Script Coverage Chronicles – March 2017: Writing A “Synopsis” For Your Screenplay

I’ve had producers mean very different things when they’ve asked me for a “synopsis”.  Some have meant a one page “pitch” for my script.  Others have meant a full-on multi page "summary" of the story (otherwise known as a treatment).  These are very different things, and it’s important to know when to do what.

The "Pitch" Synopsis

If you’re being asked for a one – or even in most cases a two – page synopsis, there really isn’t enough room to “summarize” your screenplay.  You really can’t adequately offer a beat-by-beat rundown of everything that happens in each of your three acts. Summarizing a script in chronological order almost never works in a page or two, and it usually results in an abstract mundane read. 

What you’re really doing in a “pitch” synopsis is selling.  You need to offer the essence of the story. You need to get the genre across.  You usually want to focus in on the main character and that character’s inner and outer journey.  You also want to talk about a few other key characters too, but you absolutely don’t have time to discuss every recurring character in the script.  If you try to do that, your document will come off as a cursory laundry list with little energy or focus. 

In many cases, the supporting characters you do mention in your pitch synopsis should be discussed in terms of their impact on your lead: the relationships your main character has and what impact they have on your main character’s emotional journey. 

Ideally, all of these discussions of your main character’s relationships will relate to a unified theme that you come to near the end of the pitch. 

If you do all that, you’re more likely to convey the “heart” in your story, and if you can get that emotion across, you’re going a long way toward selling your screenplay as a whole. 

And that’s what you need to be doing in a pitch synopsis.  Selling.  Not summarizing.  Not listing.  Selling.

Along the same lines, one thing I’ve observed (and learned the hard way as well) is that when you’re pitching a comedy, it usually doesn’t work to present a laundry list of gags in your screenplay.  Doing so gets in the way of conveying the essence of your story.  And jokes that may be very funny in context often have less impact when presented in summary form.  Yes, if you’re marketing a comedy, you should work the story’s sense of humor into the pitch.  But this is usually best achieved by presenting one or two funny elements of your script and then moving on.  In one or two pages, you really don’t have room to do more.

The "Summary" Synopsis

The “summary” or “treatment” synopsis is an entirely different beast.  It’s often way more than a page or two: 5, 10, 20 or more pages.  In this kind of synopsis, you do have time to go through pretty much every beat of your screenplay.  You still don’t need to mention every single speaking role, but you can talk about any character you believe is important.  In comedies, you can discuss each comedic sequence in depth and work to get across the abundance of humor in your work.  In action scripts, you can dig in to the unique action set pieces you’ve created.  In short, you can really get into detail.

Which One Are You Being Asked For?

When searching for stories, what producers usually want is a brief punchy pitch.  In general, summaries or treatments are used more for story development, when a producer (or other industry exec) wants to dig into a screenplay and figure out what needs tweaking.  There are always exceptions, but most in the industry don’t want to read lengthy summaries when deciding whether to get involved with a script. 

For that reason, a short rule of thumb is this: Whenever you can “pitch” rather than “summarize,” that’s more likely to result in a sale.