A Writer’s Worst Nightmare: The Dreaded Synopsis

July 1st, 2013  Posted at   screenwriting, story editing, synopsis, theme
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I’d have to say that for many writers their worst nightmare is having to write a synopsis of their own script. (Did I hear a “hell ya?”) Most writers are way too close to their material to be able to step back and see the key beats they need to include. The issue here isn’t what to put in it’s what to leave OUT which is for the most part huge chunks of the story. For a writer who’s spent months or years working out every small detail of the plot this can be very, very hard to do.

Over the years I’ve written well over 600 synopses both for coverage and for projects I’ve helped develop. But I still remember the first synopsis I ever wrote. Back in the day I was working as a writer’s assistant for a Showtime series called Fast Track and writer/story editor Ashley Gable gave me a crack at writing the synopsis for an episode the writers were working on. I took a stab at it. Ashley gave it a read and returned it to me a short time later completely covered in red lines. Basically it was a total mess. A lengthy conversation ensued and multiple drafts later we had something workable. While back then I was embarrassed by my inability to pull off what seemed like a simple task I now know how difficult it can be to write a succinct synopsis. I’m extremely thankful that Ashley was willing to take the time to show me how to do something that is far harder than it looks. She taught me a lot.

Suffice to say many synopses later I’ve come up with a few tools that make writing a synopsis a little easier. In the spirit of Ashley’s ever so patient instruction (remember we were in the middle of shooting a series and juggling multiple episodes) want to pass them on here.

1. Spin the story

Never do a beat by beat synopsis. You don’t need to include every single plot point to tell the story. Instead “spin the story” reorder events, leave things out, embellish, paraphrase etc. While you want to make sure you stay true to the main beats of the story you’re trying to capture the essence of the piece not tell every single thing that happens. You’re also trying to “sell” your script on the page so the synopsis should be simple and clear but also fully engage the reader. If you write a linear retelling of the story beat by beat your synopsis will likely be too long and confuse and bore the reader.

2. Think in three acts

The basic format for the synopsis should be comprised of the three main acts and run three to four paragraphs. For example the first paragraph is the first act and sets up the protagonist, their goal and the main obstacle. The second and third paragraphs will cover the second act and the final paragraph will be the third act including the climax and resolution.

3. Use active, present tense

Just like in a screenplay a synopsis should be written in active, present tense.

4. Set up the protagonist

The synopsis needs to clearly establish who the protagonist is. While a script may use most of the first act to set up the main character you want to distill this into one or two sentences that tell the reader who the protagonist is. For example if we’re writing a synopsis of The Descendants we could open with “Matt, a successful lawyer, estranged from his wife and an emotionally absent father to his two girls learns his wife has had a boating accident and is in a coma.” If we were doing Silver Linings Playbook it might be something like “Pat, recently released from a mental hospital, is struggling to manage his illness and stay on an even keel. His erratic behavior troubles his parents, who he’s moved back in with, and turns him into a powder keg just waiting to go off.” Once again you’re looking to spin their main traits and flaws into one or two sentences.

5. Tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist using the three acts

Once you’ve established the protagonist you want to get right to their goal and what the main problem is. The synopsis needs to stay focused on the protagonist through the entire piece. So for The Descendants we’d establish that with his wife in a coma Matt now has to care for his daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, which is something that doesn’t come easily. We’d then get right to the reveal that his wife, Elizabeth, had an affair. In Silver Linings Playbook we’d establish that Pat wants to reunite with his wife but she’s moved on. This would then lead to him meeting Tiffany which complicates Pat’s goal of getting back together with his wife.

The second paragraph (and third if needed) encapsulates the second act. We want to stay focused on the protagonist’s main goal and what obstacles this runs into as they try to achieve it. For The Descendants this is Matt tracking down his wife’s lover, Brian, and discovering he’s on vacation with his family. Matt decides time is of the essence and takes both girls and Alex’s tag along friend, Sid, to Kauai. There Matt confronts Brian and learns the affair was just a fling and he was never in love with Elizabeth. Shaken by this the group returns to Honolulu where they are told Elizabeth will never recover and should be taken off life support. This is essentially the end of the second act.

The final paragraph is the third act and summarizes the climax and resolution. In The Descendants the family gathers to say their goodbyes and take Elizabeth off life support. Brian’s wife Julie arrives to pay her respects and tells Matt that she knows about the affair and while she wants to hate Elizabeth she doesn’t and instead forgives her. This triggers Matt’s forgiveness and having come to terms with her infidelity he gives Elizabeth a tender kiss before she passes.

6. Consider leaving out subplots

Subplots are where most writers go off the rails. Clearly subplots are in the story for a reason and play an important role but they are not always needed in the synopsis. Part of this depends on how long a synopsis you’re writing. If you’re sending a synopsis to an agent or manager they are likely looking for something no longer than a page often shorter. For a crowdfunding campaign you may want something that’s no longer than a paragraph. Occasionally there may be the need for a synopsis that’s two pages long. Much longer than this and you’re heading in the direction of a treatment or beat sheet.

In The Descendants the primary subplot involves Matt handling the sale of his family’s ancestral land. Turns out that Brian is related to the developer they plan to sell it to and he’s in a position to make a lot of money from the commissions on the sale. This further complicates Matt’s feelings around his wife’s infidelity and his decision to approve the sale. Ultimately despite incurring the wrath of his extended family Matt chooses not to sell the land and to look for another solution. This subplot helps us to understand Matt’s relationship with his family, sets up an underlying theme around the importance of nature and the environment, and adds texture to Matt’s interaction with Brian but it’s not necessarily a vital part of the synopsis. If you’re writing a very brief synopsis the story can be told without it. Matt’s relationship with Sid is another subplot. Matt is somewhat put off by Sid and suspicious of his relationship with his daughter Alexandra. Towards the end of the story Matt and Sid have a wonderful moment together where Matt learns Sid’s father was killed in a drunk driving accident. This humanizes Sid and helps Matt to see beyond his slacker nature. While this is a poignant moment their relationship is not essential and can be left out of the synopsis entirely.

7. End on theme

If you can it’s great to end your synopsis by elegantly and economically touching on the theme. With The Descendants this is the final scene that shows Matt snuggled on the couch watching TV with Alexandra and Scottie. This beat tells us that Matt has forgiven his wife and is not going to be the “backup parent” anymore. This shows Matt has grown and changed and tells us the story is ultimately about the healing power of forgiveness.

8. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, parallel narrative and non-linear structure

Stories with an alternative structure such as Crash, Pulp Fiction, Slumdog Millionaire or alternate worlds like Looper, Twilight or even Midnight in Paris can be the most difficult to write in synopsis form. It can be helpful to remember to structure the synopsis along the three acts and to “spin the story” not tell it beat by beat. So for example while the script might intercut several different storylines the synopsis can tell them sequentially. The main beats of a flashback sequence might be summed up in one or two sentences and the placement in the synopsis might be different than in the script. If a key piece of information is revealed in a flashback then succinctly include it in but don’t worry about revealing the entire sequence. Something like “in flashback we learn Jack came from an abusive family” is just fine. Action can be significantly truncated touching on what kind of sequence it is (ie: car chase, gun battle, fist fight), who’s involved and what the outcome is. Alternate worlds can be set up in a couple of sentences in the first paragraph. Phrases like “time passes…” can be helpful in summing up events that don’t necessarily play a key role. Different time periods or locations can be indicated by: Ohio, 1945 and then the main beats of what happens. Though these kinds of synopses probably warrant their own blog post!

9. Format

In general just like in a script the first time characters are introduced their name is written in capital letters with their age in parentheses. You can include a description if pertinent. I.e.: MATT (49) “African American overweight and disheveled.” Occasionally it can be helpful to include direct quotes or pieces of dialogue but do this sparingly and only if it helps convey something specific such as the writer’s unique voice.

10. Tone

Ideally the synopsis will capture the overall tone of the script. So if the piece is a comedy the synopsis will incorporate some of the comedic beats, a horror some of the scares, a thriller will convey the tension. If it’s a big budget action piece the synopsis should make sure to touch on the elements that suggest this such as car chases or action based set pieces. We also want to get a sense of the world of the story so if it’s small town America then include a couple of details that tell us this. Ultimately whether a synopsis is being written for coverage, being pitched to a studio, or part of a crowdfunding campaign it’s essentially a selling tool designed to succinctly capture the story in a compelling way. So keep this in mind and make sure your synopsis is well written and engaging modelling the tone of the script is one way to do this.


Writing an effective synopsis is an important skill to have. Wikipedia is a great place to read synopses for completed films and can give you a sense of how to summarize 120 pages into one. Thinking about how you’d pitch the script to a friend can also help you focus on what beats are essential and what can be left out. Writing a synopsis might be a writer’s worst nightmare but with practice it gets easier and hopefully these tools will help you along the way. Happy Writing!

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