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“Why do you have to learn how to write synopses? Isn’t this Immersion Screenwriting Course about learning screenwriting?”, one friend asked me recently. And several students in the course also wondered about its relevance. The most clear reason is because you’re going to have to write synopses (and loglines too) of your own screenplays to be able to sell them. And the better they are, the better your options will be of your screenplay then actually getting read and potentially sold and made. Nobody in the industry, and even your family and friends, has time to read your entire screenplay to know whether or not they are interested in it. I need not remind you of the bulks of screenplays written every year, that are stacked up high in some reader’s office. They need a system. “Give me a one page synopsis of the story (with every major event in it), then I can decide whether or not I think it has the potential to be something and I will then spend my precious time to actually read the 100-page (give or take) screenplay”. So, that’s one reason. And a pretty essential one. Although I have read some comments of one writer who said his ‘employer’ never asked him for any synopses of his stories. But I am pretty sure at one point he would’ve had to explain in some overview what the stories are about. I think his is an exception, especially if you don’t have an ‘employer’, which most of us don’t yet.
But there are other reasons. What you start to see as well, when you’re making the synopsis, and in this course they are of screenplays that are already made into a movie, is what the important elements in the story actually are and what is not and can even be left out of the movie and often is, when you compare the screenplay with the movie. The synopsis can only be one page, preferably with a max. of 500 words, as the industry standard, and in that you simply cannot mention everything. And for good reason. This doesn’t mean that if it doesn’t make the synopsis, it should not be in the script, but you will start to see clearly the amounts of stuff you have to leave out of the synopsis and if that is a lot, that might be worth reconsidering whether it belongs in the story. The screenplay and its movie The King’s Speech (2010) is a great example of this. But sometimes things only become clear when production starts. As we (continue to) write our own screenplays in the future, the synopsis will be a very helpful guide how your story is developing or if it’s getting off track or contains storylines that clutter the main story. It is very helpful to write a synopsis before you actually start writing the screenplay itself and update this regularly as you write, it will probably change a lot, but will also help you to see if you’re drifting off not in the right way. When you only write a synopsis after you’ve written (the first draft of) your screenplay, you will then see if it makes sense and the harder it is to make that synopsis, the harder it might be to understand your story. Could be. Not saying it isn’t good. So, there’s that. Also pretty important reason.
Now for what has become my most favourite reason: you are becoming a real writer through it. No, really. I will elaborate. And this started to dawn on me, when I read a 5000 (!) word treatment or whatever it was, online, of one of the screenplays we were reading as I was struggling to write my synopses up to that point, what kinds of words to use. They all sucked. Not improving one bit either. All my synopses seemed to be a summing up of actions, instead of an enticing, attractive telling of the story, summarized in 500 words. And I didn’t know how to change that. And then I read this treatment, about 10 pages it comes to I think. And something clicked. I saw ‘the light’. It was written as an attractive, enticing, vivid, colourful story. It read like a novel. It used words to describe the feelings and actions in a concise, yet colourful, ‘thick’ way. It felt like it was written with a thesaurus next to it. How can you say this in a different way, which will give it more meaning and the reader will grasp the emotions along with it? And how can you summarize even some scenes, capturing the heart of them? When a story describes someone in a room in a bed, then hearing sirens of police, then climbing out the window, running down the fire-escape, injuring his foot when jumping off it, then running into the cops in the alley, yet being able to jump over the fence, despite his injured foot and then finding hiding in some bar down the road, how would you put that into a synopsis? Not in so many words, you won’t. Yet with some vivid words that help the reader get the tension and suspense of the situation. You use words like ‘he barely escapes’. When you start to think like this, your vocabulary starts to expand to universal proportions. Truly. You yourself will become a walking thesaurus. And the funny thing is, it starts to influence all your other communication as well. You start to think how you can write or say something in a shorter and more concise way, but without taking away from its content. You want to capture the emotion or feelings and heart of the story, of what you want to say.
At first I hated doing these synopses. I felt so constricted within those 500 words. How can you possibly tell this story in 500 words? And on top, we were not allowed to spend too much time on it either, it was ‘ok’ to deliver crappy synopses, you will get better over time. Perfection isn’t the key, practicing and doing many of them is. That will help you get better. Not staying stuck in one, trying to perfect it. That I have learned for sure now. And this goes for almost anything you want to learn. Otherwise you will not get any further and gain no experience.
I remember when I first started baking about 3 or perhaps already 4 years ago and I think the 2nd thing I tried to bake were cinnamon rolls. And my first try failed miserably. And I couldn’t figure out why. Then I tried another time, increasing some ingredients that I felt weren’t right (but what did I know, having baked only 1 thing before, banana bread, that thankfully was a hit immediately, otherwise my love for baking would’ve probably been nipped in the bud right then). And it failed again. Frustration galore. Then I looked up a similar recipe online, mine was from a Dutch cookbook which was translated from English and I figured out they had probably made a mistake with the conversions. So, it wasn’t my fault that it failed. But I also had lost my desire to want to try to make cinnamon rolls from a recipe that might work. The most important lesson came then. Instead of staying hung up on this failure and trying to fix it, I decided to move on to other recipes and gain more experience in general. And after many, many more other successful bakes of other things (with some failures in it too), I understood much more of the chemistry of baking and what ingredients actually do in a baking recipe. Which I had no clue of before. Had I gotten stuck or even quit after so many failed attempts, that would’ve been it. No baking. And what a shame. Because not only have I become pretty good at it and many (professional) people agree, baking gives me such joy and relaxes me. I had found a new hobby. And one that sticks. Not because of my good results, although surely that helps, but I just love doing it and eating it too. I love it for me. I like great baked stuff. And I wanted to become good at that, for my own enjoyment first. And of course I am happy to share them too, but that wasn’t the goal at first. I think that takes the pressure off as well. But I digress a little.
Writing these synopses are still not my favourite thing to do. But I do love it when I have been able to summarize the screenplay within 500 words in a vivid, colourful and yet concise way, that almost reads like a story in itself now, very novelistic. They’re still not the way I want them to be completely, but my goodness, they are 10 times, if not 20, better than in the beginning.
But it still doesn’t end here! I discovered one more, maybe even the most important reason and benefit of it. The writing of the action and description lines in your screenplay. Hello! They need to be concise yet descriptive and colourful, appealing to the imagination as well. The tone needs to be set and held in these descriptions. And you only have so many words to do that in. Action lines and description lines of your characters and situations cannot be very long. It is therefore a crucial exercise for this part of screenwriting as well! And directly related to the content of the screenplay. Not only which part should or should not remain in the story, but how that story is described. That’s huge! Or better said: gargantuan. It’s one of the words I learned from the screenplay I am transcribing, How To Train Your Dragon (2010), which is full of these concise, yet amazingly thick words that say it all, really. This word is one of those that speaks to the imagination so much more than ‘big’ or ‘huge’. Look it up, if you don’t know it.
So, now you know why I think learning to write synopses is indispensable for your screenwriting. I didn’t do it in a very concise way, but hey, you don’t always have to.