As you continue to duck and dive with production companies and execs in a bid to get them to read your hot script, they may stump you with a request to read an ‘outline’ or a ‘treatment’ or quite possibly a ‘synopsis’ or a ‘one page outline’ or a ‘two page outline’. While these sound like innocuous phrases and innocent requests to reduce your script to the bare minimum that they need to read, the documents contain their separate quirks. There are key elements in each that need to be addressed in order for the right file to be submitted.
The first three are the most accessible and easy to pitch. An outline, treatment and synopsis can invariably end up looking like the same thing but if you want to be pedantic about it, they are quite different and deserve their own distinctive guise for the exec to scan.
An outline is a synopsis of your script, in the present tense (standard for all), but one that contains all the key elements of the story’s structure. It covers the essential beats, the main story line and all subplots, establishes the protagonist and the supporting characters, and develops them and the story line to a satisfying, thematic conclusion. This could run anywhere between 6-12 pages.
A treatment is where you tell the story in much more visual detail and break down the action so that it reads like you’re watching the film practically blow by blow. It embellishes the key elements of an outline to enrich the storytelling experience so that the reader can make more of an emotional connection to everything that’s going on. It will read like a short story version of your story and will usually expand to anywhere between 12-35 pages (best not to go over 35 as the exec/reader might feel like that it would be quicker to read the script itself).
A synopsis is a broad summary of the concept, main characters, the story line and how the story resolves itself. This could take in between 1-6 pages. If it takes only one or two pages, it is not strictly speaking a one or two-page outline.
A one-page outline is a pitching document of your script where you provide pertinent details but under key headings such as: Working Title, Genre, Format, Target Audience, Box Office Target, Tag Line, Premise, Brief Synopsis, Visual Realisation, Statement of Intent (Theme) and Audience Appeal. Most execs like a one-page outline as it gives them all they need to know about whether or not they are tickled or turned off by your story.
A two-page outline covers the same details and format as the one-page outline but has an additional category for Character Biographies; a brief section where you describe the main players. You also have more room to expand the synopsis section, but not by much. The one-page outline/two-page outline are marketing documents really but are extremely useful in getting the essential details of your script down to one or two appetising pages.
When preparing my own scripts, I like to start by writing the logline (helps clarify the concept and story line), then develop a one-page synopsis before pushing it further into a decent outline that contains all the structure, and the relevant twists and turns. This helps me to avoid writing block or staring at a blank screen when I begin a new script. I always enjoy writing a one-page or two-page outline, and will often offer this pitch to potential producers before I even mention the screenplay. They always say ‘yes’ to the one-page outline and if they like what they see, they ask to read the script.
Funnily enough, you don’t hear one-page outlines or two-page outlines discussed very much in the screenwriting training market. They usually focus on outlines and treatments. There are great examples of these on the internet; Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio share their pitches in WordPlayer (link is on the right), and Creative Screenwriting Magazine managed to nab Simon Kinberg’s treatment of Mr & Mrs Smith. Always worth checking out the ones that make an impression with the studios…