GUIDE – Planning a Cinematic Story


Elements of Video Planning

The core elements of video planning, regardless of approach, are: a synopsis, a script, an asset and/or shot list, and a storyboard, as described below:

  • Synopsis: a short “pitch” for the story you want to tell, presented in a manner similar to what might be revealed in a movie trailer. The synopsis sets the scene for us, using language like “The town was Las Vegas, the time was the 1940’s, and the girl was missing” (rather than: “I want to tell a film noir type story about a girl who goes missing…”) The synopsis should include the key elements of the plot: journey, conflict, turning point, and resolution.
  • Script: a set of instructions for the “actors” (whether real, animated, or “re-mixed”) as well as the “director” (you), presented as a screenplay, with dialog and notes about settings and actions. The script helps to flesh out the plot summarized in the synopsis and to give it some structure.
  • Asset list: a list of any digital media assets (audio, video, images) you plan to use
  • Shot list: a list of the video shots you plan to capture (for live video or animation), create (for screencast), or find (for remix)
  • Hardware and software list: a list of the hardware (camera, tripod, mic) and software (video editing, video conversion, etc.) you’ll need to develop, edit, and export your video
  • Storyboard: a series of panels that each convey a rough idea of everything that will appear in each segment from the script, including shots, assets, dialog, video effects, and so on. Storyboards often look like basic comic strips, with each panel representing key changes in action, mood, or framing.



To pitch a screenplay to a potential producer, the most important task the writer faces is preparing a synopsis. The purpose of a synopsis is to help readers get a sense for what emotional journey lies at the heart of the story, regardless of how the story might be brought to life on the screen.

Screenplay writers often prepare three components for a synopsis: log line (one sentence), pitch (one paragraph), and full synopsis (paragraphs for each act). When they submit a query letter to potential producers, screenplay writers include the log line and often the one paragraph pitch. If these versions are compelling enough, the writer may be asked to send a full synopsis and script. So these short versions are pretty important.


To help you see what these elements look like, I’ve provided examples for a full-length screenplay titled The Journeyman Thief. You’ll prepare a log line for your own video story, but given how short the video stories are, your full synopsis will be something in between the pitch and full synopsis shown below.

LOG LINE: Reflects the emotional journey at the heart of the plot (without character names or other details). For example:

A delinquent kid on the road to becoming a criminal finds his life changed by a master thief, who takes him under his wing in a scheme of revenge against a former partner.

PITCH: Expands on the plot in a way that helps readers visualize the narrative arc of the story, including the turning point. Introduces character names and a few details. Here’s a pitch for the The Journeyman Thief screenplay:

JOE is a 19-year-old punk who lives with his grandmother and steals stereos so he can customize his tricked-out Honda. When one of Joe’s burglaries goes awry, a mysteriously all-knowing man rescues Joe and puts him in touch with EDDIE CLARE, a carpenter in his 60s who has tapped the kid to be his apprentice. But Eddie is no ordinary carpenter. A veteran bank robber, he’s bent on avenging the death of Joe’s father, who was killed by MASON WALLACE, a paranoid member of their gang. Now free after 18 years in prison, Mason is planning a big bank job. Forging a deal with the mob, Eddie and Joe must get to the money first, stealing it in broad daylight in the most daring, high-tech bank heist of all time.

FULL SYNOPSIS: Summarizes each act of the screenplay as well as the key scenes within each act. The synopsis helps readers see how the plot will unfold across each act, in terms of the emotional journey of the main character. It does not include any details about structural elements that might bring the story to life on the screen, like shots, special effects, and so on. Those belong in a storyboard instead.

Here are the first few lines of the first paragraph from a full synopsis for the Journeyman Thief:

JOE, 19, is well on his way from being a juvenile delinquent to a full-fledged criminal. Scanning the obituaries, he burglarizes the homes of people who are away at funerals. His latest job goes awry when a RUSSIAN MAN comes after him with a sawed-off shotgun. Discovering someone has towed his tricked-out Honda, Joe takes off down an alley, where he is surprised to find a minivan waiting. The driver, WILLIAM “BILLY” WARREN, a paraplegic in his 60s, mysteriously comes to Joe’s rescue and, monitoring two police scanners and wearing an armful of digital watches, manages to put a freight train between them and the pursuing cops. Billy tells Joe that a guy he knows is looking for an assistant. It’s a one-job offer with a six-figure payoff. He gives Joe a slip of paper with the name and address of Eddie Clare.

The address turns out to be that of a mansion in a wealthy Boston suburb, where EDDIE, a youthful early 60s, works as a carpenter on a remodeling job. Joe is nonplussed when Eddie immediately puts him to work. Eddie insists… (continue reading)


Your synopsis should include these sections: Log Line (one sentence) and Full Synopsis (multiple paragraphs, one for each “act” of plot).

As you develop your synopsis, you might find it helpful to move back and forth between writing a log line, a short pitch, and a full synopsis, just to help you refine and develop the plot at the heart of your video story. The log line should capture the essence of the emotional journey at the heart of the plot, without character names or other details. The synopsis should span several paragraphs, each of which summarizes the key plot points across each act of your story.

After reading your synopsis, a reader should be able to answer the questions below, even though your synopsis won’t come right out and offer a list of these elements. Instead, readers should get all this info from your plot summary.

  • Who is the “main character”? What should we know about him or her?
  • Who are the “supporting characters” (if applicable)?
  • What is the central plot? (emotional journey of the main character, typically across three “acts,” as described below)
  • What storytelling strategies or narrative devices move the plot forward?
  • What common human experience is reflected in the turning point and resolution?

Plots in Three Acts:

Act I: setup (motivating occasion, cause for uncertainty or conflict, etc.)
Act II: rising action (developments leading up to turning point, aka climax)
Act III: climax and resolution

The first and third acts might be fairly short, but the second act often has multiple parts, as this is where the majority of the story is told.


To post the final versions of each, save or export them in PDF format, to preserve all your formatting.

(for more details, see the Video Stories: Submitting the Final page — link coming soon)

Planning Process

STEP 1: Opinions vary on which part of the planning process should come first, but I recommend that you start by drafting a rough synopsis, to help you clarify what exactly you want your story to say about human nature. Don’t spend time polishing the synopsis, however, as you’re likely to discover new aspects of your story idea as you start writing the script.

Also keep the script fairly rough, as you’re bound to revise parts of it once you begin assembling the items on your asset and/or shot lists. You don’t want to spend a lot of time polishing a script, only to discover that one of your great ideas is going to be too difficult to shoot or find.

STEP 2: Once you’ve gone through the cycle of working on your synopsis, script, and asset or shot lists several times, to the point that you’re starting to feel like you’ll be able to produce on “film” the vision you have in your mind, then it’s time to prepare a storyboard. At that point, you’ll want to get feedback from a variety of sources, before you start working on the filming itself.

STEP 3: Prepare a rough cut for feedback

STEP 4: Prepare a full draft for feedback

STEP 5: Prepare final version