements you describe help in moving the story along then they won’t distract the reader.
A word or two can go a long way to creating an impression of the story’s visual element.
5. Represent the Genre.
And finally, write in a way that represents the genre of your film.
- If it’s an action film your writing will be fast paced and punchy, with chase scenes, thrill and tension.
- If it’s a romance then it might be slower, highlighting the characters’ emotional developments.
Whatever the genre of your film, you must convey it through your synopsis.
If you’re writing a horror it has to sound like a horror. Horrors described light heartedly will make the reader think your script might have the same contradictions.
The synopsis doesn’t always have to be purely functional in the way it gets through the story. It can be full of writing flair illustrating the potential tone and style of the movie.
You’re trying to convey the story. But you’re also trying to convey the feel of your story.
Speak to both experienced screenwriters and experienced script readers and they’ll often tell you how difficult and tiresome it can be to write a synopsis.
It can be tricky to condense 90-120 pages of a story to one a half pages. It can be difficult to figure out what the main beats of a story are.
But not only is writing a synopsis essential for selling and marketing your screenplay, it can also be vital in understanding your story better. Breaking down the key beats and elements of your story can help clarify what it is important and what isn’t.
Practicing how to write a synopsis is one of the best ways to hone your skill as a writer. It’s easy to free-write, to sit in front of a blank page and let the words come out. It’s much harder to be careful and considered as to the importance of each sentence in telling a story as a whole.
Your story is a jigsaw and each sentence is an important piece. This is the best way to think of a movie synopsis – not the whole story but a picture of your story, each piece vital to understanding what it will eventually look like as a whole.
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This article was written by Lillian Royds and edited by IS Staff.
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