UNDERSTANDING THE SYNOPSIS
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)
WRITING A SYNOPSIS
Your Synopsis should contain two kinds of plot summary: a log line and a full synopsis, as described in the previous section.
The synopsis should be longer than the sample pitch paragraph above, but not as long as the sample synopsis, which is for a full length screenplay rather than a 2-3 minute video. Use separate sections for each “act” and separate paragraphs for each “scene” within the act, if applicable. Labeling the sections will help us more easily identify them.
By “act” I mean what happens at each stage of the story’s development, such as: Act I: setup (motivating occasion, cause for uncertainty or conflict, etc.). Act II: riding action (developments leading up to turning point, aka climax). Act III: climax and resolution. A “scene” within an act is a particular moment within the act that helps move the story forward.
Your goal in a synopsis is to help readers understand the emotional journey at the heart of the story — in other words, its plot. After reading your synopsis, readers should have a clear idea who the main character is, what happens to the character that leads him or her to a turning point, how the turning point brings about a change, and how the change leads to a sense of closure for the story.
The synopsis should focus only on plot summary. Save details about video composition for the storyboard.