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How to Write a Synopsis

Nov 15, 2022 10:17:00 AM Written by Luke Foster 3 min read

How to write a synopsis - Written by Luke Foster - CenterFrame

Whether you’re applying for funding on CenterFrame, or pitching to a studio, streamer or production company, having an engaging synopsis of your film project is essential.

Distilling your screenplay down to a single page can be tricky and frustrating, though. You have to decide what to include and what to leave out, and clearly put across your characters, story world and key moments, without going into too much detail.

Here are some suggestions for how to write a good synopsis.

keep it short

Synopses are sometimes called “one-pagers” for a reason. They ideally should fit onto a single A4 or Letter-sized page, with space for your contact details, so you can leave them behind with executives or email them as a single-page document, after a meeting.

The idea is not to give people too much to read at first, so, at most, they should only be around 500 words long.

tell the whole story

As someone who’s read a large number of synopses, there’s nothing more frustrating than being engaged by a story and eager to know how it concludes, only for the final few lines to be vague.

To fully assess the potential of a film story and whether it’s going to engage audiences, you need to know how it ends. So don’t worry about “giving too much away” or saving the big reveals for the script. People won’t ask to read the script if you don’t engage them first with a compelling, complete story.

Avoid leaving readers hanging with questions such as: “Will Alex get the girl of his dreams or will he be jilted at the altar?” Instead, make sure your synopsis has a clear beginning, middle and end.

Adaptation (2022)Adaptation (2002)

Include emotional beats

Although your synopsis should convey the entire story, it shouldn’t just be a dry rundown of the main plot beats. It also needs to convey how your main characters feel about, and emotionally react to, the events of the story. 

Peppering your synopsis with emotionally-infused lines: “Laura is horrified to discover…”, “Matt is saddened to learn…” helps the reader understand how both the characters, and the audience, will feel about the events on screen.

Don't get too detailed

It can be easy to think people need a lot more information to understand your story, and see its potential, than they actually do.

Story details, such as exactly how Nigel gets his car fixed before the big race, might seem vital to you, and might be important in the script, but people don’t need to know everything now. If you go into too much detail, their eyes will glaze over and they will lose interest. 

In particular, if you find yourself getting into lines of dialogue: “Nigel tells the mechanic the carburettor needs new metering rods”, then you are going into too much detail and need to pull back and give a broader summary of events.

Zoom in and out

Although you should stick to the main beats of the story, at points in your synopsis it can be nice to zoom in and highlight a particular moment, especially one that has an emotional impact on your main character. Then zoom back out again to paint in broader strokes.

For example: “Alice is touched to receive a silver pendant containing her father’s photo. She enjoys a fun-filled Christmas with the family, but when she gets back to work…”

This can help the reader picture the film in their head and get a sense of what it will feel like to watch it.

Save space for theme

If you have space, it also can be effective to end your synopsis with a couple of lines about the themes of your film. This helps the reader understand not just the events of your story, but why those events are meaningful and have resonance.

Toy Story 4 (2019)Toy Story 4 (2019)

If you're stuck, copy pixar

If you’re struggling to boil down your story into a single page, Pixar have a structure for crafting stories that can be an effective template for synopses.

Once upon a time there was….

Every day….

One day….

Because of that….

Because of that….

Until finally….

Write one paragraph each for your story, using the above prompts, making sure you include the main character’s emotional responses, and you will have a succinct, well-structured synopsis.

Luke Foster

Luke Foster is a screenwriter and Development Executive for Iron Box Films. He wrote the horror comedy Ravers, which premiered at FrightFest 2018 and was released in 2020, including theatrically in North America. He also wrote the comedy drama Betsy & Leonard, for which he won Best Original Screenplay at the Madrid International Film Festival in 2013. Luke hosts the monthly CenterFrame Script Club and has a video essay series on horror filmmaking, Alive In The Morning.

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