Sunday, June 11, 2006

Writing a Synopsis

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Ask any script reader what they dislike about script reading and they will reply, hands down every time: writing the synopsis. This part of the process slows the reader down the most in preparing and finishing his/her coverage.

Reading the script and generating an instinctive response to its flaws and merits isn’t a problem. Doing the front cover of the report is a doddle - although the logline can be tricky if the story’s a true dud. But before the reader can let fly with his comments, he needs to write a one page synopsis of the story before he can go any further. This can be demotivating and frustrating because the story may not be easily summed up in one go, or it could be just too dull to even want to revisit the content and express it in its pure form.

However, after a while, after a few hundred scripts have been digested and covered, and neatly transcribed into a one page synopsis, the reader develops a knack for summarising a story’s key essentials into the bare bones of a page. And after a few thousand scripts have been covered in this manner, writing a synopsis develops into a second nature because the brain immediately goes to the salient details of the story and puts them down on paper.

Writers sometimes complain that they can’t easily summarise their story into one page. It’s not that they don’t have the talent to do so, it’s because they’re so attached to the story and know every beat that they don’t know what to leave out. Alternatively, they don’t know (or subconsciously resist) how to suitably lasso thirty pages of script into two or three lines of synopsis. It’s tricky but in essence, it’s not difficult at all.

Here are some top tips for writing a one page synopsis:

Keep it simple.
Keep it clear.
The journalistic principle of “Who, What, Where, When and How” is particularly useful in trying to get across the key details.

“Who?” - Who’s the main character? And what does he want? What’s he doing? Is there anybody else involved?
“What?” - What’s the conflict? Who’s stopping the protagonist? What’s in his way?
“Where?” - Where’s it set?
“When?” - And in what period?
“How?” - How does the protagonist try to get what he wants, what happens and how does it end?

These are broad headings - no synopsis reads exactly like this run down - but it can be quite handy in jotting down notes before hand to crystallise exactly what’s going on and what the reader needs to know over a one page duration.

You don’t want to go into too much detail but you want to give a sense that the story goes through enough interesting twists and turns, and has a length that justifies its structure, to make the reader feel like the story really is a movie and definitely needs to be seen on the big screen.

Revealing the ending is a debatable point but the synopsis needs to come to some sort of a resolution even it’s an enigmatic: “and when Johnny finally opens the door, what stands in front of him takes his breath away”. If it’s a mystery thriller, then it’s probably best not to give away the ending but you want to entice the reader into thinking: “wow, this is a great idea, I have to know what happens, where’s the script?”

An alternate but effective way of writing a one page synopsis is jotting down a series of self-generated questions and answers:

What’s it about? It’s about a young farmhand on a distant planet who joins the battle against the universe’s evil forces but doesn’t realise that his family’s dark secret will have serious repercussions for him and his friends.

Sounds familiar, where have I heard that before? This is a space adventure like no other. This is a film that will knock your socks off. This is Space Invaders: The Movie.

Riiight. Tell me more. Well, the story kicks off with our hero who’s a whiz on his play station and when he hits an all time score of 5 kerjillion on Space Invader 3000, it sends a message to the distant planet of Gobshite who are desperate for some help in defending their home.

You get the idea. Even though the Q&A is pre-made, the reader sees it like it’s questions that he’s asking, or wants to know the answers to, and it can make for an effective pitching document.

It’s understandable for writers to struggle or resist distilling their stories into a one page form but it’s a craft and skill of its own, and is the most common document that the industry will ask for and will expect to see before they agree to see your script. Keep it simple, keep it clear. Subplots and secondary characters are fine as long as they don’t impede the flow and duration of the synopsis. Stay focused on the story, why we’re going to see the movie, and the rest will follow.


Anonymous said...

You're right, the worst part of writing a coverage is the synopsis. I just had a hell of a time with one on Friday. The screenplay was horrid and really confusing making it exceptionally tough to summarize. But alas, I did it.

- Allen

Stephen Gallagher said...

It's true, people are terrible at synopsising their own work and I'm certainly no exception.

So at the risk of being the pot pointing at the kettle, the commonest failing I see in others seems to be that of confusing a synopsis with a blurb. So where you're looking for an acute summary of a story's content, what you get is the initial setup with just about everything you really need to know left hanging in the air.

Andy Phillips said...

I had to write a one or two page synopsis to include with my sample, CV and letter to an agent (eight weeks ago now, I should hear back soon), and I must confess my synopsis stretched to the full two pages. I couldn't resist putting in all my babies, like, "His mother throws him out of the house but makes him take his coat..."